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Which Do You Feel Has More Value? Hard or Light Sparring?  

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  1. 1. Hard or Light?

    • Harder, Fight-Energy Sparring
    • Lighter, Low-Energy, Technical Sparring


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I'm a bit inspired by Coach James's recent thread about kids "fighting" (they're sparring, but James is bothered by it and in his mind used the word fighting in his title, which I think is significant), but also because I just was watching some hard sparring at my gym here in Thailand.

Here's the set up. In the West, we tend to have this "holier than thou" attitude toward "technical sparring" over "hard sparring," usually accompanied by some kind of credit to how "technical and light" sparring in Thailand is. Okay, sure, I've seen very little sparring among Thais in which they're trying to hurt or knock each other's heads off (I have seen some), whereas I have seen that kind of sparring in Thailand but usually when one or both of the people participating are not-Thai. This said, when Thais spar with shinpads and gloves, it's not "light." The word for sparring in Thai len cherng, literally means to "play techniques." That's the point, and usually the spirit of it. But it's not "light" in the sense that the West tends to characterize it as for their own uses and purposes. It is more "lighthearted," but the actual power of strikes and intention is well over the 60% that I'd qualify as "going light." 

I was watching two sets of sparring at my gym yesterday. The first couple were both not-Thai. One guy was from India, the other from Italy. The Indian guy always goes too hard, as judged by me for what's appropriate for practice. But he's never told by the coaches to turn it down, which means they see a purpose to how hard he strikes. He also tires easily. And they never put him with someone who is close to a fight, because they know he goes this hard. The Italian guy has way more experience than the Indian guy and, while he got battered pretty good by hard leg kicks and punches in the first round and a half, he took the lead with clinch and knees to "win" the sparring - as if it were a fight, judged by others. The thing is this: the punches and kicks were 100%. The emotional stress and intention was 100%. And the guy who goes too hard, by gassing and ultimately being bettered in the end, his disappointment was 100%. All of those elements are important for learning how to fight. You have to deal with real stress. You have to deal with the consequences of coming out too hard, too early, if you don't have the stamina to keep it going. You have to learn how your power overwhelms someone and then doesn't. And likewise, the Italian guy has to learn that you can't only practice going in and having everything controlled for you. I was pretty impressed by the way he handled it, honestly, and I'm not very generous in things I like about this guy. As an important note, while nobody was told to take their power down, there were shinpads, large gloves, a referee and spectators to break the two men when things were too heated or stagnant, or to stop the time early if needed. It's still being supervised, just not interfered with very much. 

The next couple were two Thai boys, both about 14-16, same weight as each other but a gulf in experience. One has been training and fighting since he was 8 and surely 100+ fights, the other a handful of years with only 20 or so fights. One loves to go backwards (the experienced one) and gets yelled at for it, the other likes to come forward and strike pretty hard. They both kicked and punched less than 100% power, but not far below that. There were exchanges when the power would go up, but then it would come back down. There was never any "danger" throughout that match, unlike the other one. The biggest difference, however, was the emotional charge. There were moments when the two Thai fighters were amped up a bit, the dominance was real. But they weren't trying to hurt each other. They were trying to dominate each other and shut the other down. It wasn't like that with the non-Thais; there was an element that felt not in control with them, an emotional derailment that felt dangerous... although the Thai men who sat around the ring to watch found it incredibly entertaining.

So here's my point: there is a purpose to hard sparring. There is purpose to "technical" sparring. There is an art to both, and I think both are required for the development of a fighter. But what's "light" about Thai sparring is not the power of strikes; it honestly is in the "asshole factor" of emotional energy put into the sparring itself. It's a lack of control that makes hard sparring dangerous or not worthwhile, not the power itself. Stress is an important training tool. Disappointment is a training tool. Gassing out is an important training tool. To only ever advocate for some kind of pantomime sparring robs fighters of those tools.

