IF there is any truth to the theory that we are the average of the five people closest to us, it is imperative a boxer chooses not only their coaches wisely but also their sparring partners. These, after all, tend to be the people with whom a boxer spends the majority of their time before a fight, at least in a competitive sense, and the people against whom their progress will ultimately be judged. They are the moving, thinking, punching punch bags. They are the imitators of style. They are crucial to the dress rehearsal.
Should a boxer spar too often there’s a danger of too much damage being done and too much fight being left in the gym. Spar infrequently, however, and there’s a danger of them turning soft and poor timing becoming both an issue and an excuse. It’s a balancing act tough to perfect, something that can also be said for the process of selecting sparring partners. An easy spar, for instance, will boost confidence but will invariably come at a cost likely to reveal itself on fight night when the boxer realises he has for several weeks benefited from a false sense of security. Then again, should a boxer endure constant heavy sparring against high-class and heavy-handed operators there’s every chance they will turn up on fight night a shell of their old self, confidence shattered and durability depleted.
Twelve years ago, told I had an eye for it, I was for a couple of years tasked with identifying and occasionally booking sparring partners for a British world champion and discovered in the process that variety is indeed the spice of life. On the job I learned, quickly, that for every enthusiastic up-and-comer like Deontay Wilder, or brick wall like Mariusz Wach, you would find an American heavyweight who, though resilient and light-hitting (two boxes ticked), would fib when asked if they were in training and, for a price of 900 dollars a week, arrive two stone above their fighting weight and fit only for three rounds. Or, worse than that, you would get a future European heavyweight champion show up not wanting to throw a punch, then start questioning his decision to box altogether. Or, worse even than that, you would get a pale-skinned Ukrainian, selected due to his stature, arrive in north Cyprus and sunbathe all afternoon, only to realise the next day he was so severely sunburnt he couldn’t wear his sparring gear, let alone face the thought of being punched.
The ideal scenario, I suspect, is to not take chances but instead reach the point where a boxer and coach have a pool of reliable sparring partners they have used before and can trust. These might be novices or they might be seasoned contenders. They might even be career sparring partners, that is, boxers for whom sparring is a full-time job; boxers able to leave their ego in their kitbag and give a bigger name precisely what it is they need for their upcoming fight.
One such boxer was Sergej Rozvadovskij, a now-retired light-heavyweight from Lithuania who for many years was the go-to sparring partner for world champions like George Groves, Mikkel Kessler, Gennady Golovkin and Arthur Abraham. As well as reliable, both in the sense of turning up on time and providing as many rounds as a boxer wanted, Rozvadovskij, 6-1-2 (5), was a gifted mimic, capable of playing whatever role was needed, and as tough a sparring partner as I have ever watched. He sacrificed not only his own wellbeing but also his own professional career to become a helping hand, a decision he made, curiously, not long after securing his biggest win.
“It happened probably after I beat Thomas Ulrich [in 2011],” Rozvadovskij said of his switch from pro fighter to pro sparring partner. “All the managers in Germany said it was a very good result but, on the other hand, said everybody would be afraid of me now. He was a European champion who fought for the world title twice. I kicked his ass and was told I wouldn’t get many more fights after that. The next fight was something like 18 months later and you cannot fight once a year and expect to survive. That’s when I decided to become a sparring partner and make money that way.”
The switch, at the time, made sense for Rozvadovskij. He was a man in his twenties with no partner and no children and knew, if he remained both reliable and durable, he could potentially make more money going from camp-to-camp sparring than he could boxing professionally in Germany, Latvia or his native Lithuania.
“For the last 10 years I did mainly sparring and that was my job,” he said. “I didn’t have any family other than my mother and father and that is why I could easily just keep sparring and not think about it. I was living in hotels and didn’t mind. I loved it. I had nothing to come back to.
“I’m just a guy from Lithuania and not many people even know where the f**k that is. But I was able to go to other countries and meet people I never thought I would meet and have experiences people from Lithuania don’t normally have. “I would have loved to have been more of a boxer, though. Being a sparring partner was good but in the end you are just a sparring partner. Boxers take all the glory and the money and the attention. You’re just some guy in the gym giving them work. It’s good to be loved by everyone in the gym but you’re still just a sparring partner.”
‘I was also being taken advantage of, which I didn’t realise at the time. I was never being paid for any of those spars and I took a lot of damage in the process’Dave Allen
Some boxers can be both. Steve Cunningham, for example, the former two-time world cruiserweight champion from Philadelphia, was a man known to alternate holding camps of his own with stints helping out other champions in pursuit of both money and a greater skillset.
