Regular followers of our work will know that we have a strong affinity for K-sabre. There are plenty of reasons: it is spectacular to watch, we’ve worked with them in the past with great success, and they’re nice guys.
But the real reason is this: They set sabre free.
Back in the distant bygone era of 2008 when we were just getting started in this sport, there was an iron-clad set of rules to follow if you wanted to win.
Be European; or
Go to Europe to train; or
Hire a European coach.
Sabre was an art with a body of secret knowledge which was controlled by an Old Guard of Masters. To ever understand it, you had to go to the source and supplicate yourself.
This was clearly impractical for the enormous majority of humans on this planet, but it was an unavoidable price.
And then K-sabre happened, and everything changed.
Here was a squad who had never followed any of the rules. They never went to the source. They reverse-engineered sabre from first principles and hours of vidcam footage from 1990s World Cups. What they built wasn’t strict and regimented, but wild and diverse and individualistic. It bubbled with joy and ferocity.
The Old Guard shook their fists. They objected loudly to all of this. It was ugly. Simplistic. Unsophisticated. “This isn’t fencing, they’re just fighting like animals”, to quote one particularly memorable rant we heard.
But it worked. It didn’t just work better than it should. It worked better than anything that had been tried before. In an era of increasing professionalism and competition, it worked well enough to claim four consecutive World Cup titles and the current World and Olympic team championships.
Obviously there are peculiar conditions behind all this which are not easy to replicate, foremost lavish financial support for Olympic sports in Korea allowing the construction of a fearsome professional program, but the seeds were sown long before the system was in place.
What Korean sabre showed is that the old rules didn’t have to apply. That’s why we love it. It showed us there was another way.
Now, for all you kids who weren’t around when London 2012 happened, or those of you who may have forgotten, here is what a full-power Korean sabre team looks like.
Take the 30 minutes to watch it. It’s pretty great.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Budapest was the final tournament in the 2015 World Cup calendar. I have delayed publication of a proper recap because watching the final again will make me cry, and because everyone in the sabre world has already heard about the grotesque farce that was the Yakimenko/Rousset semi. Instead of serious analysis, we’re going to be announcing some awards.
In case you’ve been on Mars and haven’t seen the juicy bit yet, here it is: have something around that you can punch.
Budapest was the third gold a row for Alexey Yakimenko, winner of our inaugural award for “Fencer Most In Need Of A New PR Agent”.
The actual “Fair Play” award goes to Nicolas Rousset, for all-round gentlemanly restraint in not doing what I would have done under the same circumstances:
Meanwhile, Kim Junghwan takes home the “Glass Cannon Award for Unstoppable Badass Who Is Actually Surprisingly Easy To Stop”, narrowly edging out Tibi Dolniceanu.
Now that Aldo Montano has dealt with his unfortunate man-bun issue from earlier this year, Kim also was a clear winner in the “Fencer Most In Need Of A Haircut” category.
Now it’s time for our major category: “The Big Damn Hero Award For Most Dramatic If Ultimately Futile Points Chase In A Team Event”.
With the team captain on the bench with a mangled ankle and the alien cyborg apparently malfunctioning, it came down to the 22-year old Korean reserve to put up a fight against an overwhelming Russian offensive.
Here is hero time for Ha Hansol:
Poor Kovalev, I think he got a bit tense towards the end there. To be frank, he got a bit lucky on that last point too. That was the theme of his day:
This time, he got away with it by the skin of his teeth. The last few comps have not been so forgiving. As a result, Nikolay Kovalev gets the 2015 award for “Most Inexplicable Team Anchor”.
And so we reach the winner of the actual 2015 World Cup, about which it seems nobody cares at all.
Mr Gu was responsible for our single favourite moment of the Budapest tournament, and claims our prestigious “Most Gu Bongil Thing Ever” award.
That GIF encapsulates everything that he is, in 5.2 seconds. It’s perfection.
Gu also took out another award, “Fencer Most Likely To Successfully Get a Call Flipped By Hugging The Ref”
Finally, a shout out to the winner of the award for “Fencer Most Likely To Be Found Strategically Positioned Next To All The Best Fights With A Video Camera”, our good friend Andrew “CyrusOfChaos” Fischl. Love your work, dude.
Two names are conspicuously absent from that list.
Oh Eunseok and Won Wooyoung have retired from the Korean national team and will not be competing internationally this season. While some fallout from the team’s disappointing run at Moscow was expected, I think most observers were anticipating that the Big 4 would stay together until after Rio.
I’m sure I won’t be the only one sad to see these guys go from the FIE circuit. Both Won and Oh are among the most creative, exciting and influential fencers of their generation. They’ve introduced radical changes to our understanding of what sabre can be, and in doing so have made it a lot more fun to watch.
In the spirit of getting all nostalgic and sentimental, I’m going to be watching these on loop over the next few days, possibly while drinking red wine and crying:
I’m going to allow myself a little smugness here. I totally called it.
In fact, I called it at around about an hour after Kovalev summarily dispatched a hapless Gu in the final of the 2014 world champs in Kazan. Slouched among the empty wine bottles at about 4am (watching live sabre in Australia is strictly an exercise for the hardcore), we started looking at the host venue for the next year: Moscow.
Well that’s easy, I said. Yakimenko will win. Calling it right now.
