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The problem of wrestling in a weapons art

Ilpo defends himself from a kick in the nuts!

Many years ago, while I was teaching at the Dawn Duellists Society, I fenced rapier with a visiting student. He was not a very experienced swordsman so I managed to stab him five times in the chest in quick succession. That did not stop him from closing in, and, being an experienced wrestler, getting me onto my back on the floor with my right arm in an arm bar. While he was locking my arm, I had managed to switch my sword to my left hand and was beating him over the mask with it as he applied the lock.

This is a clear example of how important it is to communicate what is considered a ‘hit', ‘point', or ‘fight-winning situation' before any bout. In my head, I thrashed him. In his, he clearly won because eventually I had to tap out of the arm bar. The problem is this: when we compete with swords, we are effectively touch-sparring. We make contact, but try not to do damage. Points are awarded for contact made in the prescribed way. The hits themselves don't work. Wrestling and grappling though are almost invariably ‘full contact', in that if the technique is not doing what it's supposed to do (throw the opponent, lock them so they can't escape, choke them out, or whatever), then it is not counted.

When we fence in systems that have both weapons use and wrestling, we are effectively asking the competitors to switch between touch sparring and full contact in the moment. This is very, very hard to do. The wrestlers will naturally ignore anything that doesn't actually stop them, and the fencers will be very frustrated by having their legitimate blows ignored.

There was a kerfuffle on the internet lately about a rather dangerous throw being executed in a longsword competition. You can see the video here:

When I saw it, my only response was to wonder whether both fencers had agreed to that level of contact. If they had, then no problem. Dangerous, I wouldn't do it, but we're all consenting adults. It is absolutely not my place to comment on the rule-set (I'm not sure if the throw was allowed- if it was, then no action required; if it was not, then the person ought to be sanctioned in some way), nor is it my place to comment on the organisation of the event. The reason that I have never organised an open tournament is precisely because it is very very hard to guarantee a reasonable level of safety, and to make sure that all the fencers, from different backgrounds, are nonetheless sufficiently compatible to avoid misunderstandings. I know of no reason to criticise the organisers of this event in this case.

I don't have a solution to this problem, but I do have some thoughts. In any bout:

  1. It is vital to communicate the winning conditions extremely clearly.
  2. the judges must be trained to identify those conditions even when they are not obvious.
  3. the fencers must be trained to obey the judges' calls.
  4. all fencers in all disciplines that include any throws or grapples must be taught to fall from day one.*
  5. there is no excuse for getting carried away, or exceeding the agreed-upon level of force. One strike and you're out, I'd say.

In my school we include grapples and throws and do everything on hard surfaces. Our very low injury rate is due to how we train, and that the fencers have a common background and training culture. The level of risk is very clear to all, and allowable techniques are dependent on the experience of the least skilled fencer. In training bouts I tend to allow the fencers to fight on after clear blows have been struck, because it's better that they learn to remain untouched after striking, and to defend themselves against the Mordreds** out there who will keep coming after taking mortal blows

Scoring fencing touches is problematic. I don't think there is any one-way-fits-all solution. The reaction of a body to a sword blow varies hugely. In some cases, a person will drop dead in seconds from a thrust, in others a person will continue fighting after multiple wounds. Knowing, as my opponent breaks my neck, that my sword thrust through her liver will have her joining me in eternity not five minutes from now is slim consolation. Stopping a fight just because somebody has a cut to the arm or thrust to the body is not necessarily more realistic than allowing it to continue. Training fencers to stop after scoring or receiving a hit is profoundly counter-productive. The call to halt therefore must come from a third party.

That video caused something of a shit-storm on Facebook when it was posted three weeks ago, because HEMA attracts drama, apparently. This is why I've waited a few weeks before posting my thoughts. If you would like to comment on this, please do so, but a) keep it civil, and b) keep it civil. Rules c, d, and e are the same as rule a.

 

*if you don't know how to teach falling onto a hard surface, you can see how I do it on my Medieval Dagger course. I've set that lecture to be part of the free preview content.

** Mordred was King Arthur's son, who having been thrust through the belly with a spear, clambered up the shaft and killed his father at the other end of it.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

