A pair of focus mitts do not instantly make someone a boxing trainer. But it’s very easy for the untrained eye to think so. Pads are all about sound and movement, that’s why they are used in open training sessions and any TV piece on boxing. Wow, that sounds good, that guy hits hard.
But is it, to paraphrase Shakespeare, just a lot of sound and fury signify nothing?
I love punching the pads, I must admit, although I’ve never really settled into a routine with a trainer, so every time I punch them I feel like I’m a beginner, even though I have been boxing for many years, nearly 15 of them now.
But I do a lot of sparring and one thing I notice about pads is, they are not like sparring. They are more like learning dance moves. Hitting a target with two heads that come towards you instead of a target with one head that often moves away from you and if they come towards you they are throwing punches too. And with pads, you’re doing what you’re told and not responding to what you see in the way your opponent moves. You’re listening not watching, which is so different from the real thing.
It always makes me wonder a little about the efficacy of the mitts. Despite the feel-good factor, is most of the serious learning going on in other ways, like when you’re sparring and your corner tells you to try something and it works? Or when you’re shadow boxing and learning to throw punches on balance? Or when you are watching quality fighters and are inspired to imitate them?
My biggest problem is that the sight of a mitt, makes me, and I think a lot of people, want to hit hard rather than crisp, so I become tense and anxious to please. Punching a mitt can be satisfying, though, it can get your heart rate up and make you work. But is it actually doing you any good as a fighter? Are you learning?
Now that the mitt is on the other hand, so to speak, I believe the mitts are quite a good teaching tool, especially if you’re trying to get someone to snap their punches. But they have to be used in combination with other tools; glove work, shadow boxing, heavy bag, double end bag, slip ball and, perhaps the most important tool of all, quality sparring with a good pair of eyes watching you. And that includes good drill work that helps two boxers work offence and defence together. Sometimes the right community in the gym is the best tool of all.
There are some who believe that the pads have become a substitute for actual knowledge. But that might be taking it a bit far since most of the high profile trainers today like Freddie Roach and Roger Mayweather use them.
But in Mike Silver’s book ‘The Arc of Boxing: The rise and decline of the sweet science’, focus pads get a pretty harsh assessment. And the critique is worth considering if you’re in the process of searching for the right boxing trainer. It might help you sort out fact from fiction.
‘The vacuum of expert teacher-trainers has created a fertile breeding ground for gimmickry and artifice that is of little use to a fighter,’ Silver writes. One of these, he says, is, ‘the ubiquitous use of what are popularly known as ‘punch pads’ or ‘focus pads’.
‘These oversized gloves, similar in size and cushioning to a catcher’s mitt, fit over the trainer’s hands to act as targets while the fighter hits them with a series of combinations. Punch pads were apparently rediscovered after showing up in the Rocky movies in the early 1980s. Every boxing movie now has the requisite scene of a fighter working out with the punch pads. Before Sylvester Stallone incorporated punch pads into his movies they were virtually non-existent.’
It’s worth observing Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby to see how little concern for reality Hollywood has when it comes to the sweet science. Clint is great. But you wouldn’t want him doing pads for you. Not when he holds them a mile apart, virtually down by his waist, and with such limp wrists.
‘Pad workouts are colourful. They are fun to do and watch but their contribution to enhancing a boxer’s skill is negligible. Although punch pads had been around since the early 1950s, old school trainers rarely, if ever, used them. They believed that hitting the pads with the same combinations over and over had limited teaching potential and emphasised a robotic ‘bang, bang’ style of boxing. Their use did not encourage the fighter to think.’
Silver goes on to say that the pads were meant to refine the execution of a specific punch, to help master the mechanics, not to act as the only means of training a boxer.
He interviews 1950s fighter, trainer and former Ring correspondent Tony Arnold and the famous commentator, Detroit based trainer and Kronk gym owner Emanuel Steward.
Arnold questions how a trainer can properly see how balanced the fighter is if he is constantly catching punches, particularly at seeing how balanced a fighter is if he misses punches, which as we know, is a big part of the game.
And I wonder about that too. You don’t want fighters, or aspiring fighters, bouncing off the pads, using them to hold themselves up. But if you are observant, you can avoid that. Which means pads might be OK in the right hands. You so often see personal trainers using them with no clue as to how they might be properly used to teach boxing. Probably they got their style from Clint.
But maybe combined with knowledge, pads aren’t all bad.
Steward says they look good and impress the crowd and the ‘media guys’ but there’s ‘very little actually being taught’.
Maybe not for the seasoned veteran. But most fighters warm up on them before a fight. Going to the amateurs you hear the constant pop-pop-pop as the fighter prepare. However, I know in my last two fights in the United States. I warmed myself up, as I would in the gym, with some skipping and shadow boxing. And my performance in the fights was not hampered by the absence of pads.
‘Before the1980s punch pads were never part of a boxer’s regular workout routine. Far from being an improvement, their ubiquitous presence is yet another indication of the dumbed down quality of today’s boxing instruction.’
Lately I’ve seen some really shocking padwork. People who know less than zero about boxing making a lot of noise when their people hit the pads. They slam the mitts into the boxers fists, shout a lot of encouragement and have them charging forward in ways that will probably get them knocked out if they try it against an actual boxer with skills and pop.
You also see these people in the park early in the morning training boot campers, having them throw punches across their bodies, dropping their hands so they are flailing and unbalanced. They may as well be swimming or doing Zumba.
So look for the warning signs
No defence – slipping, blocking, weaving, dipping
Lots of shouting
All forward movement, no backwards movement with punching
Slamming pads into fists to make the punches sound louder and harder
No understanding of the ebb and flow of combat
Holding the pads far apart from each other, too wide so the boxer punches across his/her body
Here’s Steward talking about the pads if you want to hear what a top line, old school trainer with decades of knowledge has to say.