Week 16: Tank

I scored my first real injury at the age of 25. Before then, I bounced back, literally: even when I crashed my bike and motorbike, the worst I’d walk away with was a dislocated shoulder that I could pop back in myself.

Then I turned 25. And one day while I was jogging to warm up before training, some kid kicked me in the back of my calf. But the kid was innocent: my calf had torn by itself.

It would be the first of several such small indignities. A tear here, a fracture there, a laceration that took a few weeks too long to heal. I finally understood the greybeards’ prophecies from my youth.

It’s not so much that I couldn’t do what I used to do. But I didn’t always want to risk it anymore. Everything worked most of the time, and I could push as hard or harder than I ever could. But every so often, something would snap without warning. And over time I became less willing to push the limits. I took longer in warmups, pushed less in training, moved slower in bouts. I stayed within my safe operating limits.

My grandcoach had warned me this day would come. I started sabre late, after all. He knew I only had a couple of years left when first I met him in my 20s. But he, like the other Soviets, had never let that stop them from fighting on.

Some of the earliest sabre bouts I watched in earnest were the ones between Stanislav Pozdniakov and Aldo Montano in the 2000s. By that point, Pozdniakov was well past his physical prime. Montano was the top dog: fast, flashy, his face framed by a mane worthy of a butter-substitute commercial. But Pozdniakov somehow managed to hold his own against his younger adversary, employing guile and subterfuge in place of lost grace and strength. Montano probably learned a few lessons from these encounters; he would go on to be the model of old man game for the next generation of fencers.

But at that moment, Montano was the physically superior fencer and Pozdniakov had to use all of his wits to stay in the game. He personified the idea that almost anything could be effectively countered by some form of old man magic. His game in the 4m box provided the most obvious examples. There, an older fencer can use their greater experience and superior emotional control to trick a younger adversary into traps where the latter’s higher speed and strength don’t matter. The same applies on the defence, where everything is a trick anyway, and in most parts of the march, where distance control and knowing when to commit are the crucial skills for success. All these, and more, Pozdniakov deployed with a touch of manic glee to frustrate his younger, better-looking opponent.

But of all the threats that a younger, faster fencer could pose to his older, slower counterpart, the most deadly was the counterattack. All counterattacks operate on the principle of the defender hitting the attacker before the latter can react in time to hit within the cut-off time. A defender who was sufficiently faster and rangier than the attacker could wait to see whether the attacker intended to finish their attack or not, counterattack when it becomes obvious that the attacker won’t, and have enough time to block out or evade the attacker’s eventual hit.

The most vulnerable moment for the attacker is just as they finish their attack on the march, to go through the defender’s danger zone to hit. If the attacker is not powerful enough, relative to the defender, to simply lunge through the danger zone to hit, the attacker must enter the danger zone with an advance before they lunge. This gives the defender both an obvious signal of the impending attack and an opportunity for them to counterattack.

The precise period of vulnerability is between when the attacker breaches the danger zone with their front foot and when their back foot completes its traverse forwards to land at the end of the advance. In that intervening period of a few hundred milliseconds, the defender can hit the attacker without the attacker being able to respond — the attacker’s back foot is in mid-air and they are unable to lunge or to move back. The defender can always see the opportunity in advance, because they can literally see the attacker stepping forward with their front foot without attempting to hit and frequently see the back foot moving forwards as well mid-advance, with sufficient time for the defender to complete their counterattack.

Against such tactics by a faster defender, the attacker has few good options. The attacker could attempt to trick the defender by stepping forwards with the front foot and lunging immediately off it, or flunge as their back foot moves forwards, in effect pretending to advance-lunge but actually hitting earlier in the hope of catching the counterattack. But fast defenders can stymie such attempts at deception by simply waiting to see the back foot move — thus precluding the step-lunge — and move slowly — therefore also precluding the flunge. Or they could err on the side of caution and spend the earlier stages of their defence taking pot-shot counterattacks and retreating every time the attacker looks like they will finish their attack. Eventually one of the counterattacks will hit, or an attack will miss, or the attacker will need to finish with an advance-lunge and get counterattacked.

The attacker could also try decouple the movements of their sword arm from the movement of their feet. That would allow them to hit at the same time as the counterattack no matter when it arrived. This method is what some traditional coaches teach their students to do from a young age; to move their legs like a mobile platform, acting only to convey them along the piste, as independent from the movements of their torso and sword arm as the treads of a battle tank from its turret.

But this is not so easy to do in practice. Human movements are synchronised; it takes a lot of practice to move one part of your body independently of another. That’s what made Richard Feynman’s party trick of drumming 10 beats with his right hand at the same time as drumming 11 with his left so impressive; plenty of people have Nobel prizes, and still more worked on the Manhattan Project, but few could exert that level of control over their motor functions. It may not even just be a matter of motor control, but a matter of how people even perceive the world around them. One of the first tricks I picked up in bouts was that I could recognise my opponent’s actions more quickly when I made small rapid advances rather than large slow ones, even if my overall speed in both was the same.

