Pattern recognition is an integral part of any complex activity that requires you to respond to a stimulus in a timely and accurate fashion.
For example in a game of tennis, the player is gathering information from his opponent's body before they have hit the ball; and this information collates with the eventual swing of the racket to indicate to the player how he should respond.
The case is not that the opponent strikes the ball and the player must react as quickly as possible to get into the best position to return the shot... This is the common misconception about speed in sport.
Bringing it to the kick boxing game; to describe someone as being 'fast', 'really quick' or as having 'good reactions' is a mistake of the same ilk as the above tennis example.
When the opponent is hurling strikes, there are signs and patterns that alert a fighter of the incoming attack before it materialises.
What the layperson sees as lightning fast reactions is actually a fighter who has seen what his opponent is trying to do hundreds of times before: and so RECOGNISES THE PATTERN. What this means is that the fighter is in fact not "responding" at all. They are "reading".
The shuffles of the feet; flicking of the shoulders; the way the elbow flairs, facial expressions, where the eyes look, the very breathing of the man opposite you can all be interpreted to predict attacks in such small intervals of time that an onlooker is unaware of the masses of communication that occur between two fighters unless they themselves are a fighter.
I would say that at a higher level about 75 percent of these 'reads' a fighter has access to in his opponent's movement, these patterns; are all seen and responded to automatically. Unconsciously, out of thousands of hours of purposeful practice, their nervous systems are engrained with the counters and defences to many aggressive patterns of body language. The compensating footwork and postural alterations happen automatically. A good way to think of this is to describe them as 'trained flinches'. The fighter has trained his body to flinch in a very particular way that is effective.
An easy example to point to is in a Thai fight; the lead leg lifting up is not a natural reaction or flinch that we are born with. Instead, years of checking kicks have engrained this 'flinch' into the fighter when he is exposed to the visual stimulus of common patterns of movement that have always lead to the low kick being thrown. So he reads the posture of his opponent, he unconsciously compensates for the leg and hip position and his leg comes up in defence.
So you have this 'trained flinch'. Perhaps reaction time and 'reflexes' may play some part in a fighter's effectiveness in these situations. Though, in reality the largest factors effecting how well a fighter's 'trained flinches' work on fight night is simply the number of times you have:
1- repeated the movement, the simple act of lifting the leg to check a kick or parry a jab etc...
2- most importantly- responded to the stimulus with the movement.
This is my largest bug bear among all the gyms and styles I've come across in training...
Yes you can repeat a movement thousands of times, it will 100% stand you in good stead for the real performance.
However, if you have not been looking at that jab coming at your face in real time, you will not be able to put the pieces together in the fight.
Let us, for example, imagine we are doing a parry drill, where one partner jabs and the other partner must parry the jab to defend it.
If the timing never changes, if the two fighters just go through the motions repeating the movement:
Jab...jab...jab...jab...jab; then they have fallen into a predictable rhythm and the drill looses 50% of its effectiveness.
The other 50% comes from the jabber making his timing unpredictable. He might throw 3 quick jabs in a row. Then 10 seconds pass with nothing, then out the blue, 'pop' another jab. He might feign the jab and instead throw a lead hook, this tests the defence of the other fighter; is he alert? Is he aware? Is he parrying too forcefully and leaving an opening for the lead hook? Is he taking the timing for granted? In essence the parrying partner needs to focus and concentrate on his opponent to try and read what they are doing. They don't simply trust that a metronomic stream of jabs will come for the next few minutes and simply have to repeat the parrying movement with their hands...
This focus, concentration and unpredictable timing should be extrapolated to every single drill you perform.
Otherwise there is little point in having training partners, you might as well shadow and hit the bags.
It should be considered of equal importance for hitting pads. The pad holder must be unpredictable and pose a threat to the fighter, mixing in strikes of his own between those the puncher throws. Otherwise, in sparring and fights, things just don't work because the fighter is not accustomed to having to find his way in past, through and around the opponent's strikes to land his own.
At lower level fights this is obvious to see because both guys just come forward throwing any old strikes and the fight becomes less of a chess match, a game of timing and wit; and more a sloppy mess of poorly timed strikes because neither fighter is used to shots coming back at them.
As fighters get more advanced however, they still make the same mistakes in their training camps; their performance improving only because of the amount of sparring and ring time they have accumulated.
Augmenting the drills with unpredictability is the very best way of what a famous coach calls
"Upgrading the software without damaging the hardware".