Jab, Hook…and Cut

Jab. Jab. Jab. Over and over, feet moving around, playing at measure, dodging each shot that comes back at you. Constantly sticking that left hand in your opponents’ face, over and over. Watching for the subtle signs, watching for you opponent to anticipate, to plan a counter that will actually land…that’s your moment. The moment when they think they have you, when they know you so well, have read you so perfectly, that they know the next jab you throw will be the one that puts you on the canvas when they counter.  That’s when you throw the right, low to the body…into that big gap that they left.

Now they are back to thinking about what you are doing. Their head is still stuck for the moment, though…still holding on for you to do that jab the right way again. You feed them another right, since they refuse to believe in the new threat. Another. They drop down a little, flinching against your feint, not wanting to let you get away with another right…and you feed another jab, this one stiff. Their hands go back up. Boom. Right back to the body. Back peddle and dodge against their frustrated charge, set them up for the next sequence, always making them guess.

It’s harder to play a game at that level in swordplay, at least at the current level of skill. With a rapier, you set up the first jab…and the fights over. One hit, the bout, or at least this pass, is done. If it’s a tournament and you got hit, it’s time to go sit on the sidelines and contemplate if the hours of travel time were really worth that single chance. And you start to think how long it will be, and how many dollars, until the next chance at the next tournament.

It’s an emotional grind, fighting in that kind of tournament condition. You don’t get a chance to tough things out and learn to exploit your opponent’s weakness over the course of many passes. You have one split second to be excellent, and try to counter whatever your opponent’s excellence is. It takes a damned good eye and not a little bit of luck to succeed under such conditions. It’s why Sumo wrestling is the best mental training, and best art to compare swordplay to. Sumo wrestlers hit the ring with a huge emotional burden…a day of knowing who you are going to fight, a day of mentally preparing…for a few seconds in the ring. I have my students practice sumo so they learn to be decisive and reactive in a small space.

But you can still box while fencing. You just have to alter your measure, and think of the KO as the touch, not the result of many preparatory hits. With an expanded measure, feints have to be set up differently. A good feint is something even experience fencers these days seem to be unable to pull off, and that’s because we don’t understand the mechanic behind a feint, or the mindset. With swords, you feint with footwork, or shoulder and hip shifts at wide (out of striking range) measure, and shorted shots or disengages at measure. In measure, ala Capoferro’s narrow measure, you don’t feint.

The trick is that a feint only succeeds when your opponent has been taught previously to flinch in reaction to the attack. I can feint a jab to open up a body shot when boxing only after my opponent has eaten enough jabs to learn to be wary of them. When we try feints in fencing, we do so with the implicit understanding that a “smart” opponent “must” react in the correct way, which will let us land our follow-up. Obviously they don’t flinch, and that experience teaches fencers to never feint. They discard them as worthless, and maybe dismiss that part of the historical manuals as only be applicable to “real”…historical…fencers who must have been more correctly smart than modern sport-y fencers.

Feints have to be set up. You need to spend the opening, out of measure part, of a fencing bout teaching your opponent how they should fence you. Show them what almost works against you. Show them what attacks they can easily defend. Show them what they should fear. Like a good boxer, you have to be a master of measure and voiding to pull this off. When setting up your opponent, they shouldn’t feel like they are being played with, they should be constantly thinking they are on the verge of victory, and just need to try a little harder to succeed.

You need to plan your attack out very well, based on what you see of your opponent. Facing a left-handed opponent, I might notice that they have a habit of holding their head back when lunging. If I can get behind their blade, I can land a forehand cut to the neck from safety. I need to get them to lunge, and I need them to do it with the arm just enough out of good position that I can sidestep inside.

I start with snipes to the outside of the left forearm. If one lands, good for me! But I assume they won’t. I throw them to land, but as I throw them I already pulling my back foot around to pivot out of any counter-attack. My head is pulling back and my right leg will straighten when my arm is at full extension. Since my aiming point is shallow, I should be able to do this attack all day without getting hit in return. It’s not likely to land, but it keeps my opponent busy and costs me nothing.

As I repeat the shot, I want to appear as if I am getting a little lazy. My opponent will be figuring out a counter, and I want him to think of the right one, so I make sure to alter my timing enough that he thinks he can land a kill shot to my head if he just commits a little more. I must be sure that I am committing that idea into his head. When I am sure of it, by seeing his body firm up and solidify, leaning in anticipation, I give him the feint.

Instead of sniping at the arm, I snap my right hip forward while keep my blade in place…just under his sword, where it fades from his peripheral vision. He flinches out to parry my snipe, already stepping in to lunge into my head…but I’ve used my hip snap to pick up my right foot and step just inside his line with a partial body void. My sword rises up from my wrist in a false edge engagement on the inside of his incoming attack…and I step with my left foot at an angle away from his blade, and lay my forehand cut across his mask.

If you check out our “Serious Play” video below, at about the 1:24 mark you can see the result of a similar series of feints and the follow-up.

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