In a person's fencing career, they will always come up against an opponent who will want to use strength as their primary method to force their way through an engagement. Over the past months I have been dealing with this problem with some of my students, thus how to deal with an opponent who uses strength. This article deals with questions relating to the use of physical strength and where it originates.
To understand where the idea of a person using strength, it is necessary to understand where this individual is coming from, where they get the idea that strength is the most advantageous method. This often comes from a couple of main sources: a) skill compensation, b) improper grip on the sword, and c) simple size advantage over their opponent. Each will be addressed in turn.
The first is skill compensation. Often a fencer will compensate for a lack of skill with a weapon by using strength against an opponent. They will compensate for a lack of finesse in their actions by using strength, forcing the action through rather than using the correct blade engagement or Timing. This often happens when a person has not practiced the individual elements enough, or has not spent enough time honing their skill, as a result they use strength in their blade-work to force the weapon through. This results in actions which rely on strength for success.
2. Improper Grip
The next is an improper grip. If the weapon is gripped tightly or even simply incorrectly, a fencer will not be able to use an even grip on their sword. This will prevent the use of senso di ferro or sentiment du fer. This means that they will rely on a heavy pressure against their opponent's blade and will not feel a lighter pressure against it. This will cause the fencer to force their way through an engagement rather than reading through feeling and applying the appropriate pressure for the action which they want to use. An improper grip on the weapon can cause a fencer many issues, and not just this one.
3. Size/Strength Advantage
Finally there is size advantage. A larger opponent will often use strength against an opponent who is smaller or weaker than they are believing that strength and speed are the best ways to deal with this opponent. This is often seen with larger male opponents against female opponents, but is not necessarily restricted to such. The same larger male combatant will also use strength against a weaker male opponent as well. This is simply using an aspect of physical strength against another. It is a very unsubtle approach and the weaker combatant will be surprised and defeated by the stronger opponent and will not see a way around them. But the stronger combatant can also be defeated by the weaker opponent as will be demonstrated below.
With all the discussions of the reasons that strength is used in an over-compensating way, it is now possible to discuss how to defeat a combatant who uses strength in this method. It should be noted, there is a place for strength in swordplay, but it needs to be applied with knowledge of the situation at the correct moment for the greatest effect. Much of this relies on a correct reading of the situation and thus good senso di ferro.
There are two prime methods of dealing with an opponent who uses strength: avoidance and using the strength against them. These two methods have a similar approach to them but are also different and thus must be explained separately. Each uses an aspect of the use of strength so that the fencer who is subject to the strength of the opponent to gain an advantage.
You can use avoidance to compensate for an opponent using strength. There are a couple of ways to do this. The first is through Absence of Blade. If the opponent is strong on their engagements and is using strength to control or move the weapon away so they can control or strike, simply do not give them the opportunity. Avoid contact with their weapon. This way the opponent will not be able to apply their strength to your weapon because they will not connect with it.
Another method is diversion. Rather than seeking solid contact with the opponent's weapon, which they can then use to gain strength against your weapon. Use your weapon to divert their attacks when they are made; divert their weapon when they want to make contact with yours. Such is achieved by angling your weapon so theirs always deflects off your weapon so it never maintains contact. Using disengages and slips with the weapon are prime methods in the arsenal for diversion.
2. Use the Strength
You can use their strength against them and also strength that they cannot resist. These are two different approaches which are based on a similar approach. The first is an approach using the Strength/Weak dichotomy. It is known that strength has the advantage over weak, because it can force the weak, but the weak can also have the advantage over the strength because the weak can slip from the weak and remain mobile and put the strength out of place. For example: The opponent engages hard with strength on the blade pushing forward, the combatant uses weakness and uses the strength to turn their weapon out of the way and back on-line so an attack can be made. This approach is similar in approach to the Avoidance approach above but uses the strength of the opponent's weapon use against them.
You can also use mechanical advantage to your advantage to create strength. Ensure that when the opponent applies strength to your weapon that you always ensure that you have mechanical advantage or can angle your weapon so theirs, through their strength, is always moved to your forte. Regardless of how strong they are, when their debole (or foible) is at your forte you have a clear mechanical advantage and their strength does not count for much. This uses some of the idea of diversion, which was discussed above.
There are aspects of strength which even the smallest and weakest can use against the largest which they cannot resist. The first of these is foot placement, if yours is better, with your feet lining up with one another, you are in a better and stronger position, especially if this lines up between theirs. This is enhanced if the forward foot lines up with your forward hand. The last part of this is what di Grassi calls the "Agreement of Foot and Hand", the previous element comes from Fiore and is noted in the foot positions of his plays.
Added to this is skeletal alignment, any time that you can line up aspects of your skeleton, in a thrust, parry, or any other action you form a position which the strongest opponent cannot force through. They will be fighting with their muscles against your bones. So long as you keep your bones aligned you will have the strength. If you add this to the two previous elements, you will be in the position of strength.
In regard to recommendations of which skills to use against a stronger opponent, I would recommend those which do not try to match your strength against theirs. If they want to use strength, turn it against them. Show them how the use of strength is not an approach which will be effective against you. I teach these techniques to every student of mine who has issues with those who use strength against them. Like all skills they need to be practiced. Find the skills that suit how you fence, but be warned that applying these new skills may take a change in approach.
A fencer who only uses strength in their game is missing out on a lot. They are missing out on the finer aspects of swordplay and will not go as far as a fencer who spends the time to learn these finer aspects. Spend the time, learn proper blade engagement and all the other skills of fencing so that you have a complete skill-set to use against your opponent. A fencer with a diverse skill-set is a much greater opponent than one who relies on any one skill-set.