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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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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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Petter Häggholm

January 2018

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