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Here I'm referring to the concept of timing, which is mentioned at least as far back a Five Rings, and rhythm, which is a concept in boxing and other sparring arts.

  • How do you mess with someone's timing, and how effective is it?
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A great question.

One of the most effective ways to control a fight is by maintaining the element of surprise; by confusing, frustrating and by doing so, greatly incapacitating your opponent. By being unpredictable, you take the initiative, and a fighter who is constantly being forced to respond to his or her opponent will always find it a lot more difficult to achieve good timing.

Remember too, that timing extends to defence as well as offence. This will be addressed later.

Examples here will centre around striking techniques, as there will be others on M.A.S.E. far better equipped to deal with grappling strategies. Your question relates to boxing, but by extending this answer to include other striking techniques, boxing is addressed whilst expanding the relevance of the answer to a greater audience.

There are many ways to prevent predictability and to maintain the initiative, including but not limited to:

Avoid predictable movement and technique patterns.

It is very, very common to see participants in sparring sessions and fights to fall into a rhythm of sorts. Combination is traded for combination, periods of motion are followed by periods of idleness. Retreat is traded for advance, and so on. It is almost as though there has been prior agreement that each will give the other the opportunity to attack.

To avoid this, you must first learn identify your patterns and habits, both in a training and a sparring/fight context. Only once you have done this will you be able to correct these flaws and incorporate less predictable elements into your game.

Combinations: Do you ever follow up your jab with anything other than a straight right? Learn to double jab, triple jab, feint jab. What about your hooks? Are you capable of throwing double or triple hooks, high and low? Do you have an overhand right in your arsenal? What about an overhand left? Is your first kick always a rear roundhouse to the leg? Do you tend to separate leg and fist techniques? Are there techniques you rarely or never use? Use them. Horse-kicks, knees to the thighs, sweeps, side-step roundhouses to the solar plexus. Jump and strike for a change. Knee to the thigh. Elbow the chest and arms. What does this have to do with timing? Executing novel combinations makes it very, very difficult for an opponent to maintain effective defensive and counter-offensive timing. By forcing them to continually adjust, their reaction time decreases and their window to strike effectively decreases.

Tempo, tempo, tempo. It is easy to fall into the habit of always striking to the same pace. Varying tempo of movement and strikes will reduce your opponent's ability to catch/parry/duck/counter.

Range: If your opponent can't reach you, timing becomes almost irrelevant. Similarly, if they can't generate enough space to fully extend their techniques, effective timing is removed.

Centreline: Staying out of your opponent's direct path sounds obvious, but many of us don't concentrate upon this enough. By presenting yourself at less-than-ideal angles, it will be much harder for your opponent to achieve optimal timing when striking. Combine this principle with unpredictable movement patterns and you're a long way to winning the bout.

Footwork: Do you tend to bob up and down, rhythmically, alerting your opponent to when you'll be unweighted and vulnerable? Do you tend to circle only to one side, or worse still, do nothing but retreat when under attack or stay in front of your opponent? These mistakes make it far easier for your opponent to time their strikes effectively.

Stance: Why limit yourself to orthodox or southpaw? Why not train both? You will greatly diminish your opponent's timing if you present them with a target for which they haven't trained.

Cardio!: Look at Lomachenko. He needs to be very fit to move the way he does, but it's his astonishing movement that allows him to hit his opponents at will, and to remove from them any ability to time their strikes.

Defence: Do you always defend certain strikes in the same way? Or can you parry, slip, counter, duck, pivot, catch, clinch? Do you always wait until a strike is complete before you counter, or can you counter mid-strike? One of the best ways to destroy your opponent's timing is to put and end to the technique before it reaches full extension. Achieve this by stepping in, attacking the opponents limbs as they come towards you. Remove their weapons. Yes, easier said than done in many cases, but often the most important thing here is the ability to stay relaxed and to trust in your abilities.

Counters: A very effective way to put your opponent off their game is by learning to counter effectively, ruining their confidence by removing their ability to strike unimpeded. Watch Genady Golovkin. He is a master at catching with his right whilst simultaneously stiff-jabbing with his left.

Some of the most effective people I've sparred against are not only counter punchers, but counter kickers. Countering kicks by throwing your own (to your opponent's standing inner leg for example), can be transformational. Proficiency here, via interrupting the timing of their every attack, can actually cause your opponent to become afraid of striking, at which point, you've come close to dominating the session.

Orthodoxy is Your Enemy: Styles tend to perpetuate certain patterns. One of the most difficult things to achieve as an aspiring fighter can be to 'unlearn' thoroughly drilled patterns which render your approach predictable (particularly left-right-left-right patterns), even to people from other styles. Whenever you spar, get into the habit of trying new things. Draw upon your intellect and creativity to experiment. Feint. Not just once, multiple times. Commence a false retreat, only to burst forward when your opponent advances. It is much easier to time strikes against a rhythmic fighter than an arhythmic one.

Alter your approach each round. Alter your approach mid-round. Do you tend to move in three-technique bursts? Try ten. Many may be fraudulent 'soft' strikes, but these create openings. Most people never learn to deal with such a barrage very well. They tend to have drilled themselves into an expectation of having to defend one to three or four strikes maximum. They rely on predictable pauses in attacks to time their own attacks. Remove this from them. Be sure however to never let experimentation take precedence over defensive integrity.

Incorporate techniques from other styles (if they're legal in yours). As mentioned elsewhere on SE, one of the great vulnerabilities of many schools lies in their limited (often non-existent) exposure to other styles, and if the importance of timing extends not only to offence, but defence, an opponent who doesn't recognise a technique will be far less able time their defensive manoeuvres and any counter-measures.

Some of this may not seem directly relevant to the goal of upsetting an opponent's timing, but again, it is very hard to maintain timing against someone who is never doing what you expect them to do. The fundamental principle here is to make your opponent react to you. Assume the initiative.

Watch some of the greats. Lomachenko. Tomey. Pernell Whittaker. Prince Naseem Hamed. Ali. Saenchi. These guys are/were truly elite, and were such masters of range, they were able to drop their hands. Don't make the mistake of doing this until you are far more experienced, or until a trustworthy coach tells you that you are good enough to do so.

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  • GREAT answer. In re: the true greats—their understanding of distance matched their sense of timing.
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 2 at 10:44

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