Sabre has flaws. The conventional definition of attack in the 4m is a mess. But the conventional definition of attack outside the 4m is fine. Take priority, keep moving forward, and hit without missing or getting parried.
It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s easy to apply, and it works.
But sabre has just changed.
While much noise is made over the Russian Box of Death, which isn’t a done deal yet, the timing change has very quietly flown in under the radar. The lockout has increased from 120 to 170 milliseconds, giving us all an extra blink of an eye to finish actions. It was pitched as a minor tweak to get rid of dumb remises, and help indulge the intense fetish for parries that seems to be held by the Powers-That-Be.
It’s bad news for fencers who relied heavily on timing-based counterattacks, and good news for shorter fencers with active bladework and savage acceleration. We’ve been running it every day since May, and are happy to report that draw cuts, well-planned stop cuts, counterattacks with opposition and even sufficiently insane remises are all very much still things. Some preps you can drive a bus through, and 50 milliseconds ain’t going to change that.
On these terms, there’s no problems with it. It’s going to cut down on one-light hits a bit, which is a move in the wrong direction for a good spectator show, but it’s not a disaster.
But if it’s used as an excuse to change the refereeing conventions, it will be.
We have been hearing disturbing rumblings from the old guard of how relying on the scoreboard to determine a valid counterattack on the march has been a crutch, and we really should go back to properly defining an attack by looking at who started extension first. That we should reintroduce the call of attack-on-preparation, with two lights, outside the 4m.
No, no, no, no, no. Hell no.
Even in a hypothetical world where all refereeing decisions are perfect, this makes following the game infinitely more difficult. In the real world, this takes the disease that is currently crippling the 4m zone and spreads it to every inch of the piste and every moment of the fight. When sabre is trying to find its feet as a sport with broad reach, this is an appallingly bad idea.
This change was sold as no big deal. Please, don’t make it a big deal.
Keep it simple.
Or we can have a sport where every time this happens, there’s ten minutes of drama over whether the fencer on right extended first. Please, just no.
Sabre fencing is fantastic and we love it (obviously). But it’s not a well-understood sport, and there’s a lot of misconceptions out there. In the spirit of The Big Tournament In Rio this week, here are some answers to questions we get asked a lot.
What’s the basic aim of the game?
Hit and don’t get hit.
Seriously, though, at its heart it is about the control of distance. Sabre is a game of movement, timing and acceleration to hit. Everything else is built on top.
What is the value of of fencing as a sport? Does it actually teach you to sword fight? and/or I saw this one YouTube video/read this one essay by an angry old Italian man that said that modern sport fencing is totally stupid and doesn’t train The Art Of True Swordsmanship. What do you say about that?
You may as well ask the value of competitive archery to bringing down an elk with a compound bow, or biathlon to fighting Nazis in the Finnish winter, or sprinting 100m on a track to fleeing from a lion. Sure, it’s not the same thing, and a hardcore specialist will probably do it better, but the Olympic athlete will still have pretty solid skills and will be able to take on most random chumps in the real-world variant should push ever come to shove.
It’s a way to take a messy, chaotic and dangerous real-world undertaking and turn it into a game, where skills can be both safely explored and rigorously and consistently assessed.
What’s with the scoring rules? Why is it so complicated?
The modern sport uses a set of scoring rules derived from the original training drills used back when this was actually about winning a life-or-death fight. At their core, they’re fundamentally pretty pragmatic. Over time, they’ve evolved into a standardized way of determining who controls the initiative in the fight.
When you hit your opponent anywhere above the waist, your light on the scoring system turns on and the fight stops.
If only one person hits, that person scores.
If both people hit, the person with the initiative in the fight scores. This initiative is called “priority” or “right of way”. The ref has to decide who has priority based on a set of rules:
The first person to decisively attack at the start takes priority.
Once they take it, they keep it until the make a mistake. If they stop, or miss, or get blocked, their opponent can take the priority away from them. It flows back and forth in this way until someone hits.
The scoring system is rigged to reward speed: after the first person hits, their opponent has 120ms to hit back, otherwise they’re locked out and their light can’t be turned on.
