Heat-seeking Fist

A good fencer can make a great unarmed fighter. The training in use of measure is unmatched by any other martial art. Facing high speed steel all the time gives you awesome reflexes and a fair bit of courage. The tools are all there, and the end result can be fantastic. The process, though…the process can be a pain in the butt.

Teaching basic boxing actions like the sidestep is a fairly easy process. You take a stance, nice and fluid and mobile. Your partner punches you in the face. You don’t like that, so you straighten one leg out and shift your body a little to the side. The punch just misses and you can retaliate from your new, better position. I decided to cover it in class.

It’s a straightforward exercise, and a straightforward drill, so I’m confident teaching it in class. I don’t want to work on the practical applications as yet, since I’m mostly concerned with making a good footwork drill to teach transition of body weight. I want the students to thinking about their own body movement while analyzing what happens with the opponent. I’m hoping to use the mechanics later in the swordplay portion, but I also want to offer the students a useable unarmed tool.

The mistake I make is in teaching it the way I learned, which is in a slow, non-contact drill to practice a few times, and then picking the speed up and adding contact. This worked fine in my early days. You get a few reps to figure out what you want to do, build up some confidence, and then start blasting each other to make it work. This works if you start out with the implicit understand of what it’s like to be punched.

The art of the sword is the art of learning that touch kills, and that touch comes from a nimble and deceitful weapon. No defense works if it allows for deceit. Slight errors are unacceptable. Most important, though, is control. Your defense must be absolute, or else allow for easy and safe escape. And therein lies our problem.

Unarmed tactics make no implicit sense to a fencer. Weapons don’t need power to kill, they only need sharpness and precision. I can’t wave my fist around and knock someone out with a touch. I have to drive hard from the ground up, taking advantage of every iota of rotation and kinetic energy I can, channeled down a very narrow path to a precise target, to hit hard enough to have an effect.

When fencers partner and throw punches slowly at each other, the defender is uncomfortable with a simple sidestep defense. All you are doing is moving aside, it’s no defense at all! They will instinctively attempt to alter the movement to deliver a better defense…making it more complex and slower. And the fencer who is a partner will add to the problem by instinctively tracking their punch towards to moving target, sometimes even trying to disengage a block.

None of this would be a problem if I started out a little different. I think the best way to train fencers to box might be to just toss some good boxing headgear and a mouthguard on them, throw on some 16oz. gloves, and have them punch each other in the head for a bit. Then start the drill with speed punches to the head. Once they’ve learned the reality of the punch in the situation, then we can break it down a bit and start to work on technical details.

Not that I’d have many students left if I actually did that! It’s a lovely ideal situation, but I will need to work up to it a little more smoothly. Now that I understand what is causing the problem I can correct it in class. It was a good insight, and I wish I’d had it earlier. C’est la vie. It does show why fencers have such a preference for wrestling, anyway. Grappling mimics the demands of weapons work in the need for a controlling defense, and for constant capitalization on position. It’s a more familiar territory for those with only a weapon background.

Just another class where the students teach me a valuable lesson. Happens a lot…


  1. Slow training does have its drawbacks …. Have you tried short knife as an interim training aid? Boxing with knives (I use ones made of stiff foam so they bend on impact for safety) is interesting … and fun …. kinda 😉

    • Actually, we haven’t done knife work for a while. I just might do that!

      We use the cold steel trainers in class…I prefer the sharkie trainers, but none of the students do. Sigh.

  2. Oh, holy crap, this makes so much sense. You’ve just done a lovely job of clarifying why boxing/kicking drills and sparring are so hard for me to follow. I’m trying to get past the get-hit-once-and-freeze-up-like-the-fight’s-over habit that I have in sparring, and have had a solid understanding of where that comes from and why it doesn’t make sense, but I didn’t realise the subtler effect that being a fencer has on my understanding of boxing tactics and drills.

    The next time I start getting frustrated that a boxing drill makes no goddamned sense to me, I’ll try to remember that I’m dealing with a different fighting art (one in which being hit means something very different), and recalibrate my expectations.

    Thank you!

    • David R. Packer

      Ayup, it’s the opposite of what we normally deal with, getting unarmed fighters used to not leading with their heads. Something to be learned from both.

      And I really have to remember when I’m teaching, that the language is not the same from one art to another!

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