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…