Bruises, and A Shot To The Face

Way back when I was feeling like a hot shot rapier fighter, traveling around and hitting tournaments all over, I had a revelation. I had just wrapped up a solid class, and was feeling pretty damned proud of myself. I got in a ton of fights with a lot of people, and had done well. I had some real bangin’ passes with some solid fighters, lots of back and forth, battering each other pretty well.

I hit the washroom to change, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror when I took my shirt off. I smiled, and posed proudly. I was covered in bruises. It felt awesome. I was so proud of my collection of warrior marks, I was posing and turning about, checking out all the coolness. And then it hit me…everyone of those bruises represented a puncture or a cut. They weren’t the marks I was used to from Karate…badges of toughness and effort…they were wounds. Failures.

I examined each bruise, and imagined the effect had each blow been delivered with a sharp blade. The bruise on the forearm was a thrust, the blade would have extended all the way into the middle of the elbow, easily. Not an injury to shake off or smile at. The upper arm bruise was a direct hit to the brachial artery. That would kill me. Upper chest…multiple bruises. All would have been at the right angle and force to penetrate and injure the lungs. Sucking chest wounds are no fun to provide care for, I sure wouldn’t want to suffer one. The rest of the bruises on my torso, due to my square-to-opponent guard, would have likely severed the vena cava. One would have been a clean aorta shot. The upper thigh bruise also included a long scrape that went right across the femoral.

The grin faded with the pride. I was dead, over and over again. If the blades had been real, each one of those bruises represented a shot that would have changed my pride and confidence to a confused disorientation and a final nothingness. It’s what happened to thousands of duellists and soldiers who never had a word written about them, no record of their life and death beyond a blunt and vague increment in a statistical number. Those bruises told me I would be joining their fellowship.

My fencing changed after that day. I dropped the tough guy contest. I stopped caring about the rules, and what sort of blows they allowed me to ignore. Any touch landed on me was failure…a reminder of mortality and humility. A tiny piece of rubber blunt was all that allowed me the ability to still be around to analyze my failure. Survival became my first goal in sparring. There was no such thing as victory as long as my opponent managed to pass my guard and put steel where it could injure me. There is no such thing as a double kill to me. There is only me dying. No flat shots or light blows, just my failure at defense.

Movement became paramount to my fighting style. Deception has more value to me than a strong guard. Active motion, change, anything that gives me more opportunity. I avoid the static at all costs. There is not one single thing in defense that can reliably defeat any attack. Every guard has an opening, every strategy has an answer, and nothing is more fearsome than the answer to my strategy that I don’t know or can’t imagine. The Entropic approach to fencing I wrote about is the best approach that I know of to fence in a manner that meets my goals. I fence to stay alive.

I was a bit confused yesterday when my post on “Naked Fencing” brought forth comments here and on facebook that people felt that the lack of a mask would be their biggest concern when fencing naked. The implication is that you trust the mask to protect you. It implies that you’ve been hit in the head enough that the mask’s protection has become second nature. The lesson of a single head blow should always be Protect The Head. Reality is different though.

We learn to tolerate the touch of a sword to the face. We learn that good fencing involves overcoming the blink reflex when struck. It’s correct to be tough to the touch, hardened to the intrusion. Sharp steel, though, has no respect for how tough you feel. Your emotional conditioning will not blunt the sword. Your dependence on the mask will teach you to carry your head forward…vulnerable.

Fencing naked I worry most about my footwork and my grip. I don’t worry about my face. Every single thing I do when fencing is oriented around making sure it is the very last thing you can reach. This seems like common sense and even second nature to me, but on reviewing online fencing video’s and recalling many fights, I seem to be mistaken. There is a strong tendency for many people, even talented and experienced tournament fighters, to almost lead with the face. With complete honesty, I still do it myself more than I care to.

Maybe we really do need to do some actual naked fencing…


13 thoughts on “Bruises, and A Shot To The Face

  1. Jerry/Godfrey

    I’ve had to explain to opponents occasionally when they are trying to call back something sloppy that’s hit my mask…”no dude…I’ve failed. It may have been a crap shot, but you’ve hit my face. MY FACE!”

    As much as chicks dig scars (I’m assuming the movies would never lie to me) and having a dueling scar would cap off my German persona nicely for the SCA….I’d still rather go that route. I’ll keep practicing the part where I don’t get hit, and wait for or create the opening I need to “kill” my opponent instead.

      1. David R. Packer Post author

        Dammit. I guess I can just put this nice, sharp calvary sabre back in it’s scabbard, then. Sigh.

  2. maija

    Great post, and I like your naked fencing idea …. whatever it takes to create that FEELING of real threat.

    Totally changes the game …. and I can see no down sides to this.

    I believe everything you do when you fence, every time you move, every choice you make, should have meaning.
    It’s ALL important, and the margin of error slim … which is what makes it so fascinating … at least IMO …..

    My teacher always said that ‘in training you are immortal’, so you can experiment and find out what is possible, make errors, and still live to fight another day … but always with the emphasis that errors need fixing for when it really matters.

    ‘Clean it up’ he’d say … meaning you are taking hits and there’s too much blood on the floor 🙂

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      “Clean it up” kinda sums up the entire lesson plan for some days!

      I like the naked fencing idea. If I remember correctly, I actually got the idea from my friends Wing Chun instructor, and it had been passed down to his instructor, from his instructor who was Ip Man. The concept in fighting was to think of your head as being a ten-pound bag of flour, and your opponent as a being something tougher. I don’t recall the whole saying, but the bag of flour bit really stuck with me. Such a vivid image…

      Devon Boorman of Academie Duello came up with an opposite drill that has some real value when used in small doses. He calls it the “immortal” drill, and in it you fence as if no blow can have any effect on you. It’s obviously not a habit you want to develop, but it does have the benefit of breaking you out of some of your routine reactions, and giving you a chance to see new possibilities in your attacks.