 

This was Jame's original post discussion that lead to these thoughts:

 

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I think both are great, in hard you become stronger mentally and psychologically and you learn to remain calmer when someone is going hard with you, while technical is esential to learn and hone your skills. Also depends the level you're at. I think it's important for both fighters to be on the same page before they spar so there wouldn't be any bad blood after this. 

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In the times where you do harder sparring, there has to be an unspoken brotherly agreement. Basically if you land 3 or 4 good clean shots and back him up and his defences are opened even more, you kinda back up and give him a chance to come back.

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I ultimately went with hard sparring, under the assumption that most people who would use this board are probably training in the West - and in my view if you're training in the West and aiming to fight, you're not going to get nearly as much ring time to get used to the intensity of a fight so that hard sparring is a must.

That being said...

For me the ideal sparring is technical, with a slightly slower pace, but with strong contact to the body and light contact to the head. When I see people in my gym sparring technically, I usually find that they're being too light, not being honest with each other and in doing that they don't learn the danger of a fight.  Ideal sparring for me looks like this:

 

Or this:

 

 

When it comes to hard sparring, I think it's completely appropriate to bash people hard in the body and legs if they signed up for it. But I don't think hard contact to the head is ever really appropriate. A fighter should learn to defend his head through strong drilling and light sparring - never through heavy sparring.

I think people read the words hard sparring and they think of something like the Groenhart brothers going to war:

 

When it should be more like this:

 

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To add a little bit more:

I think it depends on your specific situation. A lot of guys would look at Idris training at Double K Gym and think he's being a douchebag sparring partner here, smacking Luke Whelan as hard as he possibly can - but in the case of Idris he was training for a debut professional fight against an experienced opponent and had only a year to do it in (coming from no experience).

I find this sparring session interesting because it was clearly rough, but I find it technical at the same time. There were a few key techniques that Idris kept working on within this session and he was being tested against a champion who was seeking to tire him out and make him work late into the rounds. 

 

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John Wayne Parr tweeted about one of these videos the other day. It seems he's also not a fan.

I totally agree with what Sylvie said about the 'asshole factor' being key in hard sparring. I've been called out on this quite a few times at my gym. I'll be sparring relatively light with someone, then they'll go a little harder, and I'll amp it up in response. Every single time this happens, I'm the one who gets told to slow down or go softer, and I tend to get pissy about that. In the moment, I often feel like it's unfair, because I was only responding with the same power that my partner hit me with. But the difference is that I'm the one getting emotional about it, and that takes it to another place. Other times, I can be sparring pretty hard with someone, but it's totally fine, as long as it still feels like 'playing'. 

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3 minutes ago, emma said:

John Wayne Parr tweeted about one of these videos the other day. It seems he's also not a fan.

Ha, this is the video that got Sylvie writing in the first place. I think JWP and Sylvie are 100% on opposite ends on this. Sylvie looks at this and she's like: These kids aren't even making contact. JWP is like "Holy Fuck!" I think JWP has been outside of Thailand for too long, hahahaha.

 

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The asshole factor and the escalating thing.

Most common thing I've seen around this is where, like, lets say like 2 people agree to do light sparring. Pick a number, say it's 40, 50% or whatever. One of them reckons, oh wait... my training partner is 5 kilos heavier than me... or oh wait, he's an inch and a half taller than me, or oh... he's got like... 2 years more experience than me. Therefore, that logically, scientifically means that I'm allowed (translation: 'Deserve') to hit him harder than he hits me. So he hits me at 50%, but I get to hit him at 80%, and that's the way to make it fair.

So then what happens? Basically the 5 kilo heavier partner cracks him back at 80 to equalise, then the first guy loses his shit, throws his toys out the pram and emotionally hits back at 100. Then claims he had to because the bigger training partner escalated on him, without realising it was his own fucking fault to begin with. 

Not for nothing, but if you get kicked in the balls it's usually someone like this who does it.

