contact us

Use the form on the right to contact us.



123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789


You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.


Graduation Day?

Nick Evangelista

Graduation Day?


By Nick Evangelista


Some time ago, I heard a sad thing regarding fencing: that a certain element in the world fencing community was lobbying to allow ear phones to be allowed for fencers—so that their coaches would be able to direct their actions from a distance via headphones. Coaching from the sidelines of a fencing strip has not, in the past, been permitted, although it happened; so, the rationale here is that if a coach is sitting somewhere in the stands directing his fencer, then it isn’t “sideline coaching,” and it would, hence, be ok. The question then becomes, why would the close proximity of someone's coach to a piste be frowned upon? Is it due to proximity or ethical principle? Is it the idea that coaching next to the strip is simply distracting for the fencers involved in a bout, or is it that a fencer, once trained, should be responsible for his or her own fencing behavior while competing? I do know that in college, if someone obtains answers during a test on any electronic device, it is called cheating. What modern fencers might call such coaching “innovations,” I have no idea. But, to my way of thinking, a teacher engaging in this sort of bout interference would be nothing more than a puppet master pulling technological strings. It seems typical of modern fencing to entertain such “enlightened” ideas.  


I don’t know where this bit of electric nonsense stands today, but I hope it is dead and gone. If not, it should be.  If a fencer does not learn to think, if he is just following orders, he is merely a zombie going through the motions. Thinking is a skill that must be both encouraged and practiced or it never materializes.


Yet, despite the potential for stunting the mental growth of a fencer, some coaches actively encourage student dependence. Don’t leave anything to chance. Don’t leave strategy and tactics up to a mere student. When winning is number one on the hit parade, thought requires the professional touch. Winning isn’t just a job well done anymore. It is self-aggrandizement, control, reputation, and financial gain. Many students will accept this arrangement of subservience, because winning in any context is more acceptable than the alternative. Modern society designates winning as everything. Losing is loss of face, weakness, a fall from grace, social death.


Winning, of course, is a goal. Within a given competitive setting it allows the fencer to momentarily gauge his or her developing proficiency. Obviously, a fencer who never scores a touch in a bout is experiencing some difficulties that need to be addressed. And yet winning is not the only thing fencing is about.


Neither is the teaching of fencing only about creating “winners.” When beating opponents is the only focus of fencing—in either competition or teaching—fencing is reduced to its lowest common denominator: ego. What then, one might ask, from a standpoint of teaching, is the purpose of the fencing master/teacher/coach if it is not to spew champions, like an active volcano, onto the competitive landscape?


I would say that the first and foremost task of the fencing teacher is to impart knowledge and shape skill, and to help the fencer internalize the fencing process so that it becomes irrevocably part of his nature, thereby assisting him in realizing his true potential.  This then transforms the raw student into a thinking fencing entity.  The true task of the teacher, therefore, is to make himself redundant for his charge. Ultimately, the trained fencer should become an independent agent on the field of play. This has a doubly important result because as the student is transformed into a fencer, absorbing fencing into his mind and body, he also becomes an excellent fencer. He observes, he thinks critically, he determines, he acts with resolve. He creates his fencing, as opposed to simply reacting to circumstances. He does not settle for accident. He knows why and why not. He is on purpose. At this point, winning becomes a by-product of his developed talent. This is what the master should be setting into motion. Well, this is what the teaching of fencing was once about, when fencing was looked upon as an accomplishment, instead of a result.


My own teacher, to the end of his days, taught fencing as an acquired art. He expected you to listen to him, to respect and respond to his words; and yet, when you walked onto the fencing strip and came on guard, the rest was up to you. You rose or fell on your own merit. And, the funny thing was, even when you didn’t win, you learned something, and grew as a fencer. You were able to take experience, feed it into your personal processing center, and create a stronger, more resourceful fencing self. After a bit, the Maestro would add some choice tidbits of advice to round out the picture, or to connect a few wayward dots. In the end, it was about learning to stand on your own two feet.


Many of my teacher’s students went on to become teachers of fencing themselves. They actually had something of value to impart to others. I would not be writing these words today if I hadn’t been allowed to become an autonomous thinking fencer.


