“… [A]s he gained a sense of the ring… his uncanny ability to gauge an opponent’s punch… [and] supernatural reflexes… impressed even the earliest of his amateur opponents and judges…”
- Joe Martin, Muhammad Ali’s first boxing trainer1
Ringsense is concept that not many people will ever understand. True understanding of it is limited to only those who have participated in some type of combat sport. No, I am not saying that fighters have a superpower like Spider-Man's Spidersense. Although at times it may seem like that. In wrestling we have a similar concept: matsense. Well what is this thing? Ringsense is composed of several things. The most basic is that after gaining experience from sparring or fighting, a boxer builds an almost intuitive sense of where he is in the ring both in an absolute sense of distance and relative to his opponent without looking. This is not something that people are born with. It must be learned. When a fighter has true ringsense, however, what happens is much more extreme. The action actually slows down. Let me explain from personal experience. When I first began wrestling in high school, things would happen faster than anything had ever happened in my life. It seemed like as soon as the referee blew the whistle, I was on my back and the match was over. Over time, as I got more practice and got more experience, the pace of the match literally felt slower. Now, I could feel my opponent begin a takedown attempt and I could react by sprawling.
The same thing happened to me when I began boxing. My first sparring session, the punches seemed to come out of nowhere. I would be hit in the face upwards of four or five times before I even realized the first punch had come. However, just as with wrestling, the more that I sparred, the slower that everything seemed to happen. It was like I was developing an innate feel for combat. Eventually, I gained experience to the point where I could now see the punches coming and could block or move out of the way. If you take this concept to the extreme, you can see why some casual observers think that some of the greatest boxers of all time had a "sixth sense." You will hear fans say that it was as if Ali knew what punches were coming, because he seemed to move out of the way before the punch was even starting to be thrown. Yes, his incredible reaction time and reflexes had something to do with it. But the main factor was his ringsense. Since he was a small boy, all Ali wanted to do was "train and fight, train and fight." Imagine all the experience he must have gained from all that practice. That led to an incredible level of ringsense and hence, his ability to make it look like he knew what his opponents were going to do. As a side note, if you want to learn about how Ali used to get up at 4:30 AM to do roadwork as an 8 year old boy, check out King of the World:
In case you are just a casual fan and think that punches from these guys don't look fast... let me assure you that when you are the guy who has punches coming at him, they are coming FAST. Speed and reflexes alone won't allow a boxer to dodge or block most of these punches. Some degree of ringsense is needed in order to feel the opponent start to throw a punch. It is difficult to explain it to a person who has never partaken in combat sports, but eventually, you will actually be able to feel your opponents intentions before they become a reality. If I were to try to come up with a semi-scientific explanation for this, I would say that after sparring for a while, you get to experience so many possibilities and situations that eventually you come to recognize the body language, if you will, that precedes a particular attack. This is the primary reason why regular sparring is of paramount importance to a fighter's development.
Remnick, David. King of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.