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I like "hard" sparring better. Not because it's a more valuable tool - I think Sylvie pretty much nailed the qualities of all the training tools in her post. It's just a matter a taste. I usually have more fun when my partner and I sparr "hard"; but only if we don't take ourselves seriously. When there's too much ego involved, it's annoying as hell (asshole factor). On the other end when people whine about every single little bits of pain, it's also very annoying. 

39 minutes ago, Oliver said:

One of them reckons, oh wait... my training partner is 5 kilos heavier than me... or oh wait, he's an inch and a half taller than me, or oh... he's got like... 2 years more experience than me. Therefore, that logically, scientifically means that I'm allowed (translation: 'Deserve') to hit him harder than he hits me.

Some of my trainers actually abide by that rule. Pretty unfair.

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5 hours ago, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu said:

So here's my point: there is a purpose to hard sparring. There is purpose to "technical" sparring. There is an art to both, and I think both are required for the development of a fighter. But what's "light" about Thai sparring is not the power of strikes; it honestly is in the "asshole factor" of emotional energy put into the sparring itself. It's a lack of control that makes hard sparring dangerous or not worthwhile, not the power itself. Stress is an important training tool. Disappointment is a training tool. Gassing out is an important training tool. To only ever advocate for some kind of pantomime sparring robs fighters of those tools.

 

 

 

This. This is what matters to me. Intent. To explain a little about my background so people understand why this is important to me: I grew up just doing hard sparring, gym war type stuff. Intent is real and many that came up this way saw a lot of damage being done for no real reason other than "can you take it". There wasnt a lot recovery research being taught either. It was a walk it off mentality. Because of that I ended up a chronically in pain 38 year old. Its taken me years to get to the point where the pain is gone and my body is normal, years of recovery and therapy. Im in no way against hard sparring for the right people whether they are hobbyists that want to be tested or fighters prepping, Im just against the mindless hard sparring because tough guy shit. It serves no purpose. I mean, Ive seen really bad injuries in technical sparring, it happens. But sparring like everything else needs to be used as a tool, applied because theres a goal. If the goal is to push someone for competition or because they want it, then the intent is pure. Im all for that. 

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1 hour ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

Ha, this is the video that got Sylvie writing in the first place. I think JWP and Sylvie are 100% on opposite ends on this. Sylvie looks at this and she's like: These kids aren't even making contact. JWP is like "Holy Fuck!" I think JWP has been outside of Thailand for too long, hahahaha.

 

I think he sees it the way I do. Its not play, the boy got kicked hard enough in the leg twice to quit. It just seems reckless. Same speed power etc with gear on in a gym and we'd likely not be bothered. Maybe hes triggered because hes a parent and gym owner, so he sees liability? Dunno. Im triggered because its kids and it feels reckless and without purpose. Whether its fake/choreographed or real, it bugs me in ways that are hard to explain. 

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1 minute ago, Coach James Poidog said:

I think he sees it the way I do. Its not play, the boy got kicked hard enough in the leg twice to quit. It just seems reckless. Same speed power etc with gear on in a gym and we'd likely not be bothered.

I checked out another compilation of the same kids, some of it really looked like excellent fake fighting. Punches pulled, like little whacks, but just for sound. Some might be hard (leg kicks, hey, there's no damage in that). This seems like Chinese performance, not far from the stuff we saw with Phetjee Jaa and her brother that freaked out the internet. But as Sylvie said, you don't know for sure unless you are there.

4 minutes ago, Coach James Poidog said:

Maybe hes triggered because hes a parent and gym owner, so he sees liability?

Totally. And Sylvie and me might see this in a very different way because we see VERY competent young fighters all the time. We see 10 year olds that know how to handle themselves better than 30 year olds, so that can color our sense of safety too. But, to me, these kids look like they are swimming in water they have been been in for many years.

 

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1 hour ago, AndyMaBobs said:

 

 

 

 

When it comes to hard sparring, I think it's completely appropriate to bash people hard in the body and legs if they signed up for it. But I don't think hard contact to the head is ever really appropriate. A fighter should learn to defend his head through strong drilling and light sparring - never through heavy sparring.