On the other side of the coin, the saddest thing in fencing, to me, is the student who refuses to move away from the master’s shadow, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of blind obedience. It is much safer to just keep asking questions—often the same questions over and over--rather than to force one’s self to observe and reason out answers with sovereign resolve. And, yet, it true that one who continually receives answers without effort never truly understands. Words mean little when the sense of personal revelation and experience is absent. It is a shame, too, because the joy of discovery and acquisition is one of fencing’s most lasting rewards. Moreover, the fencer who shuns the opportunity to one day become self-regulating, for whatever reason, shirks the responsibility to maintain truths hard won over the centuries. To live as brain-dead, following fads and parroting officially established folly, or chanting a guru’s binding litany--and questioning absolutely nothing--is a fencing sin.


In the end, a teacher who does not allow his students to become independent is not a teacher at all, any more than a fencer who cannot think is a real fencer. From this concept, if we accept it, we are faced with one inescapable fact: a fencing that is built on a foundation of domination and dependence is inherently bankrupt. The future of fencing does not depend on the accumulated wins of any individual or individuals. It depends on the inherent truth of the system. Fencing’s tomorrow, beyond the contortions and shrieking of modern champions, rests solely on the knowledge and skills of proficient masters and students who are able to carry their legacy of fencing know-how successfully forward. Only thinking fencers can keep the essence of fencing alive. But this isn’t just true of fencing. This is the way of all human endeavors. It takes only one generation of rampant ignorance to lose the accumulated wealth of centuries.  


Learn, grow, do, and question everything. Wishful thinking and magical thinking are never enough.

No Heroes

Nick Evangelista

No Heroes


By Nick Evangelista

I have no heroes.


It would be easy to say something like, “Oh, Mother Teresa was an inspiration to me!” or “I have based my life on the teachings of Woodrow Wilson.” But defining your life by some other person is the easy way out. I admire people, but I don’t put them on pedestals.  I appreciate individuality and creativity and the heroic endeavor. But I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself.


I have always felt that we should be our own heroes, to follow our own unique paths, and really live our own lives, to say, I did that! We can’t be other people, and we can’t live our lives through others. Too many people try to do that today. We get caught up in the Cult of Celebrity, famous people we both love and resent at the same time.  I can’t imagine following the daily in’s and out’s of any well-known person, who's cheating on whom, who's getting a new tattoo.  I have known a couple famous people in my life, and, for the most part, they were just people.


Much better to experience and explore our own lives fully. This can be scary, of course. Life leaves bruises. We make mistakes. We leave skid marks on the pavement. But we get up, and move ahead. The Ancient Romans had a saying, Magnae res non fiunt sine periculo, “Great things are not accomplished without danger.” This is a challenge to come out swinging. A life brimming with passion and experience is the truest testament to being alive.


I have found fencing to be my life’s passion, and everything in my life, good and bad, has come out of this. There is nothing we can do that doesn’t have its built-in pitfalls. But to do, to test ourselves, to learn, to become more than we were when we came into the world, that is something.


Learn a skill.




Save a life.


Write a book that changes the world.


Love someone who will stay in your heart forever.


Take chances.


In the end, our life’s experiences are the only things we truly possess. Everything else is just stuff. Stuff comes and goes. Museums are full of other people’s stuff.


Do not go quietly into the night. Be your own hero.


Democracy, Disrespect, and the Rise of Instant Experts

Nick Evangelista

Democracy, Disrespect, and the 

Rise of Instant Experts


By Nick Evangelista


Once upon a time, when I was taking an upper level medieval history class in college, a student sitting right next to me made a disparaging remark about the eminent cleric and medieval historian Bede, lauded as one of the greatest intellects of 6th century Europe. The student categorized him as a “superstitious primitive” because he believed in miracles. The history professor, himself a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant recipient and respected expert on Medieval France, stared at the student for one long moment, and then said slowly, “And by what authority do you make this pronouncement?” The student was stopped  in his tracks. “I just feel ….”  The teacher interrupted him. “ “What you feel means nothing to history. By what authority do you disparage Bede?” The student had no answer.


So, what exactly did the professor mean by “By what authority …”? In point of fact, he was pointing out in no uncertain terms that the student’s opinion had absolutely no weight behind it, because the student had nothing to support his position.  Neither facts, nor education, nor expertise, nor research, nor recognition as a scholar were in his corner.  He was a student. Not that students aren’t allowed to make valid observations, but they should always be made from the standpoint of being a student, as opposed to an assertion made by a fully qualified individual. There is no democracy of ideas in scholarship. Nor should there be.


The student was, in fact, a loud-mouthed jerk, and so the professor’s remark actually did little to slow him down through the rest of the semester. As it often happens with jerks, this student was so full of his own self-importance, he had little room for facts, or a recognition of true knowledge or achievement. He was, as the 17th century fencing master Sir William Hope would have said, an ignorant.