We’ll be going through things in detail over the next few days as the videos go up. There were a few surprises and a few notable omissions at the top of the table:
Moscow, it seems, does not agree with Gu Bongil. The world #1 crashed out in a shock upset loss in the quarterfinals for the second time in two months. This was his first defeat by Daryl Homer, delivered by a crushing string of parries. Homer was having a killer day, and continued the insane parry theme through to the semifinals:
He was generally in classic trick-shot form:
Yakimenko, meanwhile, was busy making people very sad. First came Kim, who was the only one to pose a serious threat to the eventual champion, with an aggressive start to the bout:
Then things went less well for the Korean:
In fairness, though, wasn’t all Yakimenko’s fault. I’d probably cry too at this call.
With that out of the way, it was Hartung’s turn:
And then finally Homer:
It was very nice to see Homer and Hartung get so far. Both displayed career-best form and produced some spectacular fencing. In the end, though, the result was profoundly conclusive.
Our prediction for teams, meanwhile, is clear: The Koreans are going to murder everyone.
They were by far the most consistent squad on the day. Oh Eunseok returned to form with a furious vengeance, demolishing Limbach and Kovalev in the coolest bouts of the tournament. His trademark upper body work was letting him pull off extraordinary sneak hits in the 4m, which we’ll have a look at later in the week as soon as the videos go up.
Anyway, after the outcome of the quarterfinals, I suspect Team Korea is going to be out for some redemption. Or at least blood. Stay tuned for Friday!
In other news, Gu got the last laugh in the end: his 5th place finish was enough to keep him in the world #1 spot he’s occupied the entire season, and seal his second consecutive overall World Cup title.
There’s no neat videos of individual bouts yet, but the full streams are available on YouTube.
The Moscow Grand Prix was on the weekend, and boy, was it something. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many extraordinarily tight 14-14 matches in one tournament before. We’ll be taking a look at some of the best bits over the next week, but I only have time today for one hit. This little beauty was the first one of the night to leave my jaw on the floor:
The most exciting thing to come out of this whole event is that OMG, the FIE have actually done their job and posted every single match, edited and searchable, on the FIE Video YouTube channel, which means I don’t have to spend 12 hours doing it for them. Hooray!
Officially, we’ve been absent for ages because we’ve been crazy busy with club stuff and migrating the blog to a new host. But that’s not the real reason I didn’t post anything from the Seoul Grand Prix.
When Junghwan Kim, the last Korean standing by the round of 8, got his second red card for crossing feet and was then knocked out of the tournament on a dirty counterattack from Rousset, I may have thrown something at the television and stormed off like the partisan fangirl I am. I saw the final was Rousset v Limbach and made numerous rude remarks about how I’d rather watch paint dry.
Turns out I’m an idiot, and the final was fantastic. And not just because of the exuberant French and German cheer squads in the stands, displaying the kind of spectator engagement fencing could generally do with more of.
It was a bravura display of ballsy and flamboyant defense from Limbach, who was showing a flair I’d never previously associated with him. He’s still not exactly the most graceful fencer I’ve ever seen, but the combination of precision footwork, hilarious range and exuberant creativity is spectacular.
In that vein, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our first installment in the new Epic Sabre series:
Epic Sabre Seoul Edition: Nicolas Limbach Parries Things
To quote Andrew Fischl: “Yeah, let’s start like that.”
Lovely bit of countertime. Won Wooyoung would approve.
“Was that a prime? That was totally a prime.” Yes, yes it was. Off a feint seconde. Anyway, we know who won that sword fight.
Who does prime twice in one match? Limbach, that’s who. Very nearly very awesome, but unfortunately off the strip.
Anyway, then he got sick of prime and decided to go even further down the list of 1% moves.
That, kids, is a classy way to win a grand prix. I suspect point-in-line is easier when you have the kind of wingspan typically associated with exotic Soviet-era cargo aircraft, but still.
Here’s the full match, also featuring a truly vicious counterattack from Rousset, an enthusiastic audience and typically wry commentary from Mr Fischl.
I promise we’ll be back with more in less than 3 months.
The first men’s sabre World Cup for 2015 was in Padua over the weekend. A number of interesting things happened, but the main theme is that the kids these days just ain’t go no respect for their elders.
I’ll be looking at them one at a time over the next few days as I get a chance to go through the videos. First up, I think we’d better get the really big news of the comp out of the way, and that’s Aldo Montano’s rockin’ topkot.
The other substantive news was that Kamil Ibragimov absolutely smashed it. The lightning quick 21-year old has been a fencer I’ve been keeping an eye on for the last year, and weirdly enough I was actually going to post him this week in my Fencers-I-Want-To-See-More-Of series. We got to see an awful lot of him on the weekend, and it was pretty great.
Ibragimov taking gold at a world cup is cool and possibly a little unexpected, at least this soon, but he’s got a pretty solidly established rep. What was not expected was that a 19-year old rookie, fresh out of high school with zero international comp experience at any level, would be on the podium with him. But that’s what happened.
Oh Sanguk entered the comp seeded 999. The first sign of trouble was when he smashed up the poules, seeding second behind Aliaksandr Buikevich. He then preceeded to cut a swathe through the competition. First came Szatmari:
Then he drew Montano. For a while, it looked like nature was going to take its course and the score blew out to 11-6 Montano’s way. Then he began to tire, and Oh did not show mercy.
It’s like someone thought “Hey, Gu Bongil’s advance lunge is pretty good. But wouldn’t it be better if he was 7 feet tall?”
By the last point they had both fallen several times and were both looking a little delicate, but the young Korean brought it home:
The live stream of the 64 to 8 is here, with Oh v Montano from 1:36:00 in. I’ve already given away the ending, but it’s worth a look anyway.