I think people read the words hard sparring and they think of something like the Groenhart brothers going to war:

 

When it should be more like this:

 

And this too. Hard to the body and legs with gear on and you can recover from it, hard to the head (even with gear on) and more and more research is showing that you have a limit on what can be taken. And the video with the brothers is exactly what hard sparring was for me. Imagine that all the time, up to 4 days a week, and you might sympathize with my perspective lol. And btw, there are some really good gyms in the West that focuses away from hard sparring (its still hard but the perspective is different). They have a perspective where their light isnt as light as people expect, but the control is there and the respect is there. There isnt any escalation and pace, power, etc is agreed on ahead of time. Some guys will go with what can easily be viewed as hard but the intent is just to push. The biggest reason they do this is injury prevention and longevity in the sport. 

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11 minutes ago, Coach James Poidog said:

I grew up just doing hard sparring, gym war type stuff. Intent is real and many that came up this way saw a lot of damage being done for no real reason other than "can you take it". There wasnt a lot recovery research being taught either. It was a walk it off mentality. Because of that I ended up a chronically in pain 38 year old. Its taken me years to get to the point where the pain is gone and my body is normal, years of recovery and therapy. 

 

Exact. My first 3 years, about 7 of us fighting from the gym. We go saturday morning for sparring day, only 1 time per week. Not bloody kidding....one time, half way through training I look around and realise 6 out the 7 of us are sitting on the bench holding ice packs, and one dude got knocked the f**k out and couldn't remember how he got to the gym that day.

That's kinda when I knew.

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3 minutes ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

I checked out another compilation of the same kids, some of it really looked like excellent fake fighting. Punches pulled, like little whacks, but just for sound. Some might be hard (leg kicks, hey, there's no damage in that). This seems like Chinese performance, not far from the stuff we saw with Phetjee Jaa and her brother that freaked out the internet. But as Sylvie said, you don't know for sure unless you are there.

Totally. And Sylvie and me might see this in a very different way because we see VERY competent young fighters all the time. We see 10 year olds that know how to handle themselves better than 30 year olds, so that can color our sense of safety too. But, to me, these kids look like they are swimming in water they have been been in for many years.

 

Yeah supposedly these littles come from the same kung fu kwoon in hong kong. They obviously have been doing this a while and are good at it. So for me part of the issue is hard to explain and could be the wushu quality or whatever. Part of it is people seeing this, not recognizing that these people mightve done things to take away the dangers inherent, and then think its ok to do this. Maybe my itchyness comes from that aspect. Dunno. I had to focus on the things Id do different to make it "ok" to me, but theres a lot there below the surface that bugs me and I cant put my finger on it yet. 

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3 minutes ago, Oliver said:

 

Exact. My first 3 years, about 7 of us fighting from the gym. We go saturday morning for sparring day, only 1 time per week. Not bloody kidding....one time, half way through training I look around and realise 6 out the 7 of us are sitting on the bench holding ice packs, and one dude got knocked the f**k out and couldn't remember how he got to the gym that day.

That's kinda when I knew.

Yup. Every week, multiple times even, for years. And for what? Looking back, Im positive it didnt help me or 90% of the people who did it. The ten percent it did help wouldve grown no matter what lol. Now, for me as a coach, is about efficiency. What will make the 90% grow? Hard sparring frequency drops. That being said, the definition of hard and light changes too. Light becomes a little rougher with certain people, hard becomes more about escalation and intent than actual contact. Understanding that its not competition but a form of growth. 

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Yeah. It's only after I stopped doing that and left that gym that I improved, and injury rate dropped way down. Hard sparring's all good, but not that ruthless bloodthirsty shit where ppl are terrified of losing, (in something where there's nothing to lose), tense up, and then unload on their training partner as if it's the uncle that molested him.

Nah, hell with that. 

