Week 13: Punch

The Master taught me how to punch parry.

He didn’t call it that; he just called them parries. It was just the right way to do it. He had the same matter-of-fact approach to everything else in sabre: you hit with whichever part of the sabre you can get onto the opponent, tip or guard, front edge, back edge or flat; you throw your body through the air when you attack so you go far; you lean when you lunge because you need to reach; and you can hold your sabre however you please, so long as you can move it fast enough.

He learned his craft in the 80s, a member of his country’s Olympic sabre team before they conquered the world. Back then, they were just another ragtag group from Asia, cannon fodder to warm up the European teams before their real competition started. The Master didn’t look much like an athlete even then; he was short and slight, soft-edged, a beaming young Yoda in the old photographs he shared with us on his phone — a gift from his students.

But underneath that façade he burned; quiet anger crept into the harmonics of his stilted English when he recounted how they were treated. They would go to competitions and be shut out of the referee-athlete-coach cabals, conceded a few points only for appearances’ sake. He talked about how they were ignored at training camps, when they weren’t being toyed with on the piste. Apparently they tried to secure the services of a European coach, but the only ones that they could afford were the rejects; the ones “allowed” to go overseas because they could never pose a threat to home.

So The Master and his teammates learned to fence sabre from reading the (French) rulebooks, watching what the other teams did, and figuring out how they could fight and win from first principles. Aping the Europeans wouldn’t work; they needed to fence in a way that couldn’t be stopped by the cabal. They needed to push the limits of what the rules would allow and what the human body could do.

Now he was here at the Centre. The excuse he gave was to visit one of his former students who had washed up in Sydney with little more than his hand luggage. The kid seemed to be doing well enough; social media was atwitter over his Instagram lifestyle and silver BMW. The Master wanted to check us out. How were we possibly paying this kid this much money to be a fencing coach? Maybe we were selling his organs on the side.

I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. We arranged for The Master to stay with one of our instructors who was partial to baroque furniture; unfortunately, the instructor was also partial to cats, which The Master was allergic to. He ended up bunking with his student in the latter’s three-bedroom apartment in one of Sydney’s gentrified ghettos.

We made up for it by feeding him as much as we could. He didn’t think much of the Boathouse, but approved of the alleyway BBQ places in corrugated iron sheds tucked behind white-people restaurants that new immigrants had planted — probably illegally — in their nascent enclaves. There he could yell at the waitstaff and send the kid to fetch booze and prank call his students — now on the national team — on international roaming while they were out on dates. At 1 in the morning. The Master approved of those kinds of places.

He also seemed to approve of us. The kid was in rude health, gainfully employed, well-paid — and obviously living beyond his means. Nor I did I seem so bad, even if I was taking this sabre thing way too seriously. He asked me if this was my job. I replied that it was my hobby. He laughed.

One night, he saw me slumped against the mirrors, after a 10-hour workday and a 4-hour shift at the club, and he came over to put his arm around me paternally. Sabre is hard, he said. Sabre is suffering. Sabre is no fun, not if you want to be good. I play golf, he said. Much better hobby.

But if I insisted on going down this road, he continued, then he would help me. A debt repaid. For taking care of the kid.

One of the biggest problems I had in sabre was on the defence. I was fast but I was small. In the box, bigger opponents would just pound me with attacks, raining advance-lunge after advance-lunge with such force that their blades struck through my guard parries, my shields collapsing under the onslaught. But it was also difficult for me to make them fall short instead; their attacks were so fast and went so far that I had to time my retreat perfectly, lest I reveal my intentions in time for them to chase.

With no other obvious options, I usually tried to attack back, even if that just meant delaying the inevitable with simultaneous actions. I would lose in the end though. I couldn’t stop their attacks, but they could stop mine.

I had an even harder time defending outside the box. There, I had no chance of making my opponents fall short and no sane reason to attack. I had tried substituting beat parries for guard parries, but that only worked in the lower tiers — the A-graders smashed through those as well.