This, of course, leads us straight into … fencing.


Hierarchy and Respect

In fencing (at least the traditional fencing I grew up in over four decades ago), as in other disciplines, there is a hierarchy. There is the master and there is the student. To be a master sets one apart from the rest of the herd. There are also lesser teachers of fencing, but even these are still students aspiring to higher levels of learning which will render their instruction more complete.  Modern fencing has designated other levels of “being in charge,” but these are not important to this discussion.


At one time, in fencing, the concept of “master” would have been understood by students and would have been respected without question.  To dedicate one’s life to the learning of and teaching of fencing was the mark of a remarkable individual.  A student, then, would never pit his understanding of fencing against the master’s. First, this would have been a blatant display of disrespect, and would have been condemned by the fencing community. Second, any self-respecting student would have been too embarrassed to even suggest he/she knew more than a master.


Today, unfortunately, where apparently the mere winning of a medal bestows “expertise,” hierarchy is given little regard. Perhaps, in a politically-correct world it is offensive to suggest that this person is in some way “better” than that person. Also, to accept mastery in another may place the mark of inferiority on one’s self. Besides, masters and hierarchies speak of other times and old-fashioned concepts, things out of step with modern life. Today, we have pundits, critics, commentators, reviewers, and those who tweet. Be that as it may, fencing needs mastery and it needs respect.  It needs these things as binding forces to counter the effects of “anything goes,” because, when fencing can be anything anyone wants it to be—and it often is--it instantly becomes nothing. It is close to that now.


A question: Is respect in fencing even taught or required anymore? Many fencers no longer salute, or shake hands after a bout. Fencers are blatantly hostile to or scornful of directors and judges.  Tantrums are common, as are childish victory displays. Is it any wonder that respect is in such short supply?


Fencing is a unique activity. But in many ways it simply mirrors the greater environment in which it resides. The foibles of our modern social structure infiltrate the fencing world. The mindless pursuit of success at any price, the fast-food mentality of instant fencing, the worship of the superficial, all traits of society at large, are to be found in present day fencing, and, for us, are magnified because we constantly hold these failings up to  fencing’s  traditional values -- which are based on the logic of the sharp point -- and find them wanting.


Those who accept these lesser values, of course, are in opposition to tradition. Tradition, to them, is old fashioned. Tradition is a roadblock to fencing’s “ever-changing evolutionary process.” Tradition, for them, is meaningless. They hold no respect for ideas gleaned from a time when sharp points provided fencing with its conventions, and they hold no respect for those who espouse traditional ideals. That one approach has a given meaning in context with the cause and effect of a sword fight, and the other is merely a manipulation of electronic devices doesn’t faze them. “That is what fencing is now!” is the usual reply. The understanding of the implication of one’s actions, one’s behavior, has no bearing on the matter. Fencing has somehow evolved from earlier times, the saying goes. But let’s get one thing straight, change does not necessarily denote progress. A cancer cell changes from a normal cell, but no one would suggest, once diagnosed with cancer, that they were evolving into a higher life form.


But one does not respect what one does not understand. In a world where everything is relative, and consensus of opinion makes things so, mastery means nothing to a fencing community where “I made the light go on the scoring box!” is looked on as the main criteria for excellent fencing. To one who cannot reason otherwise, a bent-arm attack is just as efficient and valid as one with a straight-arm. It has been argued in some fencing circles that the free arm in fencing has no bearing on balance. And yet, in circles where the free arm is not employed, knee and ankle injuries are endemic. Fencers are apparently just pulled to the ground randomly by gravity spikes. Or maybe they fall down because they are off balance.


Society, Equality, and Mastery

Society conditions us to think that everyone has a right to their say. “Freedom of speech” and “Constitutional rights” go together like bacon and eggs, night and day, Abbott and Costello.  How can anyone criticize something that is a Natural Right, as defined by the eminent 17th century English empirical philosopher John Locke?1


I will do that now.


All men may be born equal under the eyes of God, but somewhere along the way, some achieve a higher level of mastery in certain areas of life than others. This achievement should be recognized by all for what it is. Mastery does not come without effort. There is a difficult rite of passage that must be trod. But respect isn’t always forthcoming. Many are unable to recognize true achievement; others don’t care to.  Either way, there is no respect to be shown for simple mastery, especially if it opposes someone’s personal views about fencing. The rite of passage to attainment is not always understood. Someone’s “sacred” opinion, in the world of democracy, becomes just as valid, just as important, as the real knowledge gained through years of hard work. Opinion, generally emotional and without insight, should not be mistaken for knowledge; but it often is.


