Your Boxing Mitt Work Sucks--and it's probably making you worse.
A fighter and mitt work is like a dog and the garbage—yeah, he’s gonna find food and have a great time, but sometimes it can make one hell of a mess. Fighters want mitt work, though. They chase the coach around asking for pads after classes. They call to schedule mitts before the rest of the team is there. They need their dopamine fix one crack of the mitt at a time. The timing and slipping and combos are on point! Just listen to the sound of the mitts cracking. Just look at the crowd of voyeurs, mouths agape at the impressiveness of the mitt skills. He must be a high-level fighter with mitt skills like that! One soccer mom says to another, while they drool at the skills…meh, maybe. Maybe that fighter everyone stares at on mitts is the next Canelo or GGG, or maybe it’s like that scene in “Never Back Down” (MMA Movie) where the two fighters are about to go at it with a crowd of people watching. The one fighter comes out jumping in the air showing spin kicks. Doing backflips. Yelling and screaming to intimidate. The other fighter walks up to him and hits him once with a boring ol’ straight right and knocks the dude out in half a second.
Don’t get me wrong, now. Mitts do have a place in fighting; I’m not saying they don’t. But they are given entirely too much credit for building the skills of a fighter. And, then there’s the Mayweather-style, flashy mitt/footwork/movement stuff added on top of it, and we have ourselves a recipe for disappointment come fight time. But how did mitts get so powerful in the eyes of fighters and coaches? Years ago: TV. Today: Social media.
The ubiquitous nature of social media has not only ruined how every girl looks at herself in the mirror or how every guy’s job is inadequate because he sees the influencer taking pictures with the [rented] Bentley, it has also ruined how fighters address their training.
Mayweather, I blame you! With your flashy mitts on the old HBO 24/7 series—tapping and slipping and bobbing, all while looking at the camera. How is a fighter to ever train anything but “look-away-mitts” again after seeing the most successful boxer in history train that way? Apparently, if you can’t hit mitts while looking at the camera and having a conversation, you can’t fight. And if Mayweather does it, it must work, right? Fast-forward a decade and we have Vasyl Lomachenko, TJ Dillashaw, Conor McGregor and countless other fighters, coaches and trainers of all sorts posting mitt work or footwork drills or movement drills that get likes and loves and shares by the tens and hundreds of thousands. And that’s the whole point of any of it—the likes and shares and all the money and hype that goes with any type of flashy movement. You’re being duped, one thirty second clip at a time. Twenty seven punch combinations with look-aways and cross steps aren’t going to make you good. And, if you’re name isn’t Conor or Floyd or Vasyl, they’re probably going to make you worse. The flashy mitts you see Mayweather work on media day isn’t going to make you a better fighter. Hell, they’re not even how he does his “real” mitt work—it’s a flashy drill for coordination, and if you’ve ever watched a single Mayweather fight, you’ll see that’s certainly no how he moves.
What?! Blasphey! It must be true. I saw it on the internet!
In reality, though, Mayweather isn’t to blame. Conor McGregor isn’t to blame. You can’t blame them for monetizing some of their own training habits. Hell, you (as a fighter) may not even be to blame—you see successful fighter X doing extraordinary things and want to be extraordinary too, so you emulate what you see fighter X doing and it’s just a matter of time before you’re world champion. I get it. But it doesn’t really work that way. Not in the slightest.
Then who’s to blame for this mitt explosion in combat sports? The simple answer: your COACH. And maybe to some extent you—and the industry as a whole. But mainly, your coach.
That’s right, your coach should know better. If your coach is grasping at flashy, new techniques that he sees trending on social media, shame on him. Shame on him for falling for the same absurdities that non-fighters are falling for, and shame on him for probably trying to sell himself as someone more accomplished than he is.
Look, I’m all for improving. We need to take everything into consideration, but we need to do so with a grain of salt. A good coach knows what he knows and knows what he doesn’t know. Trying new techniques and training methods out is a great way to evolve, but it’s when we go too far down the rabbit hole that we get in trouble—and it’s usually the bad coaches—the fraudsters—who are trying to re-invent the wheel.
