The Holy Grail of boxing training is combinations. More specifically, for the uninitiated, punching combinations: jab-cross, jab-cross-hook, cross-hook, uppercut-hook, et cetera.
Punching "combos" are a key to success in boxing, mostly because they're necessary to land flush punches against defensively sound opponents. Sure, you can throw against a person's guard and keep him or her occupied that way; however, that amounts to mostly just "noise" without a lot of effect.
The goal is to get past the guard, and that's what combinations accomplish.
Or do they?
They do. Let's not be silly about it, but a lot of people misunderstand a couple of things about combinations. Most notably, the idea of a sequence and what it entails.
Combinations rely on a series of punches to take place, like a jab-cross-hook-uppercut, for example, in whatever order makes sense to the user. Nothing wrong with that, but it can be limited. In the truest sense of the word, however, that is not a combination. It is a permutation.
And permutations are what you really want to learn, but it takes a lot of time to get there.
Combinations are your level one, if you will; they are a gateway into pugilistic refinement. Level two comes from understanding permutations. With combinations, order doesn't matter and you are free to combine punches however you wish. With permutations, order does matter and that order is what creates diversity in a specific and measurable way.
The commonly accepted standard in boxing as far as number of legitimate punches there are is seven: jab, cross, lead hook, rear hook, lead uppercut, rear uppercut, overhand cross.
Seven items allows for a maximum of 35 combinations. That number is manageable for all levels of the sport.
Seven items allows for a maximum of 5040 permutations. That number is manageable for Rain Man.
These are general results in the calculation of “how many permutations and combinations can be made from the punches a fighter knows." Simply put, there will be more permutations than combinations because each combination can be rearranged to make many permutations. It gets even more dramatic when you allow for repetition of items, which we're not going to do here. This is simply a thought exercise, not a math test.
The purpose of it is to get us thinking about what it means to "throw a combination" versus "throw a permutation," as well as the desired outcome of each.
Which is why rehearsal matters. You might be of the opinion that pattern training is pointless because it doesn't challenge a person with some type of external resistance. This is partly why kata has so fallen out of favor with the so-called "modern martial artist" and most certainly in MMA circles.
The truth of the matter is that kata informs an understanding of permutational striking in a way that combination striking can't. Combination striking plays to an athlete's strengths and biases. Permutational striking exploits those strengths and biases. Watch an athlete shadow box and you will see the former; make the athlete shadow box to random callouts on an app and you will see the latter.
This doesn't just show up in training. It affects how we fight, too.
Take a fighter with a hellacious left cross and put someone across from him that can negate that cross, and all of his combinations are lost to him. He loses the fight.
Enter permutations and, maybe, he can make things work in his favor again. He can create solutions to the problems being posed to him in a way that doesn't just use his strengths, but strengthens his weaknesses. Focusing on combinations will only get you so far. Permutations get you the rest of the way.
Mathematically, it's true. Mentally, it might not be.
How we train leading up to a moment like that will decide for us.