An opinion voiced with resolve is the battle cry “I’m just as good as you are!” If one examines the source of this utterance and finds it lacking, the obvious reply is, “No, sorry, you are not.”  If an individual truly understands the reality of mastery, one also understands to gauge one’s remarks to his or her level of understanding. These would be called questions. In today’s world this gift of insight is a rare thing.


Internet Access and Opinion

The Internet is a great warehouse of and supporter of disrespect, when it comes to fencing, anyway. Well,  actually when it comes to everything under the sun. At one time in the history of presenting one’s ideas, one had to have some level of expertise on a topic to have one’s ideas aired in public. One had to actually convince someone who was in a position of authority to take their ideas and display them before the world. This might have been an editor, a publisher, a board or committee, an investor, a patron, whatever. But the Internet has changed all that. The Internet is very democratic. It will accept, without question, anything.  Now, anyone and everyone has access to an electric soapbox, via the Net, and opinions are aired openly and easily, without regard to their veracity. Anyone can forcefully voice an opinion, no matter how ill-informed or ignorant they might otherwise be. Find a online chat room, fencing or otherwise, and it will be rife with ignorance and disrespect.


Why so much vehemence? Here is one thing we know from the study of biological anthropology: when monkeys are afraid of something, they climb to the safety of the highest trees in the forest, and throw their own fecal matter down at the object they fear. Likewise, when people are confronted by a whatever that somehow threatens them, they retreat to the security of their computer, and let go with verbal equivalents of excremental monkey business.


For my own part, I have been the subject of numerous Internet “discussions” over the years. Some of these, most of these, are not complimentary. I am used to this. When you are in the public eye, you have to develop a thick skin.  I use myself as an example, then, not to complain, but to show the ease by which those who should not be making fencing-related observations, do. Those with time on their hands can be very “expert” from computer keyboards in the safety of their own homes. 


One chat site I came across by accident actually devoted about 35 pages of conversation to the topic of “Nick Evangelista knows nothing about fencing.” There was no substance to the conversation. The attacks were purely ad hominem.2 One individual went so far as to state that he’d seen me in a tournament in Los Angeles in 1983, and that that I hadn’t even gotten out of the preliminary bouts. This was an interesting observation considering I’d retired from all competition in 1978. But one can say what one wants on the Internet, and who will contradict the remark? Every small fencing mind becomes an expert. Every unsupported observation becomes a gem of fencing wisdom. There is a strong lack of critical thinking to be found in these sage circles.


Book review sites are common places for individuals to air their ideas. The following are typical negative reviews, in this case from beginners:


For the record, I am an intermediate sports fencer with a great appreciation for classical fencing. My first coach used to annul points in class if she felt they weren't proper hits. Also, I fence foil and epee with a french [sic] grip. As much as I want to like this book, I find less and less reason to go back to it. A HUGE part of it is taken up by Evangelista's personal  hatred of pistol grips ….3


We can stop here. Actually, if you combine all my references to pistol grips in The Art and Science of Fencing  together, they would fill one page out of 288. 4


A review of The Inner Game of Fencing was based on “democratic spirit” and “consumerism” (but not fencing knowledge):


Ok, I am a new fencer, and a novice being critical of someone as famous as Nick Evangelista may seem a bit out of line at this stage of my career. However, I did buy the book and did read the book, and I suppose in this great American republic, that qualifies me to review his work. I found Mr. Evangelista's book to be a series of essays regarding his philosophy of fencing. The essays, are for the most part ungrouped by theme or topic, and tend to take on a tone that could only be described as a bitter rant. 5


People will see what they want to see, especially if they are ill-equipped to judge what they are reading.  I might add,  I did, in fact, group the essays by theme.




I am an admittedly novice fencer, having taken up the sport only a year or so ago. I came across this book on Amazon and was amazed at the wildly divergent reviews of Mr. Evangelista's tome.  The purist in me agreed with some of his views on classical fencing - his unapologetic bias towards the French grip versus the pistol grip, his dismissiveness {sic} regarding the use of speed and strength in favor of proper technique, and the recommendation that beginners learn foil before other styles of fencing. (I tend to be a purist on many sporting matters: baseball and football to be played on real grass, no designated hitter in baseball, playing basketball as a team, rather than individual sport, and using wound-core - instead of solid-core - golf balls.) Mr. Evangelista does tend to be bombastic - although he tells you that he is, up front. Simply put, he openly acknowledges his biases in favor of "classical fencing".6


Agreeing with me in “spirit,” the novice then goes on to wage a personal attack on me rather than addressing any real fencing issues. This type of stuff is typical of fencers schooled in the ignorance of modern fencing. Their refrains are based not on fencing but on feelings.