Another problem with decoupling, though, is that while it might work on the march against a counterattack it does nothing for a fencer trying to attack during the opening phases of an exchange in the box. There, a fast watcher can make their preparation, watch the slower fencer’s actions, then attack-on-preparation when the latter decides to chase. The slower fencer cannot simply finish their chase early to hit against the attack-in-preparation — either they intended to attack from the outset, which would warn the faster fencer to defend instead, or they reacted to the attack-on-preparation and thus ceded priority. Nor can the slower fencer hide their chase, perhaps behind a fake attack. Their opponent, being faster, can wait to check that the chase is real before committing to their own action.

This is how fencers like the young Montano could confound the ageing Pozdniakov, in effect bullying them with their superior physical ability. All the faster fencer had to do was to come forward off the start line, watch for the older fencer to chase, then attack-in-preparation. The faster fencer had enough time and ability to wait for the older fencer to commit to their true action, whatever it might be, before needing to react. In this way, no amount of trickery by the older fencer would work. There was no way for them to hide the fact that they were chasing, or avoid the attack-in-preparation when they did. The same scenario applied when they had to finish their attack on the march.

So instead of deception or evasion or counter-hits, my grandcoach taught me to let the attack-in-preparation or counterattack come and block it out with a premeditated guard position. This way, I could chase and look like I was chasing but still have some protection against being hit along the way. The most important thing was that I deployed it at the right time: after I had committed to the chase or the finish, so there would be no warning to my opponent, but before the window of vulnerability opened between footfalls. The action and when to execute it has to be pre-planned in this way; human reaction speeds are not fast enough for an attacker to execute the guard in response to seeing an incoming blade.

Which specific guard I used was largely a matter of personal preference and the style of my lineage. The Soviets used an iconic guard 5 above their heads, like a shield, sweeping up from low-line during the final advance to clear away any incoming counterattacks until they were in range to strike. Guard 5 was useful because it cleared the entire space in front of their bodies — for a moment — and protected their heads, a popular counterattack target. Pozdniakov used this move liberally in his later years, as did Montano in his time.

Other fencers favoured different guards. Guard 3, of course, is the first position taught to sabre fencers and useful for blocking out counterattacks to the sword arm and wrist. It is usually executed from low-line across the body, rather than held stationary during the march, so as to sweep clear the space in front.

My grandcoach, despite his Soviet heritage, preferred to start in 3 position and make a circle 3 to sweep instead. He did the same for guard 4; rather than making a single linear sweep from 3 to the 4 position, he would feint across his body and circle around in the same direction to end in guard 4. He reasoned that circle parries were harder for an opponent to disengage around, should they catch a hint of them ahead of time.

Circle 3 and 4 were the only parries my grandcoach held in such regard. He held that they could stop any attack if they were executed well enough. He thought guard 5 was too big and thus too vulnerable to being hit around by the stop cut, or hit through by the remise, and he didn’t like circle 2 because it brought the sabre blade down and off to the side, leaving the body unprotected. But plenty of top fencers make both of those guards work, and others besides — one former member of the Chinese team showed me how he combined a linear guard 4 with a massive advance-lunge off the start line as his favourite variation of the tactic.

Forward guards are useful on both the march and in the box, but they are most useful in the latter. The variation that I use personally is modified from the advance-step preparation that my coach taught me when we first started working together. They way it works is that I blitz off the start line with a fast advance-step, for all intents and purposes looking as if I was about to launch a short attack or attack-in-preparation. If they fell for the ruse, I would chase them down with a double- or triple- advance lunge before they realised their mistake and put up whatever defence they could muster at that late moment.

Then I would repeat the ruse again in the next exchange. Most opponents see the ruse and are loathe to get chased down again; instead, they attack or attack-in-preparation. This when I would deploy the forward guard. I would anticipate when the attack-in-preparation could come, then make the forward guard to block it out and riposte. If the opponent didn’t attack-in-preparation after all, that didn’t matter — the guard movement was subtle enough that it would look like a feint rather than a parry or an attack. I could then pretend that I didn’t attempt anything other than an ancillary blade movement, perhaps to change lines, during my chase. If all went well, neither my opponent or — more importantly — the referee would ever suspect anything to other than a perfectly pedestrian chase, and certainly nothing egregious enough to invite a judgement of attack-no.

Thus protected, I could chase down even the fastest and lankiest of opponents without worrying about being hit by their attack-on-preparation or counterattacks. My forward guard would soak up those hits harmlessly like a battle tank’s armour shrugging off bullets. The guard wouldn’t cover every target on my body, and it wouldn’t absorb more than a couple of hits. But just like the armour on real tanks, it didn’t have to; it just had to stay intact long enough for me to aim and launch.

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