 

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16 hours ago, AndyMaBobs said:

For me the ideal sparring is technical, with a slightly slower pace, but with strong contact to the body and light contact to the head. When I see people in my gym sparring technically, I usually find that they're being too light, not being honest with each other and in doing that they don't learn the danger of a fight.  Ideal sparring for me looks like this:

 

Or this:

 

I like your point about partners being dishonest with each other when they go too light. I've used the comparison many times that it's like tossing a ball at someone so gingerly that their ability to hit it with a bat is impossible. You have to pitch the f***ing ball, man. If you go too light, it distorts the technique so horridly that you're doing your partner a terrible disservice and they can't properly learn how to respond, block, etc.

Interesting to me, also, is how different these two video clips look (to my eyes), despite them both being a "light sparring" example. The first video with Liam Harrison looks far too light to me. Like, you can only learn how to do tricks in that kind of sparring. There's nothing sincere about the basic movements and strikes, although the tricks and sweeps are slow enough that nobody is going to get hurt. Whereas with Pakorn and Sangmanee, the basics are all solid and the playfulness is present without it being "performed." But hey, my eyes.

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21 hours ago, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu said:

I'm a bit inspired by Coach James's recent thread about kids "fighting" (they're sparring, but James is bothered by it and in his mind used the word fighting in his title, which I think is significant), but also because I just was watching some hard sparring at my gym here in Thailand.

Here's the set up. In the West, we tend to have this "holier than thou" attitude toward "technical sparring" over "hard sparring," usually accompanied by some kind of credit to how "technical and light" sparring in Thailand is. Okay, sure, I've seen very little sparring among Thais in which they're trying to hurt or knock each other's heads off (I have seen some), whereas I have seen that kind of sparring in Thailand but usually when one or both of the people participating are not-Thai. This said, when Thais spar with shinpads and gloves, it's not "light." The word for sparring in Thai len cherng, literally means to "play techniques." That's the point, and usually the spirit of it. But it's not "light" in the sense that the West tends to characterize it as for their own uses and purposes. It is more "lighthearted," but the actual power of strikes and intention is well over the 60% that I'd qualify as "going light." 

I was watching two sets of sparring at my gym yesterday. The first couple were both not-Thai. One guy was from India, the other from Italy. The Indian guy always goes too hard, as judged by me for what's appropriate for practice. But he's never told by the coaches to turn it down, which means they see a purpose to how hard he strikes. He also tires easily. And they never put him with someone who is close to a fight, because they know he goes this hard. The Italian guy has way more experience than the Indian guy and, while he got battered pretty good by hard leg kicks and punches in the first round and a half, he took the lead with clinch and knees to "win" the sparring - as if it were a fight, judged by others. The thing is this: the punches and kicks were 100%. The emotional stress and intention was 100%. And the guy who goes too hard, by gassing and ultimately being bettered in the end, his disappointment was 100%. All of those elements are important for learning how to fight. You have to deal with real stress. You have to deal with the consequences of coming out too hard, too early, if you don't have the stamina to keep it going. You have to learn how your power overwhelms someone and then doesn't. And likewise, the Italian guy has to learn that you can't only practice going in and having everything controlled for you. I was pretty impressed by the way he handled it, honestly, and I'm not very generous in things I like about this guy. As an important note, while nobody was told to take their power down, there were shinpads, large gloves, a referee and spectators to break the two men when things were too heated or stagnant, or to stop the time early if needed. It's still being supervised, just not interfered with very much. 

The next couple were two Thai boys, both about 14-16, same weight as each other but a gulf in experience. One has been training and fighting since he was 8 and surely 100+ fights, the other a handful of years with only 20 or so fights. One loves to go backwards (the experienced one) and gets yelled at for it, the other likes to come forward and strike pretty hard. They both kicked and punched less than 100% power, but not far below that. There were exchanges when the power would go up, but then it would come back down. There was never any "danger" throughout that match, unlike the other one. The biggest difference, however, was the emotional charge. There were moments when the two Thai fighters were amped up a bit, the dominance was real. But they weren't trying to hurt each other. They were trying to dominate each other and shut the other down. It wasn't like that with the non-Thais; there was an element that felt not in control with them, an emotional derailment that felt dangerous... although the Thai men who sat around the ring to watch found it incredibly entertaining.