If you chase your opponent off the end of the strip, you score.
If you’re watching the Olympics, fights will be first to 15 points with a 1-minute break when the first fencer gets to 8. Team matches are a relay to 45 points.
We’ll admit it’s more complicated than “the person who runs 100m fastest wins”, but it’s really not that hard. Come on, guys, cricket is a thing.
Why is it so freaking fast? What’s with the whippy car antennas you guys use instead of proper swords? Why don’t you just wear protective gear and fight with a real sabre?
First off, the blades aren’t nearly as whippy as they look in the TV replays. They’re made of steel, and they certainly don’t feel like a car antenna. The top athletes are very, very strong, and are hitting very, very fast, hence the flex.
Generally, top sabre fencers prefer stiffer blades as you have more control and accuracy, but some flexibility is necessary to allow full-power hits to be done safely.
There’s always going to be a trade-off in any combat sport between the ability to fight at full-speed and power, and the risk of injury, both catastrophic and chronic. There’s also a trade-off between mobility and protective gear. Sabre fencing has thrown everything towards the philosophy that if you use a light weapon that bends, you can get away with minimal armour and move naturally, and you can also hit as hard as you like without doing too much damage.
Most HEMA fencing, by contrast, throws the balance the other way, and emphasizes the use of realistic weapons, but the trade-off is that you can’t move as much, and full-power sparring is severely limited by the amount of damage you take every time you do it. In training, HEMA fencers have to pull their hits. We don’t.
Fencing sabres are derived from training weapons for fighting someone who isn’t wearing armour, and is moving very fast. The focus is on mobility and control of distance, and in the modern game there is an emphasis on agility and athleticism. This is descended directly from the original nature of the weapon.
Why don’t you just block?
Sabre fencers routinely lie about the target they’re going for (this is called a feint), so blocking is tricky. That said: parries, or blocks, are definitely a thing. They’re easier to see on slow-mo replays, because they’re seriously fast. They’re also usually done in combination with movement: either stepping out of the way, or stepping forwards into the attack, or ducking down, or jumping up.
Standing there and trying to make Big Dramatic Hero Block Like In Movies doesn’t work too good, because your opponent will usually disengage around it.
Are there weight categories?
Nope. Just men’s and women’s. Within the current open men’s events at international level, you’ve got athletes who are well over 100kg of power, and athletes who are 60kg dripping wet. When they fight each other, it’s not a foregone conclusion either. Weapons are the great equaliser.
What’s with all the French?
All of the official refereeing and much of the coaching terminology in fencing will be in French. Historical legacy issues. Sorry, not much to be done there. If it makes you feel better, there really aren’t that many terms to learn and most of them are fairly similar to English.
So what’s the point of it all?
It’s crazy fun to do, it can be super exciting to watch, and if you’re lucky it can be superbly beautiful.
The following is a thorough and in-depth analysis of the Rio men’s sabre field, based on only the finest in armchair-quarterbacking, internet rumours, random encounters in nightclubs, and gossip overheard at tournaments. It has been delayed by several weeks due to the machinations of WADA, CAS, IOC and FIE, thus proving that we’re fundamentally pretty naïve at heart because we though the field might actually change. Haha!
The field this time around is noteworthy for the sheer percentage of dirty old fencers who are in it for one last desperate shot at glory before the game gets thrown down the toilet by the upcoming rule changes, which will ruin everything well past the point where a 30-something with sore knees and decades of finely-tuned responses can be bothered trying to adapt. The Olympics is traditionally won by some fresh-faced young hotshot, but we have a feeling this time will be different. So who are the contenders?
1. ALEXEY YAKIMENKO (RUSSIA) Age 32, World rank 1
An ugly brawler with a unique prep game which for some reason nobody else on the circuit has ever been able to pull off. Has had an astonishing season so far, largely based on his willingness to use whatever means may be necessary to get that hardware. The result has been the World Championship title, a world cup hat trick and a stack of podium finishes. To see his name against you on the tableau is to see the crushing weight of inevitability. Just let it happen.
