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Counter-Disengage 4: On Boring Finals

By Don Todde MacDonnell

If this is your first encounter to the Counter-Disengage Forum, please read the Introductory post kindly provided for your convenience.

I had meant to take up this topic in December, but I realized I had to discuss my perspective on the audience first, and that proved a fair effort.  So if you haven’t read the previous blog, I would invite you to peruse it first….

The knight in the corner at your long, dull fight was not an allegory.  I met him, and another knight of his acquaintance outside the privies, after a dreadful three-way rapier final in Lyondemere, which had featured at least four fights, three of them slow, and two of them with extensive blow-call lawyering.  The crowd had groaned when the third fight did not produce a victor for the day.  It was the sort of fight where the fencers stopped watching and found something else to do, but the royalty and baronage weren’t afforded that choice.

The two knights were (unsurprisingly) bitching about rapier, and had come to the point where they agreed that rapier finals needed to be held in the main body of the list, when nobody had to pay attention, and not fought at the end of the day in front of the populace.  They changed the subject when I approached in a doublet and slops, but I freely agreed that the final was awful, someone needed to fix it, and I would try my best.  That day, my best amounted to short conversations with two of the finalists, both of whom were sympathetic but felt they couldn’t accelerate the fight without giving up the advantage.   This column amounts to a further effort to “fix it.”

Boring finals are among my SCA anathemas* because not only are they unpleasant to watch, I can feel the disappointment of the people around me as they unfold.  Here is the final, the climax of the tournament, and neither fighter has the courage to really attack.  Instead, they stand at the hairy edge of measure, hoping the other will give a tempo or lunge into a counterattack.  If we’re fortunate, they will change guards occasionally, beat swords carefully, make a witty comment, or circle purposefully.  That’s fine for a minute or two, but (for comparison) Iñigo and Westley’s duel atop the cliffs clocks in at three minutes.  After that, get on with it.

It’s my theory that fighters (me often included) go into a final determined, principally, to not screw up.  To our nervous minds, screwing up would mean getting one-shotted after approaching incautiously, or launching an attack that is too easily countered.  It means dying without getting to “show your stuff,” except I’ll assert that a boring final fails exactly that test.  It’s well enough to fight conservatively in the churchyard at dawn, but here you have a grand stage to display your virtues, and parry 9 (or worse, standing out of range) shows neither courage nor prowess.  So let’s use that as a basic test…

If, at long measure, you circle, take counterguards, compete for constraint, creep in under guard, wait a few tempos to see if the opponent will attack or give a tempo, you clearly display prowess, and no lack of courage to those who care to look; you need not launch a full-intent lunge when the 2-minute timer goes DING.  If your skills are limited and you make basic attacks, you display ample courage, and few will notice the lack of prowess.  But if you back away from such probing, simply batting their sword aside, you display neither courage nor prowess, regardless of how skillfully you managed the measure.  If it continues, even if you win, your opponent will have outshone you in the ways that inspire people both in period and now.

If a fight drags, both fencers ought to recognize it (you’ve made the finals after all, don’t tell me you don’t know a slow fight).  After some minutes, the gallery is waiting for one of you to show the courage to bring the action, and while their ire will fall on the favorite if neither does, more glory belongs to the underdog who takes initiative.  For the favorite, why are you so cautious?  You have earned a final with a favorable draw, and you squander a chance to display valor to instead improve your odds of winning a fruit basket.  If you should fall to a well-placed counter, let him enjoy the glory of a skilled victory; you will likely have another final soon.  If you are the underdog and face an intimidating white scarf who refuses to drive the action, know this: Most scarves dominate their fights, and are very good when the fight is on their terms.  If you can bring the fight to us, either by pushing us around the eric under guard, making us fall back, or dominating the sword, you put us in a position we don’t practice, outside our skill center.  You might not realize that Don Alexander, Duke Edric, and myself (if I may include myself in such skilled company!) all become far easier to kill as we retreat more than two steps.

To sum up and quote from Mark Twain**, “there are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out faults… and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person.”  It’s well enough to observe that boring finals suck, but why do they happen, and how can we fix it?

First, let each fighter in the final remember that the goal is to display their prowess and courage as well as their chivalry, and that dull fights squander that opportunity.  Fighting fearfully is not worth the fruit basket.

Second, let the better fighter feel an obligation to keep a slow fight moving.  Even if it is not to your apparent advantage, man (or lady) up and attack.  At the right time, and cleverly, yes, but as the fight drags on, with greater and greater frequency until the bout is decided.  Waiting at measure to throw a counter-attack fails this test, and the fault is yours if both fighters do so for too long.

Third, let the lesser fighter remember that not only do brave assaults display their courage, they may also expose the opponent’s weakness.  I sympathize with the desire to wait out the opponent and throw your best shot, but wouldn’t your prowess be better displayed if you had more than one tactic?  If not, I say it is your duty to keep yourself in range, that you may take that shot sooner.  Also, if there is no clear favorite, perhaps it’s you; see rule #2.

Fourth, if you leg your opponent in a final, you now control the measure, and bear with it responsibility for the pace of the fight.  Don’t walk into his sword, but neither spend the next five minutes stabbing at hands.

Fifth, all of the above count double if the final has multiple bouts, whether it’s best of three, or a three-way final.  One long bout is bearable; three are not.  If the first bout began with five minutes of probing, use what you’ve already learned to accelerate the other two.

Finally, apply these rules to any bout closely watched, and especially to those before a noble audience.  It’s telling that most long bouts are those with a large gallery; we feel the pressure to perform well, but transmute that pressure to caution, rather than revel in the opportunity to be part of a match that’s memorable for the right reasons.

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*My other least-favorite things are courts you can’t hear beyond a 20-foot radius, single- doorway battles that give neither incentive nor advantage to the attacking side, and 20+ minute breaks between scenarios at war.  Also, detailed armor inspections of the interdigital spaces on gloves.

** Thus Twain introduces his conclusion to “The Awful German Language”  appendix in A Tramp Abroad