I had the most trouble with attacks to my chest. These were the though-cuts and barrel rolls could cleave through my parry 4, hard enough to detonate my sabre on occasion. My other parries were weak, but with them I could jump or duck or turtle-in to leech some force from the attack. That wasn’t an option for chest cuts. The only times I managed to stop them were when I managed to get a beat or counterattack before the hit actually came. And once my opponents worked out I couldn’t parry, those actions would stop working; it’s hard to lure an opponent close enough to hit their blade or body when they know they can just swing at you from afar.

The Master watched me fence. Why do you parry like that, he asked. I had been adopting the classic sabre parry positions: wrist bent; elbow bent; sabre into pre-determined positions to cover roughly where I thought the opponent was aiming; the blade a fist-width from my skin to cover as much target as possible. He got me to pose in parry 4, then crushed it effortlessly against my chest with the guard of his sabre. Straighten your wrist, he instructed. You have no strength when your wrist is bent.

Then he hit me again, this time whipping his sabre edge-first around my blade — he was stronger than he looked. He mimed T-Rex arms. Your arms are short, he said, so you can’t bend them like that. Stick them out further until I can’t hit you any more. When I protested that my coaches had always told me this was wrong, and to have better distance — translation: get further away — The Master looked blank. He did not understand. Would I rather look “correct” or not get hit?

A parry, he explained, only works if the opponent attacks. Which means they have to think that they can hit you. Which means you have to be close enough that they can do so. So close, he said, coming into defensive position with his sabre only a twitch away from my eyes, that they want to hit you as quickly and directly as they can.

You don’t try to pull away with a real parry. You stay in range. That way the opponent won’t think to disengage or do anything complicated. You brace yourself against the ground, he said, and meet the attack.

Look at the opponent’s sabre guard, he said. It tells you where their blade is going. Don’t look at the blade itself; that’s too fast, and too tricky. Look at their guard and it will tell you which direction their blade is coming from.

Then force their blade away. The Master held his sabre vertically, at right-angles to his forearm, and punched. Whatever direction the attack is coming from, he said, meet it directly. An attack to the chest comes in horizontally, its vector diagonal just before impact. Smash it right back where it came from, he said, forwards and diagonally outwards. Don’t try to deflect it off one way or another; that just weakens the parry. Stand your ground and meet the attack head-on.

He went through the subtleties of the different forms these parries would take. Belly cuts usually came up from below; he taught me to smash them down onto the piste. Through-cuts diagonally from above were strong because they had gravity on their side. He taught me to punch my parry 4 diagonally upwards, towards the ceiling and off the side of the piste.

Overhead cuts also landed with gravitational assistance; I was to blast them forwards and up with a parry 5, crouching from the recoil if I needed to. The reverse was necessary for undercuts. I needed to rise up for these, bringing my feet together and lifting my heels — The Master did not approve of jumps — and punch down. No limp-wristed sweeps for the parry 2. That would just sweep the attack under my arm. The only way I was going to stop those attacks was to keep my wrist straight, turn the blade diagonally down, and drive the attack back. How else would I stop it, he asked, especially if the opponent aimed straight up through my groin?

The thing he made us concentrate on, as we practiced these parries with each other, was to keep forcing the attack forwards even as we retreated or jumped back on the defence. He timed his parries to intercept the opponent’s blade just as his front land landed to finish his retreats; with jump backs, he parried as both feet landed.

He warned against parrying while still in motion — one did so only when making an attack miss, which was a completely different action — and against being lulled into pulling back with the parries just because we were moving backwards. He would rather we stayed still and punched forwards with the parry. Or, better yet, punched forwards and move forwards.

I had the opportunity to test out the Master’s lesson not long afterwards. Unexpectedly, forwards parry 4 ended up being my most effective move. It was the only point I ever scored on the Übermensch, the top fencer at the time. In later years, it also worked on other pros too: feint-spamming Italians, lightning fast juniors, and giant Baltic crusaders. I scored with it in a bout where the ref didn’t give me a single two-light action, relying on its single-light ripostes when nothing else worked. And it was my metaphorical crutch when I broke my leg, didn’t realise, and kept fencing anyway.

What had been my worst move is now the move I rely on in the toughest moments of my hardest bouts. It was a fair trade for whatever we did for that kid. From the man who helped invent Korean sabre.

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