Build Your Knowledge Through Western Martial Arts
Lessons for empty hand from fencing.
Peter James

Like a great number of my friends, I have spent most of my time training in oriental martial arts, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, and Filipino.  I always had a perception that this was really all there was on offer and that it was the top shelf stuff.  After 25 years in Martial Arts, I am starting to realize that this is not the case.  As a westerners with Scottish heritage, I have a rich martial culture that has a lot to offer.  Combat is about winning and no system has everything covered, we owe it to ourselves to look around.

My indulgence into the western martial arts of fencing (and to a lesser degree
boxing) have lead me review and reassess some of basic elements that I had either taken for granted, forgotten, totally ignored, or never really understood.  Ultimately, western martial arts provide an excellent platform for gaining knowledge and understanding in a different context.  Even in their current sports form (although I also believe that a great deal of any Asian martial art has no combat application) there is a great deal we can learn about ourselves.  My indulgences have allowed me to examine some basic principles and how they might apply to combat.  I have long been an advocate of knife, sword and stick fighting principles applied to empty hand technique (my first Riddle of Steel with Jim was a big eye opener!), and although fencing is a sport and not combat, there are some basic learning principles that will assist the combatant.  Here are some of my lessons and my attempts to put them into combat applications.

The first aspect fencing really challenged me to consider was learning universal principles reduced to what works when the blades are flying and everything is in chaos.  Most of the martial arts I have trained in consisted of 'what if' principles, many of which were suspect at best.  The 'this applies to that' mentality bundles things neatly up in a package for the teacher to deliver to the student working through the ranks. I don't think this is a bad thing for an initial approach, but I found many instructors saw this as the end (because they knew no better themselves) rather than a means to an end or as Jim Keating says 'simply a basis to build on'.  You only need to observe any level of sparring, note what the exponent uses in competition and compare it to the techniques of the style to realize a major gap exists.  I recognize that there could be an endless argument to this logic, but my key point is this: If it is done by free choice then that's OK, when it is done through not realizing there is another way or pure ignorance, then that is dangerous.

A major combat aspect of fencing is the concept of striking while insuring there is no chance of being hit. In terms of fencing, you obviously need to move within range of the other blade to strike, which immediately puts you in peril i.e. if you can get them, they can get you.  However, neutralizing their actions as part of your offense addresses the 'one step sparring' mentality we so often see.  My action of attack defends me against your attack and strikes you all in the same instant, my strike contains a blocking or neutralizing element.  The alternative is that you attack, I defend and launch my attack, by then it is clearly too late, you defend and re-attack and this can go on infinitum without any result.  This is what makes tournament sparring so boring; any actual contact is either a mistake or sheer ass.  

This brings me to the concept of timing.  My fencing coach Mirek defined timing better than I had ever heard it, he said 'timing is being in a position to take advantage of an opening that is about to occur'.... 'If you see an opening, then you're already too late'.   Need I say more; it's about seeing your opponent for what they really are, learning as you go and adjusting, addressing their weaknesses, its about strategy in action (see my article on Heiho). 

Movement and action provides information, while you're learning from your opponent, he's learning from you.  You can minimize the information you transmit by minimizing your own movements.  Excessive movement in terms of blocking, attacking, stances, fakes etc. all telegraph information.  That's great if you can use it to your advantage and stay unpredictable, but unfortunately it more often relays your fighting pattern from which your opponent is creating his own attack strategy.  Minimal movement with relaxed unpredictability is the key. Again, realizing you have a choice is the key, don't build your own reality it's invariably wrong!

Balance and body positioning are also key elements of fencing that are really driven home, using the legs to move the body and not the body to move the legs sounds like a basic concept, but in practice it really challenges some basic ideas.  Ultimately it allows you to move freely in every direction so your attack is not so over committed that you cannot recover, adjust or react.  Remember, in sword work you can't 'take a hit' like you would in empty hand fighting, the risks we take must be based on an understanding of the consequences.  We accept sometimes that a blow landed on us is OK especially when it hits non-vital areas, this option is severely reduced with weapons.

The whole concept of hitting without being hit, anywhere, makes a fencer consider other elements.  Speed is used as a tool, not in terms of 100% flat out (like a lizard drinking) but in terms of what speed fits what and how can I use acceleration to confuse the opponent.  Fighting distance is another aspect that often confuses empty hand martial artists, especially when weapons are involved, they fail to consider the weapon or take the new threat into consideration.  Ability to cover distance in a balanced way to land a successful strike is another key to success.  Finally target selection is based on your ability to arrive at an opening you've created and striking a point of your choosing in a way you choose, a very advanced concept when put in the context of a pub brawl or free-for-all.

As I have said before, continually gathering information about every combat move ever created is impossible and a waste of time.  Looking around you, however, and understanding how various martial arts, Western and Eastern apply the key concepts of technique, timing, distance and speed can really add to your combat strategy.  Look at techniques in their broadest terms don't lock into this is best or that is the only way.  Remember basic technique principles apply whether it's a hand, foot, staff or sword.  Broaden your knowledge about these concepts because they apply to every combat situation.  The more you understand the easier it will become to respond without thought.  The alternative is martial arts myopia the 'my style is best' mentality, a contagious disease that, in the real world, leads the unsuspecting to nowhere at best.

Author (right) with Polish Fencing coach Mirek Zabiello