2. JUNGHWAN KIM (KOREA) Age 32, World rank 2
A fragile speedster carrying a decade of injuries, it will only take one big hit or bad landing to ruin Kim’s day. On the plus side, he’s a lunatic street-fighter and is the most likely one there to be simply too crazy to bow to the weight of inevitability listed above. Got a strong lead-in with gold at the final Grand Prix of the season in Moscow, and, unusually for him, does not appear to be starting this event with any damage worse than an unfortunate haircut. Will finish the day either on the podium or in a fetal position on the floor.
3. ARON SZILAGYI (HUNGARY) Age 26, World rank 3
The defending champion and universally beloved golden boy, he of the most exquisite technical repertoire and collection of wounded-but-noble facial expressions for his video appeals. He’s perfect and beautiful in every way, but unfortunately since 2012 he just hasn’t been very good at coming first at tournaments. He’s got good odds of finishing on the podium, but the probability of lightning striking twice just ain’t that high. It’ll all be excellent television though
4. BONGIL GU (KOREA) Age 27, World rank 4
An alien cyborg sent to Earth with an inexplicable mission to win all of the sabre medals, Gu was an unstoppable powerhouse for the last two years and then just… stopped. I mean, he’s only won a single world cup this season. Pathetic. Either he got bored, or he’s in an extended reboot cycle after a firmware update. Will it be completed in time? That question will determine the gold, because when he brings the fire he can and will eat anyone else on this list for breakfast. If not, then he’ll have to extend his mission a bit longer, and we’re not going to object to that.
5. VINCENT ANSTETT (FRANCE) Age 34, World rank 5
The dark horse in the top 8, Anstett has muddled around the middle ranks of the OK-that-guy-is-pretty-good-I-guess fencers for years before exploding into the top of the scene with a series of strong results in 2016. He’s out to prove to the kids of today that sometimes, you just need to take things a little more seriously. They might not like it, but he’s brought the data. He gives hope to everyone who wants to believe that a normal human being can win at sabre. We’re expecting good things, even if his stop cuts make us cry a little inside.
6. TIBERIU DOLNICEANU (ROMANIA) Age 28, World rank 6
Tibi is one unit strong nice sabre fencer. He is the undisputed master of the eternal, grinding 4m slog game, but if you cut all that out of his videos then he is a thing of magnificence. He’s had a rough season filled with injury so far and it will be interesting to see if he’s able to bring it back to full power, because if he does he could smash them all. Then it will be time for us to hit the editing again, because man it will be pretty. Totally misleading, but pretty. If you’re planning on watching his fights live, bring a good book.
7. MAX HARTUNG (GERMANY) Age 26, World rank 8
Even Hartung admits he’s not a nice fencer. The big German relies on the weird, the awkward, and the brutal, plus a line in kicked-puppy video appeal expressions that would give even Szilagyi a run for his money. That said, he’s refined things a lot in the last year or so and it’s all starting to gel together into something that occasionally passes for spectacular. So far in 2016 he’s made a strong habit in coming 5th in just about every tournament. It’s admirably consistent, but it’d be nice to see a break in the pattern.
8. NIKOLAY KOVALEV (RUSSIA) Age 29, World rank 9
On a good day, Kovalev is an unstoppable beast, a tour-de-force of lighting reflexes and dazzling high-energy footwork. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have that many good days. More commonly, he’s just a little bit too jittery to carry off the hype. That being said, he did stage a massive upset in Seoul by knocking junior colleague and all-round team darling Kamil Ibragimov out of his Olympic spot, thus totally ruining our previous predictions for this event. He was the favourite for London but dropped the ball at the last minute: maybe with a little more of the mellowness of age he can pull it off this time. Or maybe he’ll start giggling maniacally in the middle of matches again.
9. DARYL HOMER (USA) Age 26, World rank 10
Every so often, Homer has a day where is actually fences as well as he should, and when that happens it’s the best thing ever. He’s dynamic, he’s powerful, and he’s pretty. He just needs to chill out a bit. The whole Olympic Games thing could either throw him one way or the other. Either way, there’s going to be a fair bit of drama by the end.
