Week 18: Expendable

In the late 2000s, several members of the erstwhile sabre and foil communities in Sydney hatched a plan to revive their waning fortunes.

They would band together, take over one of the small university fencing clubs, and from there gather sufficient support to take over the regional and national fencing federations. That would give them the authority to hire a coach from one of the big fencing nations to set up the same kind of sports program here: a centralised system with professional coaches, a permanent national training facility, federated clubs that fed their best athletes into the system…

And money. Rivers of government and corporate lucre, flowing in the wake of the inevitable sporting successes that so captivated the Australian purse and public.

Not everyone was entirely convinced of the merits of this plan.

Old fencers pointed out that Australia, unlike many European countries, did not have established programs in which aspiring athletes could enlist in the police or military who would pay them to play their sport, then offer them a sinecure — or at least an entry-level job — when they retired from competition. Australian athletes had to pay their own way, at least in niche sports like fencing.

Club presidents cited the lack of places for people to fence. Virtually all clubs rented their space by the hour from schools, university, or local community halls. They thought renting permanent dedicated venues, or at least, longer timeshares, were a higher priority than hiring another coach, no matter how qualified.

And local coaches, many of them part-time on meagre wages, questioned the wisdom of paying for a full-time national coach out of a patchwork of sources from the various associations’ reserve funds and other revenue streams — collectively a markedly smaller amount than the coach’s anticipated annual salary — to service a membership that had not heretofore shown an ardent demand for such expertise, at least not to the extent that the main beneficiaries — elite athletes and their parents — were willing to pay for.

Their misgivings went unheeded. The plan’s architects held that any financial shortfall would be more than met by the surge of new fencers into the sport. We would win medals, they said; we would win grants, and we would win over the hordes of kids who played with lightsabers in their backyards. We would establish elite squads in each state, and rent — ideally with government assistance — a dedicated hall for them to train in. And we would build an academy to provide unparalleled instruction in the European school of fencing. That the funds for these endeavours would be drawn from higher fees and the recruits poached from existing clubs was left unspoken. But not unnoticed by those on whom the burden would fall.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first attempt to implement the plan ended in the regional association losing so much money in its first year that the governing board resigned en masse. That’s how Frances and I, a pair of cleanskins with no prior political ties, ended up on the board. And it’s also how, a couple of years later, we too resigned from the board during a second attempt to implement the plan, to start Sydney Sabre.

In the beginning, though, I remember meeting the newly-hired national coach for the first time as he outlined his plan to those of us on the regional association’s new board — half of whom were his students or their parents. He started by describing the virtues of his home country’s federated system, the failings of the local one he was to fix, and his 5-year plan to create a generation of fencers who could compete with the best in the world.

Who were his target demographic? I asked. He replied that it would be children. How young? I asked. Young, he replied, and of sufficient personal means to fund their travel around the world for half the year, every year, on the professional competition circuit.

What about older fencers? I asked, in part for myself, in my early 20s. He must have read my mind, because he looked at me like he saw me for the first time — and didn’t like what he saw. Fencers like you, he said, are too old. You can train with them, for practice. Their practice. Until they don’t need you anymore.

He was right of course. I was not the kind of recruit he had in mind. He was looking for a very specific type. Young. Rich, Tall. Ideally left-handed.

***

The sabre is a good equaliser. But it isn’t perfect.

As in all sports, certain body types have a distinct advantage over others. In sabre it helps, most of all, to be tall. Tall fencers expend less effort to execute actions than short fencers, for a given range and speed. Tall fencers can reach further, which means they can finish their attacks from a greater range, extend their attacks mid-lunge if need be, and defend from far outside their opponent’s lunge distance.

Tall fencers can always also hit first, if they hit at all. All they need to do is stick their arm out in front of them — a mere touch is sufficient to register a hit in sabre. Many a tall fencer has won points on defence just by “timing-out” their attacking opponent by jamming their sabre forwards in front of them at the last moment, clipping their opponent with the merest graze 181 milliseconds before they get hit with the attack, to score with a single-light counterattack.