I’ve been in the sport of MMA for 19 years. Along the way I’ve seen too many fraudsters to count, and they are usually trying to sell something off grid. What I mean by that is they’re selling a way to “Beat a wrestler with BJJ” “how to beat a boxer with karate” “BJJ is ineffective vs wrestlers who do this” “Don’t waste time on a heavy bag when you can do Mayweather mitts.” What they’re saying is, “I’m not good enough at X to teach X, so if I can come up with a trick to “expose” X with Y, I can make money and call myself an expert.”
That’s my take on a lot of holistic medicine too. I can’t get into med school, so I’ll go become a “holistic” practitioner and teach everyone about how bad general medicine is—and sell them all of my holistic alternatives! In other words: SNAKE OIL SALESMEN.
Fighters, be wary of coaches who do everything in opposition to the training techniques that have been proven to work throughout time. Coaches, get better at what you’re trying to teach—even if that means taking a step back for a moment to improve your knowledge—instead of trying to circumvent the system. The fastest way to results in any facet of life is hard work—there are no shortcuts…anywhere.
And, if you are a knowledgeable coach and you have some drills that incorporate some of the Mayweather-style flashy drills into your training (I know I do)—keep doing your thing. I’m not talking about you. You know those drills have their small place in training, but you understand the whole picture.
And the whole picture is way bigger than mitts—of any kind, flashy or fundamental.
Mitt work, I’d hazard to guess, is one-fifth (if that) of a stand up fighter’s training. Besides jumping rope and running and lifting there’s SHADOW BOXING, BAG WORK, PARTNER DRILLS, SPARRING, and then…Mitt work.
Yup, five things. Once again: Shadow boxing, bag work, partner drills, sparring, and mitt work.
Personally, I think mitt work is the least important of those five, but others may disagree and believe mitts are the most important. Regardless of which any of us think is the most important component of developing a boxer/kick boxer, mitts are still just one component! One! One of five in my list, though other lists may have more or less standard components, thus, changing the ratio of importance.
In my opinion, bag work and sparring are the most important aspects of fighter training, then followed by (in no specific order) shadow boxing, partner drills and mitt work.
Bag work gives a fighter the chance to rep a punch/kick or combo thousands of times while focusing on distance all while finding his own movement, rhythm and style. Mitts aren’t hit/kicked at a realistic distance to due them being held away from the face. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a fighter look indestructible on mitts, but then cant find his way in or out of the pocket because he doesn’t understand range or movement. When you hit a bag, you don’t have to worry about that—if you can hit the bag, you’re in range. If you can’t hit the bag, you’re out of range. If you’re out of range, you need to learn how to move your feet and find your way into punching range, and then effectively exit. Also, a (hanging) bag will move more realistically to an attacking opponent than most pad holders (situations vary, I know). A bag moves, so after you punch/kick a hanging bag, you have to move around with the bag to 1. Hit the bag again and 2. So you don’t get by the moving bag—both are very important for learning how to move while fighting. Hitting a punching bag has numerous benefits, but one of the less known reason I like fighters to sit on a heavy bag besides the obvious benefits is that, at first, it’s boring—which is why fighters don’t want to work it. I want a fighter to get bored. Boredom isn’t only a mental exercise in “can I do this when I don’t want to” (not a bad trait to be able to endure things you don’t like i.e. getting hit/beaten up, and keep going), but it also forces fighters to become creative.
At first fighters don’t know what to do when standing in front of a heavy bag. They throw a 1-2-3 combo again and again. They look around. “What do I do?” They think. But, eventually, they come up with something else. A hook to the body. Then after a while it’s a jab-cross pivot. Then a cross and a roll. It forces fighters to learn on their own and find themselves as a fighter. A coach can have a fighter stay in the pocket like Tyson all day long, but what if the fighter doesn’t like to fight that way? A coach can call out combos all day long, but should a fighter fight EXACTLY like a coach and use the combos EXACTLY how the coach says, or should she learn to fight on her own—her way? Set up combos like she wants. Angle and move and bob and weave in a manner that works best for her. She needs to fight how she wants to fight, but she won’t know what that is until she discovers it on her own…in front of a bag (or while sparring).