“I was signed with Don King for eight years,” said Cunningham, 29-9-1 (13). “Being signed with Don King, you would only fight once a year because he had too many fighters, so I would supplement my income by going to people’s training camps. I’d start off getting 800 and 900 dollars a week and then get up to 1,100 and do that for three weeks. Shoot, I’d be at home training all the time anyway, so I might as well do it and be getting paid for it. And I was learning.
“I sparred with Chris Byrd before I turned pro and I learned so much from sparring someone who was better than me. It literally changed the way I fought. It elevated me. From that day on, after sparring Byrd, I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m sparring everybody’.”
In addition to becoming a regular sparring partner for Byrd, he also worked with Wladimir Klitschko, Tyson Fury, Oliver McCall, Jean-Marc Mormeck, O’Neil Bell and Keith Holmes, who, in 2001, offered Cunningham an early insight into what is required from a sparring partner. “I’d had two pro fights and Holmes was about to fight Bernard Hopkins in Don King’s middleweight tournament,” Cunningham recalled. “The guy who got me the gig had to talk them into giving it to me because they didn’t think I would bring enough experience to the table having only had two fights. I get out there and spar him one time and it was okay and the second time I sparred him I kind of got off on him. In that session I did well and he was a little down on himself. His manager came to my room later that day and said, ‘Listen, we need you to fight more like Bernard Hopkins next time.’ I understood what that was. That was my warning. I was about to get sent home.
“I learned then that you have to do your job. I wasn’t there to beat him up unless the trainer tells me to. Some guys in training camp don’t want that kind of sparring. They want to look good and feel good all the time. I did as I was told. I toned down and we did some good work. I stayed there for three weeks, made my 800 bucks a week, and it was good for both of us.”
Cunningham sparred for money and experience and was able to adapt his style accordingly, striking the sweet spot between protecting himself and helping the boxer he was being paid to help. Other sparring partners, though, don’t always have this luxury, hamstrung as they are by either a lack of experience, physical disadvantages or a style that perhaps isn’t conducive to going round after round after round. Recently retired heavyweight Dave Allen knows that feeling. He spent many of his unfit and formative years sparring Anthony Joshua, which is a decision he has since come to regret.
“I sparred at least 500 rounds with Anthony Joshua between 2012 and 2015 and was two or three stone overweight every single time,” Allen, 18-5-2 (15), said. “If I had sparred him when I was fit, I would have got hit 10 times less. But I was never fit.
“I tell all the kids I train now that they’re not sparring unless they’re 100 per cent fit. You can’t spar properly if you’re not fit. You’re going to get hit anyway, even when fit, but if you spar when out of shape you’re just asking for trouble. If I could go back in time, I would change that. I’m not saying I would train more but I would definitely have sparred a lot less.
“The Joshua sparring, the [Tyson] Fury sparring, and the [Oleksandr] Usyk sparring made me a better fighter and it will make me a better trainer and it gave me more life experience. But it definitely shortened my career and later on in life it could affect me in other ways as well. It could shorten my life, too, for all I know.”
Alas, what Allen gained in experience and, to some extent, self-belief, he would lose in terms of longevity. He was taking more than he was giving and was rarely compensated for what he gave or what he took. “When I used to spar Joshua, I would give him free shots,” said the 28-year-old. “I let him hit me on the chin three or four times every spar. I used to tell people outside the ring, ‘He can’t punch for toffee, this kid, I’m telling you.’ But I look back now and think, Yeah, that might have been funny at the time but it might not be so funny in 30 years’ time when I can’t remember my kids’ names. It is a worry, definitely. But it’s been and gone. I can’t get those brain cells back.
“Sparring didn’t even make me a better boxer necessarily. It just made me a better survivor. When I was sparring Joshua, I was just surviving. I wasn’t fit enough to do anything else.
“I was also being taken advantage of, which I didn’t realise at the time. I was never being paid for any of those spars and I took a lot of damage in the process. I’m not a bitter person at all, but if there was one thing I am a bit bitter about, in terms of my career, it would be that. I was a young man then. It was a pride thing.
“Some days I was horrifically beaten by Anthony Joshua. Horrifically. I would go from him to Joe Joyce and just wouldn’t give a f**k. I’d be in there swinging, always getting hit, and was probably too tough for my own good. I was happy to do it, though, because it was quality sparring and these kids were the next big things. I thought I was lucky at the time but now, looking back, I know I was a fool. But there was no one there to tell me I shouldn’t have been sparring Anthony Joshua at 20-plus stone. That’s why I’m getting involved with the management and training side of things now, because I would hate to see that happen to somebody else.”