Another feature of the Internet attacker is his generally faceless quality. Many times, these individuals will hide behind a computer name or no name at all. At other times they may use their real names, but will tactfully leave their e-mail address off their reviews, so that they can’t be contacted.  One ends up asking once again the main thrust of this editorial: “What expertise do these individuals possess that allows them to judge anyone? ”


Such judgments are offered unsolicited, and accepted and preserved by non-judgmental sources. Authoritative statements are never questioned, and the skills and experience (or lack thereof) of those who utter them never enter into the equation. Obviously, these folks don’t recognize their own lack of experience is an impediment to making valued verdicts. The Constitution of the United States gives them the right to speak, and so they do. Their lack of fencing etiquette, respect for authority and experience, allows them to express themselves in any way they wish. There was a time, of course, when no one would have listened to them.


A Study of Ignorance

So, why are criticism and hostility so easily forthcoming from individuals who should obviously be recognized by themselves as the least fit to offer expert comments? In a 2003 psychological study, titled “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,”8 researchers David Dunning, Kerri Johnson, Joyce Ehringer, and Justin Kruger, found that many individuals regularly over-estimated their own abilities in matters of judgment simply because they lack basic the self-awareness to recognize their own personal deficiencies. The problem, then, becomes a self-perpetuating one of ignorance feeding on itself. The study concludes that if people are devoid of the skills they need to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to realize when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They therefore “cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.” If we apply these findings to the subject under discussion, we can see that incompetent fencers do not recognize that they are incompetent to make any kind of fencing judgments, and only do so because they don’t know any better.



There may be other motivating factors involved in this matter. One theory prominent in psychology, called cognitive dissonance,9 suggests that confronting a specific reality that conflicts with one’s own experience may be extremely threatening to many people.  It creates an emotional response that demands action. An individual will often resolve the emotional distress they are feeling simply by rejecting the messenger out of hand, rather than dealing with the issue of whether the messenger is correct or not. This resolves the problem without any possible threat to the individual. It also explains how hostility manages finds its way into fencing exchanges that should be based on logic and reason.



It is too bad when fencers are unable to recognize that they are students and masters are masters. The fencer may not realize that no matter how many medals they might have won that they are still not fit to impart fencing knowledge.  It is also true today that fewer champions than ever before are becoming masters of the art. Why is this? The most obvious conclusion is that they are not competent to teach. The teaching of fencing and competing in tournaments are two different animals. Simply because you can make a light flash on a scoring box does not qualify you to expound on the intricacies of fencing. Until the fencing community at large recognizes this, we will continue to see the spirit of fencing diminished by the ignorant. This is not a good thing, even if they don’t know any better.



End Notes

1 John Locke (1632-1704). Sometimes referred to as “the Father of the American Revolution” because of his views on human rights.

2  ad hominum: attack the man, not his ideas.

3, The Art and Science of Fencing, by Nick Evangelista.

4 I checked.

5, The Inner Game of Fencing, by Nick Evangelista.

6, The Art and Science of Fencing, by Nick Evangelista.

7 I never tell anyone I am being bombastic in The Art and Science of Fencing. The word “bombastic” means, “Characterized by important sounding but meaningless language”. Why would I say that?

8 Dunning, D., et al, (2003). Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence, Current Directions in Psychological Science,  12,(3), pp 83-87.

9  The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that people seek to relieve the discomfort associated with the awareness of inconsistency between two or more of one’s cognitions (beliefs or bits of knowledge). Gray, P. (1999). Psychology (3rd Edition), Worth Publishers.



When Classical Fencing Goes Bad

Nick Evangelista

When Classical Fencing Goes Bad


By Nick Evangelista

Anyone who has read any of my books or essays on fencing will immediately identify me with what is termed classical fencing. And this is true. In principle. I think that between classical fencing and sport fencing, the former has so much more to offer a prospective fencing student.


So, what, then, is this classical fencing stuff? I know, because I have lived it for forty-five years. But, to be honest, I do not accept this label as a given; that is, when someone says the word classical, they mean the same thing that I am thinking of. Is this important? There are problems and pitfalls with this animal called classical fencing, the worst of which can make it no more meaningful than the most lobotomized version of sport fencing.