10. ALDO MONTANO (ITALY) Age 37, World rank 11
The Greatest Of All Time, according to the internet, and who can argue with the internet? This maniac ageing gym-rat has been been out since January after having his shoulder patched together with carbon fibre and adamantium, which is the only reason he’s this far down the rankings. Montano has made good use of his rehab time by posing for ludicrously sexy Hot-Fencer-Of-The-Day bait in Italian fashion magazines and owning everyone else in the field on Instagram. Sure, he’s a bit out of practice at the whole tournament thing, but he’s been doing this since 2004 and it’s in the blood. Not to be underestimated.
11. ELI DERSHWITZ (USA) Age 20, World rank 12
The first of the fresh-faced rookies on the list, Dershwitz had a very good day in Seoul over Easter with his first big senior title. He’s exactly the kind of fencer we’d usually expect to do well at an event like this: young, fast, strong and kind of weird. Gets just a little bit too worked up, and is almost guaranteed to be the loudest one in the room, which is no mean feat. Could get lucky.
12. DIEGO OCCHIUZZI (ITALY) Age 35, World rank 13
Everyone wants you to believe Occhiuzzi is the bad guy. His villain schtick been around for so long it’s a cliché. When you get past the drama and look at him, he’s fantastic: a caring family man whose sabre game is unfailingly sharp, brilliant and beautiful. The inevitable blow-ups are almost an obligation now, and honestly there’s worse offenders around these days. We love him, and we love seeing him cause trouble.
13. MOJTABA ABEDINI (IRAN) Age 31, World rank 15
The most exotic and rare of creatures, Abedini is a normal moderate fencer with good technique and sensible tactics. Has quietly snuck up into the upper echelons of the ranking list with a series of solid results against much more flamboyant opponents. He’s there with a job to do.
14. ALIAKSANDR BUIKEVICH (BELARUS) Age 31, World rank 16
The slowest fencer in the world, Buikevich takes the tall-lazy-leftie thing and elevates it to an art form. Noteworthy for starring earlier this year in The Worst Sabre Bout Of All Time against #15, Sandro Bazadze, for which both of them stand eternally in disgrace. Can actually fence OK when he wakes up.
15. SANDRO BAZADZE (GEORGIA) Age 23, World rank 19
Much scream, very drama, wow. Look out for his famous “big screen” video appeal signal. Actually quite a clean fencer when you edit out the hours and hours of simultaneous attacks and posturing, with a draw cut that will take your arm off. Could cause some serious trouble for the big dogs if they don’t watch out.
16. ALI PAKDAMAN (IRAN) Age 25, World rank 21
Not a particularly subtle fencer. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s very good at treading on people’s feet.
17. RENZO AGRESTA (BRAZIL) Age 32, World rank 22
Home town favourite who will probably have the wind at his back all day, and will need it.
18. MATYAS SZABO (GERMANY) Age 24, World rank 25
Szabo should be way further up the list than this. A notorious prankster with gorgeous delicate footwork, he is for some reason Gu’s kryptonite. Is almost certain to ruin someone’s day.
19. ANDRIY YAGODKA (UKRAINE) Age 28, World rank 29
We’re not saying Yagodka’s counterattack game is the reason for the timing change, but it’s the best excuse we’ve heard. A massive, ungainly kid with a wingspan more typically associated with exotic soviet cargo aircraft, his sabre is so hideous that it’s kind of cool.
20. JOSEPH POLOSSIFAKIS (CANADA) Age 25, World rank 30
Polo’s career best result was a top-8 at the 2015 Moscow Grand Prix, which was sustained with a sprained ankle. Maybe someone should hit him in the kneecaps with a baseball bat before Rio. Aww, just kidding, Polo, we love you.
21. SEPPE VAN HOLSBEKE (BELGIUM) Age 28, World rank 32
For all the noise about the importance of height in this sport, there are not many people on the men’s sabre circuit who, when met suddenly around a corner, cause us to go OH JEEZ YOU’RE REALLY BIG. Van Holsbeke is one of them. He’s also sadly renowned for building crushing leads and then losing on a heartbreaking 15/14 for the stupidest of reasons. Would be nice if he could get out of that habit. Has his own website, which is pretty slick.
