Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hired Gun: The Life of A Sparring Partner

by Tom Schreck, author of Getting Dunn and The Vegas Knockout

In my latest Duffy Dombrowski mystery, THE VEGAS KNOCKOUT,  Duff gets hired as the sparring partner for a Russian heavyweight in Las Vegas. I'm a pro fight judge and as a judge I'm around the game but I don't know a lot about the business end of hiring and working with sparring partners.

Luckily, Iceman John Scully, a retired world class fighter, who fought for the title a couple of times himself, helped me out. Scully still gets in the ring but most of his energy is around training fighters and working for ESPN doing boxing commentary.

Ice wouldn't be considered an average sparring partner. He was used by the very, very best in the game.

How do you get hired? Who makes the call?

ICE: Almost always it is a case of where the fighter or his managers gets a call from someone representing the fighter who needs the sparring. I can think of a few times when I made my own opportunities, though. Back in Atlantic City in 1992, for example, I ran into Jackie Kallen in the lobby of a hotel there and I told her if she ever needed sparring for James Toney I would be more than willing to take the trip. She took my number and a few months later she did call and I did end up going out to Michigan on two separate occasions to spar with the champ as a result of that.

How much sparring do you do?

ICE: I have always been one to do a lot of sparring, even when I didn't have a fight coming up. I didn't box as a job, as a means to make money. I boxed for the same reasons then that I do now to this day. Because I love to box. I sparred 711 rounds in 2009. That's about 200 rounds more than my previous high for one year. I've been sparring hundreds of rounds each year since 1984.
Not to be personal--but is the money good? Can guys make a living just being sparring partners?

ICE: Some guys, if they aren't married and don't have children, sure. I remember back when Tyson was champion there were certain heavyweights around who used to travel with him for five weeks at a time and they were making one thousand or two thousand a week plus all expenses paid. You do that three times a year, on top of all the other sparring you pick up in between and they were doing okay. Plus they often used to get opportunities to fight on his undercards and they made more money for that, too.

What are the sparring rules--do the champions treat partners well? Do they ever take cheap shots, wear lighter gloves? Hit off breaks, low etc...

ICE: I've never encountered anyone who was dirty like that, no. I mean, they know they have to treat these guys with some respect because otherwise they wont come back in the future and then they wont be able to get the work they need out of them. Every gym is different though. When I was with James Toney, for example, he likes to talk a lot of trash during the sparring and he never ever touched gloves before or after a round either. Most guys touch gloves but James, he never did. He liked to talk trash and make it rough on there. He wasn't friends during the sparring at all. Before and after he was your best friend but once we hit the gym it was all business.
Do you get treated with respect or are you treated as equipment?

ICE: I would say most guys who go to spar someone in a camp get treated with enough respect. I've seen occasions where the fighter wasn't exactly treated as one of the champ's best friends but he wasn't treated badly either. Sort of indifferent. For the most part it was fine. I can remember times going to spar with Vinny Pazienza and after the gym we'd stay and sit around talking for an hour about boxing. Another time he took me to his house and cooked dinner for Kevin Rooney and I. Now you may not get a home cooked meal out of most guys but for the most part they are at least cordial to the guys who come in to work with them.
Is it tough on the body...head?

ICE: It's tough on both, sure. These guys are world champions or top contenders, among the best in the entire world. They pay you to work with them and they want every pennies worth.

What's the psychology of it...what's it like going to work to fight the best p4p guy...all week long?

ICE: For me personally it was always a spectacular time. I loved every minute of it. I used to go box with some of the best guys on earth and I looked at it as an honor but also as a way to prove myself, either to the guy I was boxing or to myself. I've always been a fan first so getting to spar with an elite world champion on a regular basis was great for me in every way. I would take it seriously. Each night I would go back to my room and think long and hard about the sparring that day, what could I do better the next day. I was always trying to figure out how to win the rounds in my head. It makes you better, definitely. It puts you on a different mental level to know you're in there every day swapping shots with a legitimate world champion

I asked a question wrong...When you are working as a sparring partner how much sparring will you do? every day? How many rounds when you spar? is it always all out?

Ice:Every boxer is different. Some guys like to spar every day, some like to spar every other day. If they have several partners then you may only have to do 3 rounds in a day. Or if your work is better or if your style is more similar to the upcoming opponent than you will do more. I used to spar ten rounds regularly with Vinny Pazienza. With James Toney I usually did six rounds at a time but the rounds with him were always longer than the standard three minutes.
Its not always all out but sometimes it is. Depends on the day and the guy. Vinny was always ready go all out on a moments notice for example.


  1. Thanks for an interesting post, Tom. It's fun to step outside our usual topics and learn something new. Which is why I love the research aspect of writing—the inside look at lives we might otherwise never encounter.

  2. I think it's great that as close to the sport as you are, you still sought input from someone who might be able to provide detail you wouldn't necessarily know.

    Well done!


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