Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fencing: How I Fought a Modern Duel

This week I'm working on a song that's inspired by these events. I'll be sharing that for the first time on Sept 21st if all goes to plan... As for the the blog post... There didn't seem like any way to breach the subject without sound pompous, but here's my best attempt.



One day a friend asked me if I felt like learning how to fight properly with a sword. 
His response to my witty one liner was "but what if you run out of ammo?" I pondered this a moment and reluctantly agreed to take the first lesson. I'd taken a single class of 'Bushido' swordplay in middle school and assumed that I knew everything there was to know about how rigid and useless fighting with swords could be. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The first lesson of many fighting systems is generally the same, footwork. The basics of being able to attack someone in close combat is being able to reach them, and the only way you can do that is with your feet so it seems like the logical place to start. I spent the better part of a week learning how to walk in a strong but fairly loosely interpreted stance. I quickly discovered that everything i'd be learning would be widely open to interpretation since the fighting system is based on the Liechtenauer long sword fencing system, and the only books on the topic are written like poetry with hidden messages contained within the old Germanic sub-context. Much of it is widely open to interpretation. Strong divisions even exist within similar schools that will claim to follow the same interpretations of Liechtenauer, such as which teachings are extraneous (some Italian guys in the 16th century added a bunch of fancy looking but pretty useless guards, called "Resting" guards), or how to interpret the ever-evolving depictions of 14th century art. If you're looking at an image like one of the ones below you need to ask if the figures stiff because the artist is bad, because the models holding the swords had to stand in a pose for great lengths of time, if the masters of the art wanted their exact stances to be kept secret (as there were many "rival" schools), or if the practitioners and masters of the art actually stood that stiffly? Many Western Martial Artists will agree that the drawings are generally more stiff than we're supposed to stand.

Realest figures in perfect fighting form...ish

As the week slowly trudged on, I learned how to properly hold a sword, the 4 basic guards of the Liechtenauer system, and a few basic hews [cuts]. My friend/instructor, Jeffrey, is also a full time bronze artist who often makes swords, so he also spent some time explaining the mechanics the sword like its effective center of percussion, the optimal parts to hit someone with, and the obvious reasons why you'd want to avoid destroying your sword with edge on edge contact. Over the next few months I learned more of the basics, some drills, and was slowly introduced to the secret "master" strikes. Because the class was effectively myself, Jeffry, and one other variable person (who would generally quit after two lessons), and because we were working alone off our own interpretation of the ancient manuscripts, cross referenced through a half-dozen sword forum groups, it took us awhile to figure out the "why's" of things. We started off using wood wasters [training swords] that Jeffrey made but slowly realized that they didn't bind [the reactions that follow when two swords impact] like steel ones. We then evolved through various high density polyethylene swords with steel cross guards until we finally found a density that didn't cause the swords to snap in half after a few hundred hits. This two sentence process took maybe 2 years to accomplish.

Zwerchhau works well at a distance
Over that time I often sought new people to spar with and started a sort of fight club in an abandoned building I was working security for on the industrial side of town. I invited many and while the club itself was a sort of success, I couldn't find anyone who provided much of a challenge within my limited circle of friends. We gradually shifted the focus of the group to foam weapons, which are more unlike actual swords than the wooden wasters, in what equates to Sword Tag (note: It's very fun, just unlike sword fighting) and I got fairly lazy with no real focus until it happened...

"I challenge you to a duel!"
A guy I knew named Nick ruthlessly trash talked my good friend/neighbor at a party in St. Augustine and said that the sword-fighting system my neighbor and I were a part of with was about as useful as getting sword tips from watching anime. I took some offense to this and because he then went on to talk about how awesome of a "Japanese-style" sword guy he was I challenged him to a duel. It was a sort of mix of "don't insult my friend/neighbor" with "don't insult my martial art" moment for me where I didn't realize the absurdity of the words I was speaking until after they'd left my mouth. However, in front of all his friends who likely hear the stories of how skilled he was with a sword with some regularity, how he was taught by a "true" master of the sword arts from Japan, etc, my challenge didn't seem that strange. He claimed to be horribly out of shape, so I offered to give him 4 months to improve and after three times of him telling me "Only if you're sure you want to fight because I really don't want to risk hurting you" he accepted, apologizing in advance for any injuries I would receive from him. 

The Classic Anime Sword Stance,
Drawn by Mr. Jack-O-Lantern
For as long as I'd known him, Nick regularly bragged about being a Japanese sword fighter to pretty much anyone that would listen but i'd never seen him in action. He uses a wooden boken with a unique left-handed grip, "self-taught" footwork to compensate for being left handed, and a fighting stance that is reflected in most anime I've seen where a guy holds a sword in front of himself and stands almost squarely at his target. I'd been actively training in 14th century German longsword a few days a week for over 3 years, learning a dozen ways to properly slice someone open (practicing with sharpened steel blades on pumpkins), how to "feel" contact on a blade, and how to counter just about every possible attack or defense you can think of involving a sword fighting another sword. On paper, I could deduce my way through a duel but in practicality I was amateur. My mind and muscle memory hadn't nearly caught up to any book smarts I had on the topic.


