I believe you’ve mentioned in the past about the ‘bouncing’ or ‘hopping’ that boxers/martial artists do to stay light on their feet, etc. but I don’t see HEMA/other weapon based martial arts doing this. Is there a reason why?
You see this in HEMA all the time, they’re just not bouncing with their feet. (Though you’ll see them do the shifting.) They’re moving their sword. Modern fencers bounce, they have to, they’ve got a lot of movement to cover. However, the sword tip flicking back and forth or circling off the wrist’s subtle shifting in the air working off the same principle as Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It may not be as visually pronounced, but it’s there.
See, you’re thinking that its about feet. It’s not just that, beginners make this mistake a lot. They see an action and assume that’s the answer instead of looking at the underlying principle then seeking to apply that principle to a different context. A warrior wielding a sword has different needs in order to be successful than a boxer fighting under very specific rules. Staying light on your feet is a matter of adjusting your stance so you lean forward onto the balls of your feet rather than sitting on your heel. This position allows for a shift into immediate action like a sprinter on the starting line.
Bouncing is footwork. It is footwork to cover your footwork that covers your footwork. The point of bouncing is to cloak the tells signaling when you’re about to strike by constantly staying in motion.
Your body has lots of tells for when it’s about to attack, it will betray you. Your eyes will betray you. (I mean it, if you don’t train your eyes to take in the whole body then they’ll move to their desired target point. Even moderately skilled fighters watch their opponent’s eyes and their chest.) Your feet will betray you. Your chest will betray you. Your hips will betray you. Your arms will betray you. Your legs will betray you. With a sword, it’s… in all those things and the weapon itself. Action is predicated by action. Some of those tells are more visible than others. A single technique may look fluid to the outside observer, but it is actually a multitude of little actions chained together. Those actions have a beginning and they have an end. The beginning of the action is where the tell is. The beginnings of a technique predicate the strike and where it will go.
Martial arts trains the eye, especially your peripheral vision, to watch for movement rather than specific techniques. Your brain is trained to recognize patterns and respond to those patterns, predicting and preempting the act before it comes. This is how we block and how we dodge. You move when they move, move as they move. You don’t wait to see what they’ll do, then move. From the beginning motion of the eyes to the pectoral muscles to the shift in the shoulder, you can see the punch beginning. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Blocking and dodging are about timing. You want to block an incoming attack, you have to preempt. Catch it mid motion. In the middle, before the action completes. When the action passes past the chamber and into extension then its too late. Their momentum is behind them. You either need to redirect or get out of the way.
Bouncing, or shifting your weight back and forth from your front leg to your back, acts as a means to cover those crucial early seconds before an attack. You’re basically overloading the eye with motion so the brain has difficulty tracking which limb is moving when. It’s the basic act of giving yourself cover.
You’ve got to fake out the eye in order to get them to block, then strike somewhere unexpected. The high/low combination techniques you’ll see in many martial arts are devoted to this fake out. As are the bursting techniques of Krav Maga. (Krav Maga is extremely effective.) If you don’t do martial arts, I get why this might be a little more difficult to understand. This is maybe green belt level for strategic and technical understanding. Feints are easy to grasp in concept but difficult if you’ve never seen them in practice with other techniques. Also, there is a necessary component in understanding the interplay between a techniques success and its footwork. Or, even, just what footwork is. (Universally the most basic and fundamental part of a martial art, necessary to success, and also most overlooked.)
Muhammad Ali level bouncing is exhausting. Remaining constantly in motion is exhausting. 90% of the time when watching sparring practice, you’ll see the kids go from bounce, bounce, bounce to flat footed in less than a minute. It requires dedicated conditioning in order to sustain the pace. You will get tired much faster than if you remain still, you need to train for it and a lot of people don’t. This includes professional fighters.
Martial arts is not one size fits all, different schools are going to have their own means of cloaking their motion in order to hide their attacks. Different individuals are going to figure out their own ways of doing it. Though many in boxing mimic it now, Ali’s fighting style was revolutionary for his time.