21 Responses

  1. Hi, Guy –
    The shitstorm was caused, at least in part, because that video was posted to Facebook with a misleading caption, claiming that the tournament did not allow throws. Actually the tournament explicitly did allow throws. I don’t know how the throwee didn’t know that: when the fencer signed up, there was a link on the sign up page to the rules (which included detailed commentary on throws and ground fighting); closer to event the fencer was sent an email with a link to the rules reminding them to read them; they also received a video review of the rules that included an example of that exact throw; and the morning of the event the organizer reviewed the rules with all fencers, including discussion of throws. (Because I am not in a state of fitness and healing from injuries that will tolerate being thrown, I decided to volunteer as staff but not fight in this event, which is why you can see me in the background in an event staff shirt.)
    Another part of the kerfuffle was inspired by ‘how terrible it was to do that throw on hardwood’. That isn’t hardwood – it’s puzzle mats (thicker than usual, similar to judo mats) with a hardwood print on the surface.
    You state that you were “more concerned by the thrower’s apparent lack of interest in the wellbeing of the person he had just hurled onto the ground than I was by the throw itself”, but I’m not quite sure that is an entirely fair judgement to make if you only have this clip. The thrower returned to his corner, but once it was clear that the throwee wasn’t popping right back up, the thrower kept checking in on the throwee until it was determined that he was uninjured. (The throwee was down for a couple of minutes until he caught his breath and the event medical staff cleared him to continue – his only problem was that he’d held his breath all the way down, and had all the air knocked out of him.) The video clip is not long enough to show the concern of the thrower.
    The thrower does make sure that they are not going to land on his weapon, does not lift at the top, does keep his arms and knees out so that he doesn’t slam his opponent on the landing: this was a safely executed throw, even at high intensity.
    On the other hand, the throwee illegally pommels the thrower in the side of the mask (only legal target for pommel was the front of the mask). The thrower’s jaw was so swollen that he was on a liquid diet only for a few days afterwards.
    Regarding damage stopping a fight: this tournament had specific rules about afterblows, and about the switch from weapons to grappling, and the fighters were told to fight until ‘Halt!’ was called. In this exchange the throwee scored (with the pommel), but the thrower did not, since weapons hits precluded unarmed scoring (watching this on video, I’m not sure that was the right call, since the pommelling was to an illegal target, but this was a pretty fast action, and the corner judges are human too).

    1. Thanks for the added context, that’s really helpful. I can only judge what I saw, but am happy to take your word for what went on before and after.

  2. Hi Guy,

    Jan here. I acted as Ryans second during the bout shown.

    Since you didn’t look at the rules, let me post them here for you:
    http://bit.ly/2mGSbS8

    There is also an explainer video, which can be found here:
    https://youtu.be/4BiKK6OdBJU

    This video gives a summary of the most important rules and rule-changes for the HEMA Tournament at the Tosetti Institute on March 3rd 2018.

    The throwee did not actually read these rules or watch the video, but signed the waver anyway. Ryan did exactly what good training and the rules say he should do. Diagnosing ‘apparent lack of concern’, thereby damaging that fighters reputation, while at the same time not actually doing a minimum amount of research into what happened, is disingenuous. I expected better from you. As Tyson pointed out above, the video is very short and shows no context.

    HEMA fighters with a wresting background have already opined on this and found the throw to be safe, well executed and clearly not intended to maximize impact. I specifically invite you to talk to Roger Norling who trained with us and that fighter in the week before the tournament on that floor. Please feel free to contact me for further information.

    Jan

    1. Hi Jan. Thanks for providing some extra context.
      I’m not actually interested in the specifics of that competition; they are not relevant to the point I’m trying to make, which is simply that it is very hard to modulate between touch-sparring and full contact, and some thoughts on how to get there. The video highlights a common problem in martial arts training in general and fencing competitions in particular- a throw happening after a blow (pommel strike) is struck. As I say in the post, it’s not my place to judge the event or the tournament rules, or the fighters. I don’t intend anyone to read anything negative into that.
      You may note I’ve removed the remark about the thrower’s actions immediately after the throw; the throw itself, as you say, was very well performed.
      I don’t see how my remarks have damaged his or anyone else’s reputation, but as the man on the spot if you feel it’s so, please forward my apologies to the thrower.
      If you *want* my comments on the rules, I’ll provide them.

      1. Thanks for removing that comment, Guy, I really appreciate that. Given the level of vitriol that happened around this video, I think a lot of us are feeling defensive about this fencer, whose character was unfairly maligned in that dustup.

      2. Hi Guy,

        I appreciate you removing your remark about the throwers actions. As Tyson said, there were a lot of unreasonable personal attacks on that fencer in the original discussion of that video, which made me very sensitive to that type of behaviour.

        As for the rules: I am happy to hear your feedback. Please feel free to drop me an email.

        Your original point, that it is hard to combine fencing with wrestling has merit. However, I think the term touch-sparring is somewhat misleading. The hits with the Longsword already require a minimum force level to be valid, so the transition to wrestling might not be as difficult in that setting. We do believe it can be done safely and no one in our Tourney suffered anything more serious than deep bruising. – Jan

        1. No problem.
          Light or somewhat vigorous, the longsword blows in sparring don’t do what real ones would- remove a limb, create gushing holes, etc. So I stand by touch-sparring 🙂 But I agree it can be done safely (and I don’t think I said anything to the contrary in the post).
          Incidentally, having seen the rules explanation video, that FB shitstorm makes even less sense. The *aim* of the tournament was to focus on grappling. And, I doubt that that pommel strike would have stopped a determined attacker not wearing a mask.