Fight school art from Meyer
Over the next 4 months I pushed myself. I trained, I got into shape (something I previously didn't care about), and dedicated extra time each night into 1 specific move to counter what I expected to be his fighting stance and method of attack. I'd once heard a story about a tea-maker who once almost fought a samurai by practicing a single move he knew would kill the Samurai at the expense of his own life and prepared a similar (though non-suicidal) move of my own. I intended to win.

Four busy months of training later we met in central Orlando, a 2-3 hour drive for each of us, at an abandoned tennis court off I-drive that happened to be a perfect rectangle of recently cut grass. We outlined the rules of the duel again as we examined each sword for things that could feasibly kill someone. "Just like real life" Nick said, "you fight until you'd be clearly dead from a cut... and there'll only one round of fighting because life doesn't give you a second chance." The best out of one round didn't seem like a fair judge of skill but I wouldn't object to his rules because he had invited all his friends show up to watch.

One of the Secretive "Master" Strikes
Without much ceremony or formality we walked onto the ex-tennis court and squared off. There weren't any bows or fancy gestures to indicate the start of the fight as his friends stood in silence. Just as i'd expected he just stood there in his strange anime stance that made no tactical sense for a few moments, sword pointed at my face as a distraction, extended far too much to be of use. It felt like an eternity but we were too far apart to act in what I'd known as the Krieg. One of us had to move to fight but all was going exactly as I'd planned. I was ready for this moment. I was well prepared and the sheer excitement I felt was almost overpowering all the training i'd gone through. I'm not even sure if I maintained the scowl I intended to make or if subconsciously my face worked up a goofy grin. As I tried to calm myself down my higher intelligence got to thinking about how to best overcome his guard without exposing myself, which steps to take. I was weighing the use of Krumphau against Sheilhau, which are different ways to attack, but before I could confirm my decision he made the first move.

Another fairly modern duel
Nick took a small small step forward to my right and to the side, at an angle. It wasn't an aggressive step, just an attempt at repositioning himself, seeing how i'd move, however my body (muscle memory) knew that he was within my striking range and before I could even register this knowledge I'd already struck horizontally as hard as I could towards the only part of him that was within reach, his knee. He must have thought it wasn't a real attack, or perhaps that he wasn't within my reach because his body didn't even flinch or react as I swung but he soon saw the error of his way. I didn't make my strike as much of a slicing attack as I should have, as if we were using sharp steel, and as a result it wound up being visually sort of like a baseball strike straight to his kneecap with a 48'' dense-plastic long sword. As the impact met and his leg was literally pulled out from under him, his expression slowly changed and because I hadn't held back he literally fell to the ground. Hard. It was something I hadn't truly experienced yet in life, hitting someone as hard as I could with a sword, even a blunted one. My emotions were muddled. On one hand I'd won, on another I didn't get to use the move I'd trained so hard for. Joy won out as I watched him writhe on the ground and I felt my anger on him loosen. My father told me that beating someone up in a fight helps the two of you hate each other less and no more than a minute after his big "no rematch" speech Nick humbly hobbled to his feet and admitted defeat in front of his friends with the excuse that he clearly misjudged the length of the sword he'd inspected not a minute prior. 

This pretty much sums up the fight
After a few moments of silence I offered him a second bout, "just for fun" because we each drove more than two hours to the fight and it seemed a shame. He agreed and before I knew it we were back where we started, facing off in roughly the same position. This time my mind had enough time to make the appropriate decision and before he could attack I passed his guard and delivered a solid cut to the head that would have clearly been an end to the fight. At first he took the losses personally and asked for a few more "friendly rematches", but as I continued to beat him without taking any real hits myself he accepted the difference in skill without anger. I don't think he'd really trained effectively for the duel and the fact that I had trained was something he couldn't really be angry with me about, so his fighting methodology shifted and got more defensive. After a dozen rematches he stopped initiating attacks altogether [reactive fighting is an extremely effective means of bladed combat], but kept asking for another round. After 37 consecutive losses (I counted) he got a good hit in and admitted his defeat. I can't say that we became friends or even spoke to each other again, but when we parted he denied that he'd said the insults in the first place, which was close enough to the outcome I wanted. He was also extremely bruised and that made me smile.

The mysterious "Murder" Strike
Footnote: I'm not a good swordsman. At one point in my life, above, I would have considered myself perhaps a journeyman or some slight mark above amateur. Shortly after the above duel I realized I didn't have a goal and quickly lost focus. I tried to find a group that I could fight with, found a few political larping groups I wanted no part of, a few awesome foam fighting groups (which again, isn't really sword fighting but is awesome just the same), and got severely injured while fighting with a hardcore group of totally insane guys called the Tuchux. It was an intense fight and I would have taken a picture of the injury but not enough of my fingers were functional to take the picture.

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