So here's my point: there is a purpose to hard sparring. There is purpose to "technical" sparring. There is an art to both, and I think both are required for the development of a fighter. But what's "light" about Thai sparring is not the power of strikes; it honestly is in the "asshole factor" of emotional energy put into the sparring itself. It's a lack of control that makes hard sparring dangerous or not worthwhile, not the power itself. Stress is an important training tool. Disappointment is a training tool. Gassing out is an important training tool. To only ever advocate for some kind of pantomime sparring robs fighters of those tools.

 

This was Jame's original post discussion that lead to these thoughts:

 

Wow.... So many thoughts and expressions, all of them valid. My two cents worth is as follows. I find that when you spar with young men in particular, they feel they have to go all out as an expression of their manliness. I call it the old bull, young bull. The old bull, me, is calm, not tense and is there to play around and have fun. Your contact is solid but not over the top. The young bull by comparison, still hasn't figured out his place in the world, subconsciously everything he does is about his masculinity, he's all tense and wants to have fun but doesn't have any real idea how to go about it. So, as the old bull, sometimes you have lay the smack down and drop a couple of bombs. If this is done in the correct manner, with the right intent shown the young generally pulls his horns in. Sometimes they don't and things can escalate, but it's been my experience that these types are just pricks and aren't used to being put in their place.

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6 hours ago, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu said:

I like your point about partners being dishonest with each other when they go too light. I've used the comparison many times that it's like tossing a ball at someone so gingerly that their ability to hit it with a bat is impossible. You have to pitch the f***ing ball, man. If you go too light, it distorts the technique so horridly that you're doing your partner a terrible disservice and they can't properly learn how to respond, block, etc.

Interesting to me, also, is how different these two video clips look (to my eyes), despite them both being a "light sparring" example. The first video with Liam Harrison looks far too light to me. Like, you can only learn how to do tricks in that kind of sparring. There's nothing sincere about the basic movements and strikes, although the tricks and sweeps are slow enough that nobody is going to get hurt. Whereas with Pakorn and Sangmanee, the basics are all solid and the playfulness is present without it being "performed." But hey, my eyes.

I think the reason Liam might be a bit too light is because in that session Liam was the teacher and the larger guy, so he might not have felt comfortable going any harder in that context. Whereas Pakorn and Sangmanee are both strong stadium fighters who are sparring for training, Liam is a stadium fighter working with a guy with a lot less experience

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8 hours ago, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu said:

I like your point about partners being dishonest with each other when they go too light. I've used the comparison many times that it's like tossing a ball at someone so gingerly that their ability to hit it with a bat is impossible. You have to pitch the f***ing ball, man. If you go too light, it distorts the technique so horridly that you're doing your partner a terrible disservice and they can't properly learn how to respond, block, 

And this is my only detractor to light sparring. Too light is an issue. Its like the punch in a demo that goes no where near the person's head. Ive had to tell more than a few people to actually make contact. Like anything else its balance. What is too hard and what is too light ends up depending on the person. Like I said in another post, Ive seen people get injured in light sparring because someone zigged when they should have zagged and a lightly thrown technique ended up being run into. At the end of the day, its combat. Theres a level of risk always. Find the balance. 

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2 hours ago, AndyMaBobs said:

I think the reason Liam might be a bit too light is because in that session Liam was the teacher and the larger guy, so he might not have felt comfortable going any harder in that context. Whereas Pakorn and Sangmanee are both strong stadium fighters who are sparring for training, Liam is a stadium fighter working with a guy with a lot less experience

This also could just be a misrepresentation of Liam lol. Ive seen the man live many times and hes never really been someone Id say goes light. I mean to him, hes probably going light, but he didnt look like that in the video lol. Dude is a savage.  

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