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  1. Bottom side control: Ye gods, I need to work on side control escapes. A lot. All of them.

  2. Top side control: Back to basic subs—work the baseball choke; it’s been far too long.

  3. Guard: Pendulum/flower sweep.

  4. All offensive positions: Armbars.

  5. Generally: Learn to deal with athletic opponents. I’m not feeling too bad about my ability to deal with skill; of course I lose to more skilled opponents, but that’s the whole point and meaning of their being more skilled! My game does not fall apart just because I am outmatched, and sometimes I manage feats of defence that I’m fairly proud of, even if they happen to be against opponents who will certainly beat me: If I manage to thwart one or two attacks…

    However, against opponents with superior athleticism, I do fall apart. With nearly three years of training under my belt, an athletic new whitebelt oughtn’t really be a challenge, but they are—oh, they are. It’s my natural tendency to be (too) slow, (too) passive, and (too) reactive. An opponent who is strong, fast, and explosive is a laser-guided missile aimed at my weakest spot, and I have inordinate difficulty with opponents whose knowledge I eclipse, but whose athleticism I fail to match. I shouldn’t be such a slouch: I’ll never be very strong, but I’m not that weak. I just fail to step my game up. This is a terrible weakness, and one which I don’t know how to address.

    Figure out how to deal with these guys. I’m honestly ashamed at how bad I am at it. It’s also the one thing where, even though I’m sitting down to think about it, I don’t have any solid ideas on how to address it. Time to talk to an instructor.

    Update: As this was cross-posted to Facebook, Kabir, a purple belt from my gym, had this to say. He’s been prone to giving occasional bits of very good advice, so I strongly feel I should include it here to refer back to:

    i had the same problem with athletic guys and being passive. i think it really comes down to being lazy. gariano once told me that with any new guy,my first goal should be to go hard and try to submit them as fast as possible and work down that path, THEN i can play that passive playfful game. its all a mentality.

  6. Bottom half guard: I’m good at getting to a position close to the basic deep half, punch-to-the-sky sweep, and okay at setting it up, but terrible at finishing it. Thought: I need to stay on my side turned into them until I go for it, then turn 180° and punch up: This should provide the power I am usually missing. Alternatively, play with using more leg than arm.


  1. Continue to work on the things I’m already working on: Improve forward guards and commitment to lunges. I don’t feel a need to clarify this in a post mostly for my own benefit: I know what my problems are; I know how to work on them; I’m already working on them; I’m making progress—I’m just not there yet. (Still, I’ve improved or I’d have failed the exam again.)

  2. Learn to deal with taller opponents who can easily overpower me by means of naturally superior leverage. I asked Greg for advice, and came away with some things to keep in mind—the primary admonition was to pay attention to tempo and leverage.

    • Leverage: Be sure to push my forte in very strongly: My guard on their debole!
    • Tempo: When an opponent makes strong parries, use this tempo to disengage or strike
    • As an alternative to disengaging around a strong parry, follow it and strike around it by taking a step to the (same) side.
    • Use the familiar method of forcing the blade down. (I find this difficult with opponents who gain superior leverage more by height and so superior blade position, rather than using a lot of strength.) Use the offhand to stay safe.
    • Threaten low. Use the tempo of the opponent’s lowering their sword; in that tempo find the now-accessible blade and strike.
    • Stringere with the offhand.
    • Use prima when, as Greg put it, seconda runs out of steam. I like this idea and should like to play with it.
    • Take-home lessons: Keep working on tempo (was already trying, just not doing well); focus on getting a very strong find; don’t be ashamed to bring the offhand in to help; and try prima.

Beyond that, of course: Learn new material now that I’ll be doing blue cord classes! Some of which, like voids, will doubtless come in handy when facing opponents who use strength. (This coming month, though, I gather this new material will be sidesword.)

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On Friday, I took the Academie’s blue cord exam for the third time, and as it turns out, the last, as I passed and was awarded my blue cord¹, the second rank in the school’s system—briefly, unofficially, and unauthorised-ly by yours truly as