          1. Thanks Guy.

            That shitstorm indeed made very little sense. I appreciate you taking the time to look a little deeper into the issue.

  3. I’d echo your thought, it was the lack of concern for the thrown competitor by the thrower that I did not like.

    I’d add that in the clip, I saw the thrower intended to go for the throw straight away and made use of his superior skill against an opponent whose grappling appears to be weaker,there was no intent in this exchange for him to engage with the weapons.

    This is something I have observed in a number of open and some closed weapon competitions, where the remove of serious consequence from the weapons encourages going for the grapple to the exclusion of the weapon. its the nature of the artifact of the competition… but doesn’t make it any more appealing tome personally.

    1. Apparently, right after the clip ended, he was absolutely looking after the thrown chap. (Check Jan’s comment above). That’s why I deleted the comment I made; it turns out to be unjustified (as well as not strictly relevant to the point at hand). My bad.
      I think that someone whose strongest skill is wrestling absolutely should try to make the fight go there, in a tournament where that’s allowed. If you have a look at the rules video, the *intent* of this tournament was to encourage grappling. So on that point, the thrower is 100% justified.

      1. OK. For some reason my reply didn’t go through when I actually wrote it… hey ho.
        Yes video evidence it’s tricky as we dont see then before or after and and feelings are affected by what we see producing the WYSIATI effect. (What You See Is All There Is)
        Of course if ones strength is garapping and the competition is encouraging it then one should do so… though relating to your observation on the differences on weapons and grappling scoring… the grappler will generally have the advantage. And if will ecourage grappling. That said rather like after blow rules one needs to consider that one needs to be able to deal with the Modred’s .. 🙂

        1. Hi
          It didn’t go through then as it’s your first comment on the blog, and so has to be moderated first. I approved it when I saw it.
          WYSIATI is a great acronym. And the cause of much trouble 🙂

  4. As Both a HEMA and an SCA fighter I agree that the rules should be made clear to all the participants, as well as the level of force being used. In one of our recent SCA tournaments there was a considerable amount of communication between fighters about the amount of force that was acceptable at the start of almost every fight by the participants. Since we had a lot of crossover this time (HEMA & SCA) it worked out quite well.
    We have found that a quick chat with your opponent 1) takes hardly any time, and 2) prevents most arguable incidents.
    Thanks again Guy for a great article!

    David Clemente,
    Company of the Sable Blade
    Sierra Vista, AZ.

  5. As a point of reference on effect of attacks – if you talk to EMTs and trauma surgeons, you will find that people can absorb huge amounts of damage and still be full of fight. My training experience is more modern weapons that HEMA – I found your material looking around for long knife work after local laws changed to allow them. No matter what the weapon, unless you hit the brain or spinal column they’re likely to continue to fight. They will lose capability as the bleed out, as in your example of someone with a hole cut through her liver. History shows us many people with mortal wounds using their final moment to wreck havoc on their adversaries.

    In my small town, we had an honest to god machete duel about a year ago. Two of our new residents, just moved here from Guatemala, had some sort of disagreement in a bar about 2am. They went out to the parking lot and got their machetes and went at it mano a mano. One had his left hand amputated close to the wrist fending an incoming strike. My friends in the local PD say the fight was still ongoing when they got there several minutes after the amputation occurred.

    1. Thanks for the extra info! I attended a seminar with a pathologist on the effect of blades on bodies; he’d say the same thing. Big sword through the head, lights out. Anything else, and there’s time for all sorts of mayhem.

  6. Hi Guy,

    That’s a really insightful distinction between grappling and long sword fencing, and one that deserves further discussion.

    I’d just like to add that, within the realm of grappling technique, explosive throws that get a lot of air (like the one in the video) are in a class of their own in terms of risk and it takes serious training to become comfortable being thrown like that. Falling practice is a good place to start but participants usually also have to get thrown hard many times during free play before they overcome the initial panic of being lifted, and not do something stupid like go rigid or flail around (or repeatedly and illegally pommel their opponents in the side of the head). This kind of practice also requires a suitably matted surface which most clubs don’t have and probably can’t afford.

  7. I’d be curious as to your thoughts on something that came up at my practice recently. A friend and I ere sparring with rapiers, closed in, and began to grapple. It went on for a couple seconds until it got to here I as on my back with his back on top of mine. From my position I as able to establish hat likely would have been an effective chokehold, but it took him a few seconds for it to register as he was wearing his gorget. What, then, are your thoughts on situations such as this where our armor meant to deal with swords affects our ability to clearly communicate what has happened in the grapple.

    1. that’s a tough one. In general, I’d say locks should work through the armour; chokes are another matter. They do depend on being held for a certain amount of time, and the armour shouldn’t prevent that (as indeed it didn’t in your example). It’s down to good communication between the combatants, I think.

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