The taller they are, the easier such moves are. It also helps if they are left-handed, fighting in the predominantly right-handed field of sabre fencers. On a technical level, this is because a left-hander versus a right-hander means that both fencers’ sword arms are on the same side, closer together than otherwise, and in line with each other. This makes it easier to counterattack, amongst other things. But this is true for both fencers, lefty or righty. But the lefty has an advantage — they tend have more experience fighting righty’s than the other way around. It is a phenomenon true of fencing and all other combat and even less martial sports that pits people against each other one-on-one, whether it is boxing or ping pong.

The upshot for all of this is that these kids are easy to coach. You don’t have to teach them tactics, or strategies or even all that many moves. All you have to do is teach them a basic preparation, like advance, drill them in a half dozen standard responses — make simul, takeover, fall-short — then let instinct and reflexes and superior physicality take over. It’s like coaching Superman to fight Batman. Supes’ got it all: the laser eyes and the invulnerability and the strength and the flying. Batman’s old and stubborn and need every gambit and gadget you can scrounge for him. Coaching Supes is easy — just keep him chill and keep him away from Kryptonite, aka the pre- and post- parties at comps. Try to be Supes’ coach.

That didn’t mean you didn’t need to do anything as a coach. Power corrupts. And athletic power corrupts viscerally. Most of what a coach has to do with students of this type to hold their worst instincts in check. That is, make sure the students do the right move at the right time, rather than whatever takes their fancy because they can get away with it. Or keep them from getting all pouty when an opponent puts up more of a fight than the student reckons they deserve to. And, when the students inevitably starts losing at some point, get them to knock off the flashy impractical moves that they spam around theatrically as if to tell the world that they only reason they are losing is because they aren’t really trying.

The move that these teenaged mutant chosen supermen liked to chuck around in those moments, or when they wanted to show off their metaphorical dicks against folks they didn’t respect, was the draw cut.

Now draw cuts aren’t anything particularly special or controversial on their own. They’re just a subtype of stop cut, a type of counterattack where you hit your attacking opponent — usually on the wrist — then pull away far enough that they can’t hit you within the cut-off time or at least so that you can parry. You can stop cut to any part of your opponent’s body. You can pull your arm away in any direction afterwards. The important part is that you hit and get away. So it helps to aim for the wrist, or more accurately in front of the wrist, and to yank your arm back immediately afterwards into a guard position close to your body afterwards.

Draw cuts are just stop cuts in which you draw your blade across the top of your opponent’s wrist, then yank your sword arm up and back over your shoulder. At the same time, you yank your head and torso backwards away from the incoming attack, crossing your legs to move back faster, and ideally put up a guard 5 and guard 3 along the way to deflect any pesky remises. The entire movement vaguely resembles an energetic swimmer’s backstroke. Or a toddler dangling a chew toy away from a kitten. Or the snapping recoil of a bungie cord — American’s call this move a “skyhook”.

There is nothing wrong with stop cuts. They are useful. They have a place. They work in situations where nothing else does, like against beat attacks. They are not the sole preserve of tall punks. Short people use them. Old people use them. Old short people use them. I use them.

But there are right times and wrong times to use stop cuts. And they are right ways and wrong ways of doing them. Won Woo-young liked to spam them all the time on every one. If his team hadn’t won London 2012, I have it on good authority that he’d most likely been lynched and left in London, given his insistence on using the move repeatedly against all sense in the final leg. Don’t be like him. For your coach’s sake, and your teammates’ sake, and possibly for your own sake, learn how to stop cut properly.

The first thing to understand is when to use them. Stop cuts are a defensive move. Don’t, as one of my students memorably did on his way to an inexplicable and highly amusing defeat, attempt to stop cut on the march. Stop cuts work best against attacks where the opponent extends their arm forwards without finishing their hit right away. When does this happen? All the time, if you know what to look for. I mentioned beat attacks earlier. Long windy indirect attacks fit the bill, as do more exotic things like feint attacks and mundane mistakes like an attacker winding up too close.

Stop cuts can also work against really short attacks, like attacks-in-preparation in the 4 metre box. This is the most common scenario that people use stop cuts against. Not because it’s particularly easy to execute — it often misses the opponent’s fast-moving wrist or glances off their sabre guard — but because it often induces the opponent into finishing their attack early and short, and thus give you priority.