  1. Green cord: Basic familiarity with the first rudiments of rapier fencing, very brief introduction to sidesword and longsword. Getting here does not require any sparring; in fact I think it’s more about getting the skills to use a sword safely enough to be allowed to start sparring.
  2. Blue cord: Demonstrate competence with the basic principles of rapier fencing (finding and gaining, lunging, and so on), and familiarity with cuts, offhand, &c. Here, you’re expected to have an idea of what you’re doing, and in combat, you should be working proper technique and not fall to pieces under pressure (as I am prone to doing), whether you win or lose. Although you need some sparring skills, this isn’t really about being a good fighter, but about building the basic foundations for longer-term skill development.
  3. Red cord: Strong competence with the principles of rapier fencing, including the offhand dagger and “adaptive fight” techniques and tactics like voids; familiarity with sidesword and shield. To gain this level you not only need to show proper technique, you also have to show that you can really fight with a rapier: One of the requirements is that during the 40 minutes of sparring during the exam itself, candidates must maintain at least a 50% win ratio (which initially sounds low, but the attendees at rank exams are pretty heavily biased towards more experienced students; the ability to defeat beginners won’t get you anywhere near that 50% minimum). I think the total number of hits I’ve scored on red cords in sparring is, at last count, one, but to be fair I don’t think he was actually playing to win.
  4. Silver cord: Heaven knows. Apparently, you need to be assessed in 33 or so categories before you even qualify for the exam. Interestingly, no one at the school has achieved this rank.
  5. Gold cord: Heaven probably doesn’t know. Possibly you need to defeat several opponents at once while swinging from a chandelier. No one has achieved this rank per se, though Devon, the head instructor, holds it. I guess it’s hard to rise through the ranks when you have to build a ranking system from scratch. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that he does not deserve it. (I’ve also never seen anyone score a hit on him that he didn’t look like he was charitably allowing.)

It is to be noted that the Academie Duello rank system really seems to be designed to support a curriculum rather than being merely a hierarchal award system (as in many “traditional” martial arts) or competition division system (as it tends to function in e.g. BJJ and judo). Students are not kept at green cord because they aren’t good enough to be blue cords; rather, they are kept at green cord until they have a sufficient mastery of the basic principles that the instructors deem that it’s more conducive to the student’s progress to work on other material.

To make that a bit more concrete, the fundamental part of rapier skills at Academie Duello are based on the concept of the “true fight”, the “art” in Capoferro’s Art and Use of Fencing, stressing control of the opponent’s sword at all times and the basic strategy, and component skills, of gaining control, pressing one’s advantage when one has it, and backing up and striving to regain it when lost. In a “walk before you run” approach, the school’s curriculum is intended to make students competent with this before teaching voids and other fancy manœuvers, and to learn the single sword before adding the complication of a dagger. Being a proponent of solid basics before adding fancy tricks, be it with a sword or in jiu-jitsu, I wholeheartedly approve of this approach.

The last time I tested, I gained further competence that this is really what they are doing, because although I failed the exam, I spoke briefly to my instructor (Greg), mentioning that while I was happy to keep working on the green cord rapier material, the wrestling part of the curriculum was feeling rather repetitive and unrewarding. He agreed, and since then I’ve been joining the blue cord class for that portion: Assigned, that is, to the lessons that my instructor feels are most conducive to me learning in (and enjoying!) class, rather than to what my rank “qualifies” me for.

Moreover, I have actually quite enjoyed attempting and failing the blue cord exams. Whenever possible, I like to have some focus in my training, and especially my sparring. Instructional time is easy: Do what you’re told to work on. Sparring time is easy to waste, fighting just to win or rehearsing your strengths without correcting your weaknesses. Sparring should be focused. Taking the exams has provided me with opportunities to have a group of the school’s most senior instructors and students all assess my skills and distil their collective judgement into a few concrete areas, which has allowed me to focus on improving precisely those areas.

And this has worked. Every time I fence, I am acutely aware of just how and how much I have improved over the past six months. (I am also acutely aware of the mistakes I still make. This is the constructive but unpleasant consequence of skill improvement and Dunning–Kruger.) Every time I fence, I know exactly what I need to work on, and am able to isolate and work on the areas most in need of improvement. Several instructors have told me in recent months that they can clearly see that I’ve been working very hard: This may or may not be true, but the important fact is that I have been working with great focus.

This is in some contrast to BJJ, where…well, I probably lack focus, but it’s also harder to achieve. BJJ is a game of incredible breadth; as I’ve mentioned before,

…BJJ has so damn many possible positions. For a basic game you need some competence in both top and bottom position of full guard (open and closed), half guard, side control, knee-on-belly, north/south, mount, turtle and butterfly; you’ll probably want to know what to do with spider guard, sit-up guard, maybe some fancy stuff like De La Riva, and so on.

In BJJ, you have a largish set of very basic attacks (armbars, americana, kimura, omoplata, cross choke, RNC, guillotine, rear lapel choke, triangle, arm triangle…) and an indefinite plethora of fancier moves. In rapier, you have one principal attack (the lunge), a couple of subsidiary attacks (the cuts), and—well, that’s about it, but ipso facto you had damn well better get good at those, because your opponent will be no less focused: It’s a process of extreme refinement and finesse.