To be honest, I do not even use the word classical anymore when referring to what I teach. My personal term is traditional. When I speak of traditional fencing I am referring simply to a process of learning that leads to mastery.  This approach to fencing, in my mind, is free of pretense and the pomp of other centuries that often comes with classical fencing.


Traditional fencing has form and meaning, which promotes control.  It is the results produced by form, then, that makes it valuable. Form is never for its own sake. We adhere to form because of the advantages in movement it provides us. But for all this, traditional fencing is flexible and creative.


In the traditional game, our sense of purpose is always crystal clear, because we having meaning in what we do. This meaning is dictated by the logic of the sharp point, which proposes behavior that would keep someone alive in a real swordfight. It is based on advantage and disadvantage. When you create an advantage, you attack. When you are at a disadvantage, you parry. This requires a blending of mind and body into an effective whole.


The result of all this is something that is both dynamic and hard fought. The bottom line is that traditional fencing has its roots in the past, but its focus is in the present. Many classical fencers assert I am not classical. I take this as a compliment.


I grew up in the traditional fencing process. Once, it was the only game in town. No one referred to fencing as classical, or even traditional; it was just fencing. You learned the French school, or you learned the Italian school. Back then, there was only good fencing and bad fencing within the framework of each school.


Fencing in the Image of Karl Marx

In time, a thing called sport fencing came along, and suddenly there was a need to separate the traditional concept of what if these weapons were sharp? from the post-modern mindset ofanything for a touch. Sport fencing was presented to the fencing world in the 1960s by the Soviet Union, and encompassed the Marxian concept of the end justifies the means


For myself, I started referring to what I’d been taught as classical when I started writing books. My goal was simply to define the basic process of fencing from its competitive counterpart.  It was only when sport fencers came swooping down on me like rabid bats that I realized the gaping chasm between the fencing I’d been taught and what was presently passing for fencing. Who would have thought that espousing the requirement for a straight arm attack could inspire such hatred?


So, the battle lines were drawn: classical versus sport. Pretty clear on the surface. But here comes a problem. Not with the sporties. They are what they are. It is easy to discern where they are coming from. The problem is in the classical community, and it is every bit as troubling and insidious as the electrically generated maneuverings supported and lauded by the USFA and the FIE. Here, I should note that I am dealing in great part with personal experience regarding this subject.


The Classical Pitfall

Once upon a time, I worked with a fencing group I thought shared my ideas regarding the traditional fencing process. I made a mistake. In my mind I knew exactly what I was talking about when I spoke of classical fencing. A hard fought, tough game, with a difficultrite of passage that one had to endure to gain mastery. It had a logic to it.  The guiding rule of one’s actions was What if these blades were sharp? Form had purpose beyond looking nice. Conventions had purpose beyond ritual. I knew these things because I grew up with them in the fencing world I’d become part of. These concepts were so obvious to me that I thought when others said they were classical fencers, they were speaking my language. Maybe some were, but the group I was supporting was not. They were fencers of another generation, separated from what I’d known by twenty years. Their ideas of classical came only from secondhand information, which they interpreted in a very free fashion. It took me a long time to figure this out.


Ultimately, their ideas were fanciful and other-worldly, a kind of imagined nineteenth century refuge from the cold, shallow, technological bent of sport fencing.  But in their extreme flight from the latter, they also continually undercut what I was teaching them with their own misconceptions. Their ideas of classical were mental and physical distortions of the fencing I taught them. They were more interested in artifacts of bygone days--the empty posturing of extreme body evasions, crossovers, and elaborate salutes--than in learning to make a simple, decent lateral parry-riposte. I stopped working with them when I realized I was being ignored.  They hadn’t even mastered foil yet, and yet they craved useless 19th century gobbledy-gook.  They ended up adding small swords, quarterstaves, single-sticks to their repertoire. Foil wasn’t martial enough for them. Maybe one day they’ll be fighting with boomerangs and bolos.


We spoke different languages.


So What Is Classical Fencing?

This brings up the important question: Just what the heck is classical fencing? Is it a 19th century artifact? A place to hide for those who are disenchanted with the 21st century? A dance? A martial art? A sport? An art and science, with the capability of transforming those who practice it into more complete human beings? Or…what?