Author’s note: At this point, we largely plunge out of the territory where we can make informed comment on the fencers, besides as guys we’ve seen the big dogs beat up in the first round at worlds. We’re very sorry about this, but there are only so many hours in the day and we have jobs. If anyone would like further coverage, please submit a portfolio of your most spectacular hits and/or an entertaining personal bio to email@example.com for consideration. Thank you. If any of you guys win, we promise to buy you dinner.
22. THANH AN VU (VIETNAM) Age 23, World rank 33
Fast, tense, and holds like crazy. Will probably love the new timing next season.
23. ILYA MOKRECOV (KAZAHKSTAN) Age 32, World rank 39
Loves him some 4m forward parries. Not the most graceful thing we’ve ever seen, but at least it’s ambitious.
24. FARES FERJANI (TUNISIA) Age 19, World rank 40
Never seen this kid fence, so who can tell?
25. TAMAS DECSI (HUNGARY) Age 33, World rank 51
Wait, what is Decsi doing down here? He’s a beast. If he turns it on, he has an attack almost indistinguishable from a runaway locomotive. You might get the attack on prep, but it ain’t gonna save you. Could do some serious damage to someone expecting an easy first round.
26. YEMI APITHY (BENIN) Age 27, World rank 56
Has terrible taste in nightclubs. That’s all we’re saying.
27. WEI SUN (CHINA) Age 23, World rank 72
Got some range on him. Might be good for a shock upset if he’s having a strong day.
28. KENTA TOKUNAN (JAPAN) Age 28, World rank 75
Has a nice line in foil counterparries. Quite fun to watch.
29. MOHAMED AMER (EGYPT) Age 19, World rank 85
We’ve never seen this guy fence except in training, but he’s the youngest one in the comp so that’s pretty cool.
30. JULIAN AYALA (MEXICO) Age 24, World rank 123
(We’ve never seen this guy fence)
31. YOANDRY IRIARTE GALVEZ (CUBA) Age 30, World rank 142
(We’ve never seen this guy fence)
32. PANCHO PASKOV (BULGARIA) – Age 22, World rank – wow, there are that many guys on the FIE ranking list now? How nice to see the sport grow.
We’re not really sure who this kid is. There’s a rumour his mum got him in to the Olympics, and we guess that’s as good an explanation as any. Hey, if you can manage it, why not?
SO WHO WILL WIN
The scientific answer:
There is absolutely no way to tell. Anyone in the top 20 or so could take it with a good day and a prevailing wind.
Draw names out of a hat.
The sports-wonk answer:
The Olympics is a weird tournament due to its small field and extensive advance notice of the draw. The ability to spend up to a week planning for a known set of opponents traditionally gives younger, less well-known athletes an edge over the guys who’ve been on the circuit for years and had some nerd in Australia make compilation videos showing all their cool moves (SORRY GUYS).
According to this logic, it’ll be someone young, good enough to have at least a couple of serious world cup results under their belt but not enough good results to be a major target yet. Also by this logic, the fencers who rely on the awkward and the random may have an edge. Look for Dershwitz, Bazadze, Yagodka, Sun, Szabo, maybe even Hartung if he keeps his head down.
The sentimental answer:
We want one of the wily old bastards to take it, in this last tournament under the good old rules.
Anstett, Dolniceanu, Gu, Kim, Kovalev, Occhiuzzi, or best of all Cyborg Montano: show the kids how sabre is done right before the FIE blows it all to hell.
The cynical pragmatist answer:
Yakimenko will win.
He just will. We’re putting money on it, just to make us feel better when the inevitable happens.
ENJOY THE SHOW
If you’re watching, we hope this guide enhances your spectator experience. Pick a favourite or two, heckle loudly and throw stuff if appropriate. Depending on who your favourites are, having a stiff drink and a shoulder to cry on may also be advised, but hey, that’s part of sport.
If you’re fencing, have fun on the piste, and may the odds be ever in your favour. You guys are all awesome, and we’re very sorry if we said anything mean, unless it’s true. You’re still pretty awesome though.