BJJ is more fun in the sense of playing-around-and-wrestling, but rapier is extremely rewarding in that it allows me, well, rapier-sharp focus in development. I enjoy them both tremendously, only in very different ways. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to practice both.

Well, I’ve spent the past six months or so working very specifically on the particular areas that my instructors have identified as crucial to my mastery of the basics; I still have many weaknesses to work on in these areas (some of which are expressed in red pen on Friday’s exam report card), but I have now been deemed competent enough that it’s time to expand the breadth of my game as well as its depth. It’s been a long-ish journey—the blue cord guide tells me it usually takes 3–6 months from green to blue, and it’s taken me about a year and a half, which is rather slow progress even after one notes that I go to only one class a week rather than the recommended two. Since red cord is estimated to take 1–1.5 years, I reckon I’ve got 3–4.5 years at a proportional pace: Plenty of time to work on my current weaknesses as well as the further improvements and new skills.

But first, I shall spent my Saturdays this coming month doing my best not to knock the buckler out of my own hand or cut my own leg with the highly confusing, and to me entirely novel combination of sidesword and shield. Excelsior!

Personal timeline, approximate:

  • November 2009: Enrolled in Academie Duello’s Taste of the Renaissance introduction program.
  • January 2010(?): Received my green cord as token that I’d completed the introduction and could enrol in regular classes.
  • June 4, 2010: Nothing happened on this date, but if I progressed at the expected pace, I should have achieved my blue cord around this time.
  • December 4, 2010: First attempt at the blue cord exam, failed: Knew I would fail, wanted to know what to work on.
  • February(?), 2011: Second attempt at the blue cord exam: Thought I would probably fail, and did.
  • June 3, 2011: Third attempt at the blue cord exam: Thought there was a somewhat >50% chance I might pass, and did.

¹ To applause of the gathered students that seemed heartfelt rather than merely polite. It warmed the cockles of my black and shrivelled little heart.

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Martial arts practice without sparring is useless: You can’t learn martial arts skills to a useful degree unless you practice them against resisting opponents who not only try to stop you from landing your techniques, but in fact do their damnedest to not even let you get started and try to get you, first. However, sparring is not fighting. There’s surely a place for sparring where you simply do your best to win, working on your strong techniques, a gameplan, and keeping pressure up, but day-to-day sparring is a learning experience not a fight. This means

  • You don’t treat it like a fight mentally: Winning and losing doesn’t matter
  • You need to work on honing your strong techniques, but sparring is equally for ironing out the weak parts in your game, filling the holes, playing with new techniques, and trying out gameplans

In BJJ, one of the (many) weak parts of my game has been guard. Previously, when I had someone in my guard I mostly stuck to submission attempts, but I’m not very good at guard submissions: I’m better on top, so the logical course of action is to sweep and achieve a top position. However, I was terrible at all sweeps. Thus, for the past six months or so, I have tried to focus as much as possible on sweeps and positional progression. In particular, I have worked the scissor sweep (my least bad sweep). Since it was a weak technique, it was pretty hopeless against anyone close to my own general skill level. A blue belt was a sure sign that you were immune to my sweep. So, when I go to fundamentals classes and roll with beginners, I have been trying to sweep them as much as I possibly can. It’s finally at a level where I am starting to feel satisfied, not that I have a great sweep but that it is no longer a horrible, particularly weak part of my game. I realised this when I managed to give someone a bit of airtime with a sweep last night; but, too, I have spent a lot more time in top mount recently, presumably because I have learned how to get there.

Time to work some other sweeps. Once I feel competent (to the general level of my game), time for submissions, but right now: The other sweeps.

I also need to continue my quest of having two complementary moves in every position. Jiu-jitsu is not a game where you can always force a certain technique. If I achieve top position and you have your hands up to protect your neck (competently), I can’t choke you. This doesn’t make me helpless—it just means I have to try something else, like a attacking an arm; and if you remove the arm to protect it, you may open up a hole where I can attempt a choke. From bottom half guard, I generally aim for deep half underhooking the near leg and far arm, for a sweep; my opponent will often flatten me out, but then I use the distance that gives me to replace guard. In full guard, I’ll go for a cross choke; my opponent will of course bring an arm in to defend the choke, which gives me a chance to snatch the sleeve and try a sweep. And so on. I want to have something like this in every position: One thing to go for, so that the defence against it gives me an opportunity for something else, back and forth.

