Women Sparring


Your first visit to a martial arts gym is never easy. It doesn’t matter your age, your athletic ability, or your gender; it takes a lot of courage to commit to trying something new and following through with it. It can be especially terrifying if you’ve had no experience with combat sports (or even contact sports) and enter into a space where you will be expected to fight another person.

Martial arts can be especially intimidating for women on account of the fact that most classes are open to all genders, but the majority of the class tends to be men. Additionally, there can be significant disparities in weight and height. While this is less of an issue with jiu-jitsu, which is specifically designed to level the playing field for smaller individuals, it does matter in martial arts that involve a lot of striking. If one person is 205 pounds, over six feet tall, and has a reach of 88 inches, they are going to have numerous advantages over someone who is 120 pounds, five-feet tall, and with a reach of 64 inches. If you add in the fact that the latter person has no experience and the former has been training Muay Thai for even a few sessions, you’re creating a recipe for disaster.

Creating a safe space for people who are new to martial arts means letting them learn in an environment where they can get their bearings with someone who is most closely aligned with their weight, size, and skill level.

Women Sparring

Alby Tam of Bay Area-based Combat Culture recently interviewed Jessie Lee from Hard Knocks in Boston. As she explains in the above video, Jessie launched a program called Women Sparring in the summer of 2019 to offer women throughout New England the opportunity to spar with other women in the kind of safe space described above. Even though she is an experienced Muay Thai fighter who has regularly trained with men, she often felt frustrated that she was one of the only women in her class, and she was certain that others felt the same way. It can be difficult to train for a competition when you’re only sparring with the same handful of people.

The program began as a form of cross-training, allowing women from different gyms the opportunity to spar with new people who have trained Muay Thai under different coaches. While cross-training is somewhat rare to begin with, having the opportunity to cross-train with only other women had never happened.

It wasn’t immediately embraced by everyone to whom Jessie reached out. There isn’t always a lot of communication between gyms and people are oftentimes reluctant to step out of their comfort zone. Many fighters spend months looking for a gym where they feel like they fit in; they’re not exactly eager to jump out of that situation.

However, Jessie wasn’t asking people to switch gyms or to come to sessions more than once every four to six weeks. Once people realized the benefits of cross-training and the fact that they could create a community throughout New England, the idea took off, and their sparring sessions now draw up to 30 people from 5 to 7 gyms throughout the region. The crowd is a mixed bag of fighters with varying skill levels and backgrounds.

These events even draw beginners who have never stepped foot in Muay Thai gym before, largely because they’ve been too intimidated to attend a class where they fear they might get seriously injured by someone who is twice their size. At Women Sparring, they feel more assurance that their first sparring session will be safe.

What Are Sparring Sessions Like?

The classes are very similar to a typical Muay Thai or jiu-jitsu class. Everyone starts with a warmup to get loose. They then move on to shadowboxing, before moving on to the drill for the day. Once drilling is done, students partner up for light boxing with some kicking. What’s unique about the way the sparring is organized is that people are paired up for two or maybe even three rounds. Fighters get the opportunity to learn about their partner’s style during the first round. They can then regroup, make adjustments to their strategy, and then implement those adjustments in the next round. Following the boxing sessions, they end with 20-30 minutes of clinch.

These sessions are always held at Hard Knocks in Hyde Park, a neighborhood in Boston. For those who are interested in attending, the best way to learn when the next session is happening is by sending a direct message to Jessie via Instagram (@hardknocksboston).