To start with. Let’s stop calling it classical” fencing. This word had become a wastebasket for every bit of nonsense the sword world can generate, including the excesses of historical sword combat. There are, I have found no standards, and little consensus, of what classical fencing is. Some will focus in on form and ritual, some will insist on certain turn-of-the-century rules and regulations, others can only fence if they dress up in uniform that smack of different time periods. Forget the extraneous baggage. Let’s fence! Let’s fence with control and intelligence and meaning. Let’s win using our skills, not technology. That’s what fencing is about.


I refer to the version of the French schoolI teach as a traditional fencing process. Again, To hit and not be hit, and What if these weapons were sharp? are the guidelines I follow, because this is what gives the fencing I do validity. Just wanting to hit someone else isn’t enough. It has to be done in a way that would give us the best possible opportunity to survive an encounter if we had a real sword in our hand.  Traditional conventions help us do this, as they are based on the practical application of the sword formed over hundreds of years of experimentation. They give us behavioral parameters outside of which we do not step, and through this specific regimen we change our behavior from everyday people reactions into fencer responses. The traditional game of fencing is not about strength and aggression; it is not about manipulating electricity. It is also not about fancy hand guards, antiquated clothing, and ritual.  It is about inner control. It is a mindset that permeates our every action. We become the weapon.


I might add at this point that the fencing world also has a difficult time simply defining me. Historical fencers call me a sport fencer. Sport fencers label me a classical fencer. And classical fencers say I’m a modernist.


I simply explain to people that I teach fencing.


How Classical Fencing Goes Bad

So, how does something as vital and balanced as this traditional game of fencing get off track? First, develop a fencing game that is geared more towards technology than skill that moves fencing further and further from its roots. Then, watch as all the old-time masters who championed the Old World art and science of fencing die off from old age.  At this point, masters of the classical French and Italian schools of fencing are few and far between.  Techno-fence takes over, becoming the norm. Enter a new batch of fencing teachers who want to give their students more than superficiality, but they are separated from direct-line tradition by a decade or more, and have to interpret “classical” on their own. Some succeed, many more don’t. Classical fencing branches out again, some of it in a mutated state, becoming “classical” in name only. Those fleeing sport fencing are attracted to an alternative purporting to be something it is not. Now, who is really classical/traditional and who is not? In general, we don’t know until we see how someone operates.


 Traditional Yardstick

I would like to make some general suggestions for determining the good and bad side of “classical” fencing. I know how I was taught.  My teacher was from the Old World school. He learned a traditional approach to fencing. He was a member of two Olympic teams, 1928 and 1932. He passed on his traditional approach to me. I know how to teach. Our combined fencing experience alone spans more than a hundred years. I think what I do is a good yardstick to judge traditional fencing by.


I stress fundamentals without artifice, and attempt to develop a student’s self-discipline and independence on the fencing strip, but at the same time keep lessons fun and interesting.  The student goes through a rite of passage, earning their movement up the fencing ladder. Students begin with foil, not as some imagined springboard to the “real” weapons of fencing, but because foil teaches essential lessons relevant to all fencing. This helps the student incorporate necessary fencing responses into their personal behavior.


Foil, epee and saber are taught in this order. The student is allowed to acquire a new weapon only when appropriate mastery of the previous weapon has been demonstrated, not because the student is bored with what he or she is presently learning. The teacher makes the decisions, not the student. Every subsequent piece of material taught is based on previous information imparted, so that it all fits together like the pieces of a puzzle, producing a picture that makes sense.


This is a traditional approach to fencing based on logical thought, and ability. Although all of this is a requirement for advancement in the learning process without exception, it is nevertheless explained fully so that the student understands the whys and wherefores. There should be no secrets saved for an elite few. Finally, emphasis is placed on development, not winning. This isn’t because winning isn’t important, but because winning should simply be a byproduct of one’s successful evolution as a fencer. I think this is a good template to follow for any fencing master/teacher/coach. It produces thinking fencers who have the ability to mature and grow throughout their fencing careers.


The Dark Side

If we employ the above description of classical fencing as a guide, we can see where other methods of teaching might be looked on as gross deviations:


The Martinet Master and the Cult of Personality. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “martinet” as “any very strict disciplinarian or stickler for rigid regulations.” This would be the fencing teacher who demands blind adherence and loyalty without explanation, expecting perfection in the application of his teaching, in the manner of some nineteenth century patriarchal figure. Often, the “master” becomes themessage, creating an atmosphere of dominance and repression within his salle. Questions are not tolerated, as this individual never puts himself in a position where he might be challenged -- unless he feels confident enough to maintain his superiority over the student. This type of individual often develops an elite corps of students, whose job is to act as a go-between for the master and the beginners.