Of course, this is tricky because BJJ has so damn many possible positions. For a basic game you need some competence in both top and bottom position of full guard (open and closed), half guard, side control, knee-on-belly, north/south, mount, turtle and butterfly; you’ll probably want to know what to do with spider guard, sit-up guard, maybe some fancy stuff like De La Riva, and so on. This gives me about twenty positions to have two actions each for…

I also need to improve my stand-up, which mostly comes to going for it: Ouchi/harai or ouchi/uchimata combos in gi, and go for some fucking double-legs in no-gi.

In fencing, I also have some objectives. They are based directly on feedback from tests and so on; primarily I need to work on my posture (stay profiled, and lean properly) and on taking opportunities to lunge rather than hesitating. Secondarily, some footwork issues.

This is a rather smaller set of objectives than I have in BJJ. Partially it may be because I am newer to fencing, but I think mostly it is because jiu-jitsu is a vastly more complicated game. I’m not saying it’s harder, just less complex. For starters, rather than the twenty-ish positions I can be in relative to my jiu-jitsu opponent, in rapier fencing there are two basic positions: “Face to face with swords pointing at each other” and “someone already fucked up”. The former is subdivided into a few measures (out of measure, largissima, larga, stretta, and strettissima), but that’s still a much simpler set of relative positions. Similarly, there’s a much smaller set of attacks, with the lunge being bread-and-butter, and a few cuts occasionally entering the picture; you basically only use your hands, and only in certain ways—compared to BJJ, where you use arms, legs, and even your head for leverage (five body parts times twenty or so positions, not counting the very important factor of hip pressure and weight distribution), and where you have to worry about joint locks to shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles, and neck, as well as chokes from every conceivable position and some that are barely even conceivable.

BJJ is a game with enormous breadth and depth. Fencing is, relatively speaking, more like boxing—a game with a few techniques. Of course, since your opponent knows those same few techniques, you will need to polish them to a very high level of refinement: I’m not saying that either is easier than the other, but improvement feels different in certain key ways. I’m glad to have both.

Returning from that tangent, I feel that focusing on techniques is much easier in rapier than it is in BJJ. If I want to work on, say, my pendulum sweeps, I first need to get my opponent into my guard, rather than in any of two dozen other possible positions; and second, I need to make them vulnerable to a sweep by threatening with an attack that off-balances them. If I want to work on baratoplatas or mounted triangles, I need to achieve top mount first—which they will resist tooth and nail—and then if I fail I may lose my position and have to start over. In fencing, a ‘reset’ is much more total, and I end up in a more predictable position where I can launch into whatever I want to attempt. I find this very satisfying in a sharply honed¹, detached sort of way; whereas jiu-jitsu is more fun, but so much harder to deconstruct that the satisfaction of deliberate and organised progress (which is just as rewarding as having fun, though different) is harder to achieve.

Todo items, BJJ:

  1. Stop scissor-sweeping beginners; the sweep is good enough to try on better people (and fail and fail and fail until I polish it further). Instead work other sweeps: Pendulum and bump.
  2. Start scissor-sweeping people who aren’t beginners.
  3. When fighting beginners, try more submissions from mount. In particular, see if I can actually land a baratoplata. I like it.
  4. Against anybody, work on the deep halfguard sweep; learn to be sufficiently explosive to actually sweep rather than merely cause a reaction.
  5. Against very raw beginners, start working butterfly. I am absolutely terrible at it.
  6. Think about two actions in each situation.
  7. In gi standup, sweep and commit more to throws.
  8. In no-gi standup, shoot, shoot, shoot!

This may be too many to keep in mind while sparring. I may need to mentally work on it.

Todo items, fencing:

  1. Posture, posture, posture! Stand profiled, and lean forward properly in forward guards.
  2. Lunge more, hesitate less. Even if I am likely to get countered, go for it anyway. Never lunging means never learning to lunge.
  3. When the swords start to rise in misguided disengage cycles, go for the forearm.
  4. Don’t stomp. It is not a stomping sport.

¹ Pun intended

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Tested for the second rank of the school today, this being blue cord. There are three reasons why I want to reach the next rank:

  1. Blue cords appear to do interesting things in the wrestling part of the class
  2. Sidesword + shield
  3. While I don’t really want high rank anywhere in anything, it’s nice to offically not be at the bottom of the ladder

To qualify for an exam you have to be assessed (and signed off) for a number of components; for blue cord: Basic wrestling stances and turns, rapier posture/footwork, offhand positions for rapier, measure and tempo, using and defending against cuts, and reading the first part of Capoferro’s Gran Simulacro. The exam itself contains a demonstration portion where you have to demonstrate some of these skills, like measure/gaining and some offhand stuff; and a combat portion, where blue cord candidates must fight 2×10  minutes against all comers, and are assessed on form. (Red cord candidates must fight 4×10 minutes, and must maintain at least a 50% win ratio.)

