Probably most of you will never have to deal with challenge matches. It’s a good thing, they almost never end well. It’s a funny business…prone to ugliness when the slightest bit of ego gets involved, with a tiny chance of ending well. The skilled artists can come calling sometimes, and be very polite and want to play…and polite or no, you know they are challenging you. It’s a very serious thing. The truth of martial arts is that you learn to lose a fair bit. The good ones know this, and every time they win something, they remember a little of losing.
Twice when I was at Academie Duello we had groups of more modern fencers show up on our open fight nights, looking to test us out. The sabre guys were fantastic. We came out strongly ahead, but it wasn’t an honest bout, as they were trying rapiers for the first time. I don’t remember much of the night, but I remember we all had a great time talking about our arts and playing around. The instructor later gave me a gift of two replacement Hanwei Radaelli sabre blades. A gift I still cherish, even as they sit in my bag battered and broken from use. I’d take sabre lessons from those guys in a heartbeat.
The second group of modern point stylists were okay, but not as fun. I suppose it figures I’d get along better with sabre fighters, the stereotypes must be a bit true. The second group came by somewhat spontaneously, I think…on the way back from some meet, or in town for one, I never did find out. They eagerly kitted up and wanted to bout with me, but it was a bit of a confused mess. Offline movement and our targeting priority just hit them the wrong way, and they couldn’t adapt. They were speedy, but they kept going for the hand and leaving their face open. They left after a bit and were very polite, but it was unsatisfying all around.
A number of Asian martial artists all came by and tried their hand, and everyone that I recall left very satisfied at our skill, and hopefully more satisfied with our hospitality. I was impressed with their ability to learn, and challenged by their open-mindedness. You know a real master when you beat him and he still managed to humble you with his abilities. This town has some talented people…
On the flip side, some great drinking stories come from the run-ins with drunks and crazies. Outdoor classes can be exciting. A plastered teenager walked up to the gear bags, grabbed someone’s sword and proceeded to walk uncaring through the ranks of drilling students, to challenge Devon on the spot. I think we smacked him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper a few times. Or maybe just said “No. Go home” until he got the message. I keep asking people to corner Devon and ask him about the crazed Russian mafia cougar attack, I hope he has to tell that story a lot. It’s pretty funny. That was the same night the Vin Diesel look-alike (I think?!?) tried to walk away with my rapier.
Professionally, it’s not such an amusing question. AD had a policy of open-door, accept all challengers, right from the get go. We encouraged challenge fights, but that was a bit of a marketing call. We were new, and swordplay was a thing that seemed more fantasy than real. We had to prove ourselves as legitimate martial artists, in the oldest way there was. We also had absolute confidence in our ability to face any challenge. I think that time has passed, for the WMA world as a whole. There is enough momentum, a large enough body of practitioners, to show legitimacy. Further work we do should be strictly on building the quality of our students.
If you get someone coming in the door and challenging you, you should be able to refuse with no qualms. And be prepared to call the police to back up your polite refusal. No stranger, no matter what their purported skill or talent, has any business trying to soothe their ego using your students training hall. It doesn’t matter what kind of confidence you have in your abilities. The training space is sacred. It’s been created by your efforts and the students sweat, and the only thing that needs to be proven in the hall is the ability to sweat more. Friendly bouts, or competition, is one thing…a challenge to your teaching authority is another.
And it’s not a challenge you should ever personally face. The worth of your teaching shows up a bit in how your students perform, but more in how they behave. How the students handle failure and victory, and despite either income they continue to improve, is the only real measure of a teacher. It’s the only true metric of teaching ability. There is no competition there, as people respond personally to a teacher. No one is the perfect, or even best, teacher for everyone.
The only reason left to fight a challenge match is because you want to test your personal ability. That’s fine, we all have questions we want to answer…but the school is not the place to do it. And it’s most especially not the right place to do it against some nutbar showing up to your front door. If for whatever crazy reason you actually want to fight the guy? Do it the right way. Pick a time, arrange for seconds, and meet somewhere else.