I’m not going to go over each aspect listed individually (and I didn’t exhaust the benefits of bag work either)—that’s a different article. We can agree that each of the five components listed are all an integral part of becoming a complete fighter. I spent the time to tell you about the fraudsters trying to sell you on mitts and why I think bag work trumps mitts as a means to becoming a complete fighter, but now I want to spend some time on what mitts SHOULD be used for in training, and how to get the most out of mitt work.
First and foremost, mitts are a great tool for working timing. Timing is how you implement a specific movement into sparring/fighting. When you learn a new technique or want to focus on a specific skill, you initially work the technique slowly during shadow boxing or on a bag. That allows you to form a base of muscle memory for the movement and work out the details you need to specific to you and your body type, speed, skill set, and style of fighting. After that, you need to perform repetitions of the movement at different speeds and different tempos and with slightly different movements thrown at you. Mitts allow you to work with a real human (mitt coach) and speed up your technique as you focus on having to keep balance/distance/stance as you’re moving around (as you would in an actual fight).
At first, a coach will, likely, drill the move again and again in the same manner to work up to a good functional speed with growing muscle memory for the movement. Then he will introduce slight changes in the technique/combo, which are called variances (pattern variances). Which a fighter needs to be able to recognize in order to apply a technique in a real fight/sparring session, as opposed to a controlled environment (mitts).
Maybe at first you’re throwing a jab-cross combo, then slipping a jab and coming back with a cross-hook counter. Initially, you will stand in one place and work the movement. Your coach will start slowly and gradually increase speed. Then maybe he moves to the left or right as you are forced to move with your coach as you throw the combination. Eventually, your coach is throwing other combos at you and you’re throwing other combos during the mitt work session, but when he tries to fake you out with variances you’re firing that specific combo at lightning speed, while minimizing mistakes that could occur if you were facing another fighter. For more about patterns and variance, click here.
The second main benefit of mitts is it gives the coach a lot of one-on-one time to perfect mistakes and to work on new techniques. Being face-to-face with a fighter for 20-30 minutes (more or less) while she punches again and again gives a lot of time for minor adjustments and improvements. The same can be done while watching a fighter hit a bag, just as easily, but mitts allows for a coach to help improve technique while variances are introduced to a pattern/movement.
Third, there’s the cardio aspect of mitts. When you hit a bag, you are on your own time and dictate the speed, power, timing of attacks and energy expenditure in your combinations. Mitts work forces you to move at somebody else’s speed. It forces you to work off of somebody else’s timing. That is much more tiring than most bag work will be. And a coach can yell at you and call you all sorts of names (or other motivations) to push you out of your comfort zone and train harder than you would have.
In conclusion, I want to introduce an exercise that our head boxing coach, Alan Viers (IG: @aviersbkb) told me about (follow him here). He said, go watch any high level boxing fight (it would work for kick boxing/Muay Thai too). Now watch how many punches are thrown at a time in any given combo. Chances are you’re going to see one to two punch combos most of the time. Every few combos you’ll see a three punch combo. And less commonly, you’ll see a four to five punch flurry—usually if a fighter is hurt or covering up, but usually not when he’s on guard in a fighting stance. The second part of the exercise is to watch any high level fighter hit mitts/pads—pull up a youtube video on your phone. Now cover the top of your screen, so you can only see their feet. Watch how they’re not hoping all over like kids playing hopscotch. They’re moving their feet, but watch how controlled and minimal it is. Each step is important, but the better they are, the smaller the movement is. Precision is key. Big isn’t always better. Flashy isn’t always better. Trick plays are good on the football field every once in a while, but games are won running the ball up the middle for a gain of four yards one play at a time.