      I sometimes encourage students to fence as stupidly as possible, as if they were in a movie with full wire harnesses. It’s a good tension release, and once in a rare bit, a student can find a usual skill in themselves they would never have found any other way. Hmm..I think I know what the next blog post will be about…

      1. Godfrey/Jerry

        I remember Guido doing a similar “immortal” drill. We’d just acknowledge the blows and keep going. I soon learned during one of the bouts, that “brawling” up close with two swords is a stupid thing to do…daggers are your friend in close.

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      I’ve been lucky to train with some great people, and have an open enough mind to see when I’m doing things wrong…which is pretty often!

  3. Marshal Artin

    Great post!
    I’ve always known that most of us today have a very vague idea of what it means to fight for your life. I’ve always known that the notion of the honorable and fair knightly duel was a bunch of ****. When both you and the opponent mean to do THE WORST thing to eachother there’s little room for concern about how you look doing it, or whatever other than staying alive.
    Since I started practicing HEMA I realised how far, far different “fighting with a sword” can be depending on your circumstances. For one if you think of it as a sport or a real self-defence skill. Or whether you’re protected from bruises by your padding and from death by the fact that behind the sword in front of you there’s a friend. We’re approximating reality as much as we can but apparently only having an authentically behaving imitation of a sword in your hand is not enough.
    While training with the buddies you can never experience (thankfully) what it means to need to kill somebody who wants/needs to kill you. (If you think you could try that check yourself into a mental institution and play knight on some pills, before they check you into a prison.)
    Next thing was the lesson i learned from a few (very slight!) injuries (I toughed out like you). I realised I could try to strive not to get hit and it is the only sensible thing I can really aim for, but I’ll (hopefully) never know the crystal clear LIFE and DEATH reality of protecting my very life with my arms and what I have in them, and what I’d be ready to do to protect even the tips of my fingers from a real sharp blade.
    I find it downright laughable when I now see a contest with the opponents rushing into eachother with little or no concern about gaining any advantage before coming in range of the opponent’s weapon.
    “Oh hey I’ll fight better and in several minutes I’ll SCORE more POINTS, so I’ll WIN. Let’s get this over with.” Because it’s a sports competition.
    The only thing that may be over was your life, if it were real … no biggie …
    Since I take my practicing seriously as an actual skill (I will probably and thankfully never have to really use) of self-defence, and not just sport, or as a role playing game (at all), or just as trying to rediscover something old and gone in a certain historical source, I really try to defend myself. I really try to do everything a real threat would call for. I secure distance against my opponent, ready to remove anything that comes in it lightly. I try to keep my sword according to the opponent’s so I can have as many options to deflect and act afterwards. I keep my arms and sword tightly between me and the opponent constantly ready, and a constant threat. I (safely) provoke actions from the opponent, and evaluate as we move opportunities to close the distance and attack looking for advantages before I’m actually in direct danger. And finally when in cutting/thrusting distance I try to gain as much safety as I can while attacking only the most convenient targets primarily with the sword while controling the opponent’s blade primarily (and arms and legs) away from me.
    In doing so I hope I’m on the right path to learning some real thing, and not just playing with items of outdated fashion, or practicing something to show off at a faire.
    Those realisations made me dislike that what’s going on in HEMA competitions is exatly what has made sport fencing into … a sport. One can train martial arts any way you like and for various purposes but, it is important to remember that the word martial first defines that term. Not art even though it is an art, and certainly not sport or game.
    I really enjoy that other people feel the same way (more or less perhaps) about it.

  4. Harry

    Being one who feels (and commented) that the thing I would miss most when fencing naked would be my mask, I feel compelled to elaborate. 🙂
    You are absolutely right when you say that receiving hits on the mask means that you have done something wrong. But you do in fact make essentially the same point in this post about a bruise right above your heart – it means sloppy defence, and you would be dead now.
    What I meant with my point about the mask is: shit happens, hits happen, and nobody is perfect. Walking away from training or sparring badly bruised is one thing; being carried away missing an eye is another (I know a guy who had it happen to him).
    Don’t get me wrong, I am not one for excessive protection (I do Roman gladiatura too, which means no chest protection at all); but I am in it for the fun, not for lifetime defects.

    1. Hugh Wallace

      That is a very valid point Harry. Most of us train for fun and if reality was the primary concern sword arts wouldn’t be the first choice for many. But mistakes happen in training because people are not focused, concentrating and taking care of their training partners. In a sense, people are selfish and it all becomes about them ‘winning’ and less about them learning, perhaps by ‘losing’ in practice. Training without protective equipment requires a different mode of thinking and moving, and one that has its own limitations and drawbacks, but it does not automatically follow that injuries will occur. The question I think you need to consider is whether ‘fun’ is your prime motivator for training or whether learning, knowledge and experience are higher up the list (and, quite frankly, I have yet to have as much fun doing any martial arts training as I have had in a bouncy castle).

      My own experience over the past nine years of training without safety equipment has been a reduction in training injuries compared to my previous two decades of training with rules and padding. Yes, we have come close to serious injury a few times but close is no cigar and what I have learned in the time has been outstanding (in my perspective). Last night for instance, my training partner and I were ‘fencing’ with large axes which we used straight from the store (ie. they are sharp but not razor sharp) and spent time throwing and catching one between us. No gloves, no padding and the total injury count was one minor cut on a hand (not mine!). Sure, we had to pull every strike we made and we were not going fast so it was not ‘real’ but my control of an edged weapon is better than it could have been if I didn’t have to take such care and my ability to get my body out of the way of heavy, sharp weapons is considerably better than it would be if I had the safety net of protective equipment.


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