This brings us to the most important technical point for stop cuts: the fade-away. Hitting your opponent with the stop cut is not all that important. If you miss or get parried you can always try again. But you must pull away from your opponent’s attack without fail every time. It seems obvious to me, but apparently not to (some of) my students, that it is better to miss the stop cut and get away than to land the stop cut and get hit.

So aim for where you think the opponent’s hand is going be when they attack, not where you can see it, so you stop cut to their wrist rather than overshooting to their elbow or shoulder. Pull away as soon as you make the cut — don’t stick around to check whether you’ve hit them or not. Actually pull — yank your body away, cross your feet, put your arms in turtle-style, just like in a fall short. For good measure — just like a fall-short — finish in some kind of guard position. 3 is good. 3 works against most things.

As with all moves, I recommend that you set up your stop cut with a deception first. You want your opponent to attack. You ideally want your opponent to either attack-in-preparation or make a long indirect hit. What you don’t want is for your opponent to chase you down. So I suggest that you fake a chase with an early obvious parry in the wrong line. Then, when your opponent decides to skewer you with a short stab or swing around to avoid your laughably pre-emptive parry, make your stop cut and get out.

All the advice above is applicable to all stop cuts, not just the draw cut. But the draw cut has a couple of advantages over its siblings that make it both the easiest stop cut to execute successfully and the most annoying one to deal with. The first is that it hits the top and inside of your opponent’s wrist, which are easier targets to hit than the smaller underside of the wrist, or the wrist’s outer side which is protected by the flange of the sabre guard. The second is that the action brings your sabre-hand-arm up and away from your opponent’s attack as you lean away. This makes it difficult for your opponent to hit anything other than your rapidly-retreating belly, unlike other stop cuts which offer your opponent closer targets to strike.

All good draw cuts should make the most of these advantages. I’ve been taught three different ways of making the move. But I’m sure there are many more out there. Pick whichever one you can make work.

The simplest, and probably the oldest, way I know of is to use the flat of your sabre blade to whipover your opponent’s guard onto their wrist. The recoil from this action pulls your arm back and away over your shoulder; some dramatic people make this move look like they are slinging a sports coat over their shoulder. All you need to do is aim for where you think your opponent’s wrist will be when they attack, and time it so that you can hit and get away. This is how old-school trolls like Nicolas Lopez did it, back in the days of 125ms cut-off times and sabre fencers with positive ape-factor.

The Paladin taught me another way in which he hit with the edge of his sabre, rather than the flat, then drew his arm back like a rearing viper to escape the opponent’s hit. This is a cleaner and faster way of doing the move, but also one more likely to be blocked by the opponent’s sabre guard. To compensate, the entire action transitions through a guard 5 position and finishes in a guard 3 to parry any remise attacks that the opponent might muster up at the last moment, unlike the coat-slinger version.

The third approach was taught to me, in its original form, by the Master. He cut with the back edge of the sabre, turning it upside down, and keeping his arm straight all through the action as he hit and pulled his hand high into the air. This, somewhat counter-intuitively, took his sabre away from the path of the incoming attack more effectively than the viper-strike which pulled the hand directly backwards. I modified it in later years to add a transitional guard 5 and ending guard 3. Consequently, I also prefer to use to it after a low-line deception to draw a high attack to my head or flank.

But you can draw cut without any kind of setup, and you can use two or three of them in quick succession if your first one doesn’t work. So long as you keep staying out of your opponent’s attack range, draw cuts are expendable pot-shots that you can plink at your opponent until a stray one takes them out. All it costs you is a few metres on the piste each time. I’ve seen people throw out half a dozen of these in less than half a dozen seconds on defence.

This, of course, is what the teenaged supermen tried to do to us, the slow oldies, every time we fenced them. They’d come forward, fire off a draw cut, and if that didn’t hit, fire off another. And another. And another. And maybe one more right on the back line. Sometimes we’d get hit. Most of the time we wouldn’t. Then we’d smack em onto their butts off the end of the piste. And, for good measure, draw cut them in the next point — but this time with the right setup and form.

As it turned out, the new national coach’s plan never quite worked out. His first 5-year plan didn’t make him any champions, nor did his second five-year plan. He’s into his third one now. I wish him luck. His kids were fun to fight. They made us better fencers. They made my kids better fencers. They gave us some memorable victories. And, best of all, they gave us the name for our club’s main away team — the Expendables.


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