I’ve fought in a lot a of tournaments. Not nearly as many as some, but I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised to learn if the number was close to a hundred competitions. The smallest was four competitors, but was really more of a joke than a tournament. I kinda won that one, but conceded the win to a friend. The biggest was well over a hundred competitors. The most fights I’ve ever had in one tournament was somewhere around seventy, and I know at least one person recorded over a hundred wins in that one.

The longest I’ve ever fought was when I arrived just in time for the finals of a tournament, after a lengthy delay at the border. I had told a friend with cancer I would fight in her name, since she was too sick to compete. I was so angry at myself for letting her down that I immediately challenged the winner of the tournament, on the spot. Beating him still didn’t cover my anger and shame, so I challenged the second place winner. Things progressed til I was actually having people run around the event challenging people for me. I fought non-stop from two in the afternoon until around eight o’clock at night. I stopped for ten minutes at one point because there was no one to fight, so I sat and chatted about life with my last opponent, and drank coffee.

I’ve run a fair number of tournaments, officiated at more. I’ve tried every variant of rules you can imagine, and I’ve competed under even more. Single touch, single elimination, point-per-touch, weighted-score touch, time-limit bouts, double elim, round robin, double round robin, iron man, weapon rotation, random weapon pairing, pairs, groups, wars, handicapped, seeded entry, multiple bear pit, open field, loser stays bear pits, ladders, first to twelve, first to three, first to five, first to one hundred, accolade, style points…I can’t even remember all of them. Almost every single variant was created as a solution to a problem someone saw. People rhino-hide, people hit too hard, people hit sloppy, people pick on weak fighters, people get stuck only fighting strong fighters, the strong fighters tire of fighting newbs, no historic technique, boring fights, not enough realism, too much seriousness…it just goes on. I’ve watched rules go from a few sheets to a thick book, down to a few pages again.

I think competition is great. I love it…but I hate it’s environment. I love welding. I went to school for a long time to get my tickets, but I hated being a welder. I could lose myself for hours putting giant pipes together, and building big cool things. But hated working around drunken, dangerous idiots using heavy machinery. I hated being the only one on the job with intact limbs, and knowing it was only going to be a matter of time until my number came up. With tournaments, it always winds up being more about what people think of the fight, than what happens between the fighters themselves. People get bitchy when the person they think should have won didn’t. Fighters get bitchy for the same reason. More crap happens out of the ring than in the ring, and someone always tries to add a new page to the rule book to stop whatever the latest assholery is. Fighters cheat, let’s add judges. The judges are idiots, let’s add electrics. Electrics make people cheat the system, let’s add pain, etc, etc, etc, etc…

Once this chain starts, we start to get sides. One side has the perfect solution to make tournaments awesome, the other side has another solution, a third side thinks the other two are assholes so they arbitrarily come up with a third system. You will probably get a unified system to make everyone happy about the same time the US votes unanimously for one candidate, and everyone is happy with the outcome.

So right now, we seem to be in a place of all agreeing that modern fencing sucks, but we are hell-bent on recreating every mistake that led it to being what it is today. But hey, we know better. We’re smarter! We won’t make the mistakes that happened in the past. Nope, that will never happen. It can’t, because our weapons are cooler! …

My favourite format for tournaments is single touch. That’s about as realistic as it gets. You fuck up, you lose. No second chance. The tall and fast fighters get a natural advantage, but not so much that skill can’t negate it. No judges, just a referee. Hits are called by the person who receives the blow, and no one else. The ref serves two purposes: The first is safety, the second is to ask “Are you satisfied?” of each fighter. The fighters can say “yes” or “no.” If they both say yes, the winner is recorded and on to the next fight. If one of them says no, they re-fight. If the ref thinks someone is sucking up hurt feelings, they re-fight. If the fight looked like sloppy shit and the ref didn’t think there was a clear, clean and obvious winning shot, re-fight.

This format is for the fighters, not for an audience. Do people cheat with this system? Yup. People always cheat. Suck it up. Forget about making a big deal out of tournament wins. With a single touch, luck is always a factor, doesn’t matter how good you are. Chump fighters can and will luck their way to the finals, and sometimes win. Stop making the tournament itself a big deal, and focus on the tournament experience for each fighter, win or lose.

It’s tempting to focus on tournaments as justification for what we do, and make them a major marketing angle to promote the art. It can have an effect on growth, but the growth is going to be amongst people that want to compete. It’s not necessary for growth. Look to Capoiera’s growth for a model. They compete…the Roda is nothing other than an ongoing competition, but it’s no tournament. It’s no cakewalk either, it’s a real proving ground…people get hurt, and get tough. But none of their growth comes from tournaments and competitions…it comes from fantastic marketing and branding that focuses on the activity itself. The point of training in their style isn’t to kick ass or gain a trophy. The point of training is to train in something wonderful.

And that’s the reason I pick up my rapier. The art itself is enough for me.