I went in expecting to fail, mostly due to a problem with my posture (I don’t push my shoulders forward enough in seconda and quarta), partially due to poor combat performance, and with a sprinkling of other factors that I hoped to hear about. I went in with the attitude that if I passed, that’d be nice; more likely I’d fail but get helpful and specific feedback.

I actually did much better than I thought I would. Of course, I did still fail, but the feedback I got was a lot more positive than I had expected, and I basically failed due to the problems I’m already aware of and working to improve. (There was a remark about footwork as well—also a known issue, though I tend to regard it as smaller.) Most notably, I did a lot better in the combat portion of the exam.

I’ll keep working on what I’m already working on; failure notwithstanding, I actually feel quite good about this because I performed much better than expected, and was surprised to find that there weren’t any other problem areas. (Of course I am perfect in exactly zero areas, but to paraphrase my instructor, I’m deemed good enough in other areas to move to the next level and start expanding my skill set while I polish them. The posture and footwork stuff are fundamentals I should improve before I move on and try expanding.) I expected to try again the exam after the next one; now, if I make notable improvements in my problem areas, maybe I’ll try for the next one, in two months.

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If you want to advance in the ranking system of Academie Duello, one of the things you need to do is read, and demonstrate an understanding of, various manuals and materials. For the first rank exam, from the green cord to blue cord¹, you need to read the first 13 chapters of Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Uso della Scherma, sometimes translated as Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing. One translation is available here (small, portable file); a more nicely edited and typeset version with plates, here.

The Academie Duello actually owns a first edition of the Gran Simulacro, i.e. one published in 1610. I think that’s pretty cool.

Since I will need to discuss this material, and since the language is occasionally a little opaque, I figured I might take a few minutes to jot down my own thoughts on the matter. This is mostly for my own sake—in fact it’s not even chiefly for myself to re-read, but that putting thoughts down helps me organise them mentally in the process of writing. Of course you are perfectly welcome to read it, but since I make no attempt to summarise the sections, but only note that which I feel like noting, it may not make a lot of sense unless you’ve read it.

More… )
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Thought #1:

It brings me great satisfaction that I am by now able to bring some tactics into a rapier sparring bout. I sometimes win passes against people who are technically superior (that is, have better technique) and are perhaps faster than I am, but are shorter and/or choose to use shorter swords. A shorter rapier is quicker and I suspect could be very dangerous at misura stretta, but it has the very obvious disadvantage of being, well, shorter, and reducing the fencer’s range.

I may be slower, I may not be any better once in range, but I unless the skill gap is large I can use those four inches of range advantage: I simply take half a step back, try to keep the distance just inside my own misura larga but outside my opponent’s, where only I can strike; or just outside my misura larga so that they will be forced to pass through my kill zone before they can attack.

Thought #2:

I really need to figure out how to deal with the guard of a bigger, taller, stronger opponent. It’s difficult: I may be able to win the crossing and gain all three advantages (true edge to opponent’s sword, cross the line, forte on debole), but a taller opponent can push through fairly easily (if he’s taller that means that I can’t cross the line very well without raising my sword hand dangerously high); if he’s also generally bigger and bulkier, well…

There’s one guy in particular I have in mind; I briefly hated sparring him because I couldn’t figure out why he beat me; now I consider it frustrating but at least I know what’s going on, and play with ways to attempt to bring his sword down so I can deal with it. (Nothing against the guy, he’s not being an arse in training or anything; he just has a build and style that stymie me very effectively. Good for him; frustrating for me.)

Thought #3:

Occasional tactical victories and particular frustration notwithstanding, I’m noticing that I am getting better…and that my improvement is almost entirely down to returning to the basics I learned in my first month. When I first started learning things like cuts or off-hand work, passing steps, and so forth, I would occasionally try to use those. I played with feints for a while. But now I have returned to simply working three priorities:

  1. Gain the sword.
  2. When I have the advantage, push forward. (Need to attack more.)
  3. When I do not have the advantage, work to regain it. (Need to move back more.)

I am better than I was a few months. I’m no better at cuts and not not significantly better with my off hand, but I gain more strongly, I maintain control better, and I am getting somewhat better at pushing forward when I have it. The rest, thus far, is largely irrelevant.

In any worthwhile martial art (which often correlates closely with martial art with a competitive element in sparring), the fundamental, basic techniques tend to be the first things you learn not because they are the simplest, but because they are the foundation that the whole edifice rests upon. It’s a good idea to remind yourself of this from time to time.


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