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There are benefits to sparring with men:  in general, men are larger than the women they spar, giving women the challenge of going against taller, heavier opponents; this also allows women to strike with a greater percentage of full force, as it will not impact a larger opponent as much as it would someone her own size and, in the same vein, men might hit back harder than a woman might expect or otherwise experience. 

But there are drawbacks as well.  Always having a larger opponent is not going to “toughen” women in a way that is necessary for success.  Muhammad Ali did not consistently spar men much larger than himself; Buakaw is not trading blows with larger opponents.  Personally, at my size, it is difficult to find someone to match me in stature and weight, but consistently being outsized can be frustrating and discouraging – always being overpowered and outreached.  There is also an unfair assumption that men are always at an advantage over women, that sparring with any man is more beneficial than a woman.  This assumes that any man knows more, is stronger, has more technique, and is tougher than any female counterpart.  I disagree.  I’ve sparred with men who have no idea whatever of what they’re doing.  Further, men will often (and maybe this is due to my size and is not universal to sparring with women) act the part of a punching bag and coach, as if all I need is to “work it out” and be encouraged to keep punching without ever hitting back, crashing through my windows, or punishing me for sloppy strikes or bad decisions.  This is more insulting than constructive.  Finally, men and women actually do not fight the same.  Training counters and strategy with a man who is not your size does little to prepare one for trading blows with someone who will not strike, think, move, or strategize in the same manner.  (After watching the fight between Carano and Cyborg, my husband and I postulated that the defeat was a matter of not having trained hard enough, or at least not right.  We considered the possibility of Gina having likely sparred with a great number of men – giving her a taste for power – but I suspect nobody charged her the way Cyborg did in the fight.  I don’t know that a man would train with Carano like this, rushing her, pummeling her.)

All this is not intended to be a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” argument for the disparity among the sexes.  Rather, it is intended to point out that the assumption made by so many gyms that a woman must spar with men in order to be great is fallacious.  I am not advocating for the abolishment of intersex sparring.  I love sparring men and I have great admiration for my male sparring partners.   I know exactly what I learn from each of them.  What I am arguing is that sparring with women is equally important.  After all, we fight women.  When you step into the ring with a woman and look her in the eye, there is something to be said for having experienced this – many times – before.  And when you spar with men, you are often training with a built-in excuse for why you didn’t do well, or why you couldn’t overcome the various problems one inevitably encounters, with any sparring partner.  When I spar with my male partner, de Jesus, I get incredibly frustrated that I cannot defeat him.  When I spar Nicole Ruiz, who is de Jesus’ same size, I am inspired and encouraged that, though I’m getting my ass kicked, I can aspire to be like her, to be calm and fluid and strong.  I see her qualities, not her advantages.  In the 6 weeks of sparring with women at the NYFSC, I have witnessed countless examples of why a female opponent, my size or not, is an invaluable lesson in learning to fight and an under-used tool in female training.

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