Rozvadovskij, who now works on wind farms in his homeland, has fonder memories of his sparring days and says, if given the chance to do it again, he wouldn’t change a thing. He counts George Groves and his family as friends and says he misses many of the people he encountered during his trips across Europe. Of his time in London, the 36-year-old said, “It was a pleasure being there even if I only ever went there to get punched in the face.”
Yet he stresses, too, that sparring is a young man’s game and that it is only in retirement he has started to question the damage it involved. “All my joints, legs and arms are not good,” he said, “and that’s all because of boxing and kickboxing. You punch, you get punched, and there is a lot of impact on the joints. But it is what it is. I never worried about head impact back then but in recent times I have thought about that a lot and it is one of the main reasons I wouldn’t go back now. I think six or seven of my boxing friends have gone into a coma following a brain injury they picked up in a fight. Eduard Gutknecht is one and so is Erik Skoglund. They are both good friends of mine and so I have examples now. It didn’t scare me but it made me ask, ‘What for?’
“I’ve got a family now. One punch could change everything. When I was younger, it was different. I didn’t think about it. But now you have those other thoughts because of age and whatever. Erik is okay now but Eddy is in a wheelchair and isn’t the same, which is f**ked up. He has a wife and three kids and their lives have completely changed because of one fight.”
Despite its inherent dangers, Rozvadovskij says he misses sparring and admits he still visits the gym from time to time because, according to him, “Sometimes you have to get hit to feel better. It sounds f**king crazy but it’s true.”
Indeed, of all the attributes required for an ideal sparring partner, humility and fearlessness, which Rozvadovskij possessed in spades, are perhaps the ones most important.
“When I first sparred Wladimir [Klitschko], it was right after I lost to [Yoan Pablo] Hernández the second time and this was when he [Klitschko] was fighting David Haye,” said Cunningham. “I was stretching after one of our sessions and Wladimir came over and sat next to me and said, ‘Thank you, man. You’re a humble guy. You’re a two-time world champion but you came into my camp to help me. That’s beautiful.’ I said to him, ‘Listen, I’m just doing what I have to do. I’m a two-time world champion, yes, but right now I’m just here to help you win this fight.’
“That was my job for three weeks. I can humble myself like that. If they need me to circle the ring 20 times and take something off my shots,
I can do that. For those three weeks I’m his sparring partner and that’s it.
“I know some fighters who don’t want to spar other guys and go into other camps. I even saw this social media post by one fighter and it said: ‘I don’t go to other people’s training camps because I’m nobody’s sparring partner.’ His fans were praising him and telling him he had the right attitude. But he hasn’t won anything yet. I chimed in and said, ‘Listen, look at all of the champions who were sparring partners for other champions. Look at someone like Larry Holmes and the work he used to do with Muhammad Ali.’ I shut that down straight away. His message was the sort of thing that sounds good for the social media crowd but means nothing in the real world. This guy is then on TV for his next fight and gets creamed.”
‘Sometimes you have to get hit to feel better. It sounds f**king crazy but it’s true’Sergej Rozvadovskij
Cunningham says the Klitschko camps in Stanglwirt, Austria were the best he experienced during his 17-year professional career and agreed to help the Ukrainian whenever he could. He also has pleasant memories of the time he sparred Tyson Fury, though this has as much to do with renumeration as anything else.
“When I went to the Fury camp for the Haye fight that never happened I made the most money ever for sparring,” Cunningham, 44, said. “That was right after our fight and I was still a little sour. We get a call from Peter Fury asking about sparring and I was like, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to camp with Fury. Get out of here. Man, they’re crazy.’ But Brother Naazim [Richardson] was like, ‘No, hold up. See how much they’re willing to pay first. They need you for David Haye.’
“At the end of it all, my wife [also his manager] managed to get me 5,000 dollars a week and I did that for four weeks. The deal included sparring with Hughie [Fury], his cousin, and it was a good camp. It was boring as hell but the money was good.”
Calling it “good” is putting it mildly. For context, Dave Allen explained: “The money I got for sparring Usyk for two weeks – five spars – is the same money you get for a four-rounder. It’s not a lot of money when you think about it. But I wasn’t doing it for the money. I did it for the experience. The most I ever got for sparring was 1,500 euros a week. In England sometimes you get expenses covered but that’s about it.”
Rest assured, if only the strong survive in boxing, it is only the strongest of the strong who make a living from sparring.