Within the framework of my own teaching, I always encourage my students to ask questions, to put me on the spot. I figure if I can’t explain why something is the way it is, I shouldn’t be teaching it. I also fence with my students to coax the best out of them, and if they hit me with a superior touch, I let them know it. Teaching fencing isn’t about fencing masters, it’s about … FENCING!


Demands for Perfection. Fencing should be fun. A student should be serious about learning, and should have a sense of self-discipline. But learning comes best in a relaxed atmosphere. If the student lives in fear of the master’s wrath over making errors, progress will most likely be difficult at best, and fencing may quickly lose its magic. Right up front, I tell every new student that they will mess up. This is to be expected. But these won’t be new or unique mistakes. They will be the same mistakes I made when I began fencing and the same mistakes someone else made before me, and someone else before that student ad infinitum – all the way back to the first fencing student. We all screw up on the same stuff: bent arm attacks, forgetting to use the back arm, not riposting, stepping with the front foot instead of pushing from the back leg. So, feel free to mess up. Mistakes are part of the student’s rite of passage into the fencing world. We learn through repeating actions correctly. We learn through making errors. The master who demands perfection is way off base. Either they have ego problems, or they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner. Both are teaching flaws. Just because it is called classical doesn’t mean we automatically turn into flawless machines, and dance around gracefully like ballerinas. Fencing students should be allowed to relax, make mistakes, and enjoy the learning process.


Form Without Purpose. Fencing requires fluidity and flexibility. A stiff classical pose does nothing for anyone. Simply looking classical is pointless in and of itself. Form must enhance performance, and it must produce a result. I have seen fencers so stiff from holding their classical poses in place that they could neither attack nor defend themselves effectively.  This may be because they are afraid to look bad in front of their teacher, or because they think that looking like a eighteenth century fencer is the point of form. Either reason is nonsensical. We do not teach traditional form just because we see it in an Angelo fencing print from 1763; we teach traditional form because we gain balance, grace, blade control, and economy of motion from it. Touches should flow naturally from this process. If you can’t achieve this end with your form, you haven’t been taught correctly.


Classical Excuses. We might also put to rest the idea that an adherence to form as a valid excuse for losing. “He beat me because I wouldn’t sink to his sloppy level,” is a common “classical” argument. But looking nice is not a valid excuse for losing. Traditional form is supposed to enhance and maximize performance, not hinder it. The idea is to fence well and win. Form, then, has to be applied skillfully. If you lose to someone you consider a poor fencer, figure out the real reason why you lost. You won’t improve by making excuses.


Magical Thinking. If classical fencing is so good, why did that sport fencer beat me? Traditional fencing isn’t a magic bullet. It is a process. The more you hone your own process, the better it will serve you.


It is also a fact that losing can come about from a number of reasons independent of our actual fencing abilities: bad directing, faulty equipment, illness, even the simple psychological fact of not always wanting to compete. Learn to recognize the variables. Fix the ones you have power over. Adjust to the rest.


On the other hand, some fencers do extremely well in the comfort of their own school, showing much skill and potential, but freeze up in tournaments because they can’t handle the pressure of official competition. These were once called salle fencers. Should this be a problem, classical fencing won’t save you.  It is a problem you must face and overcome, or not.


Then again, we can’t escape the factor of actual fencing ability. Skill level, experience, confidence, and general training can’t be overlooked. Our opponent just might be ahead of us in those areas at a certain point in time. If this is so, just keep fencing until you can make your game work for you. Patience and perseverance are virtues in fencing.


If you think traditional fencing is your problem, maybe you should be looking elsewhere, like, in a mirror.     


Martial Art. It is the person who develops, not the weapon. Fencing is an internalized process projected outward. Certainly think of fencing as a martial art. This gives meaning and purpose to what we do. The logic of the sharp point is part of this. But don’t get tied up in images. Do what you do with intent and control. Master yourself and the skills you need for success. That is enough. Carrying on like some kind of 17th century swordsman will do nothing for your fencing. Ironically, the violence of fencing becomes so focused and precise with mastery that it becomes harmless in its application. That is, you will hurt no one with your skill to kill them. The martial quality of our fencing should be in our attitude, to fence one hundred percent, and should be observed in the sure, swift, determined application of whatever weapon we chose to wield. But we do not live in the Highlander world.


The Fencer’s Brain. Traditional fencing is a physical language, as real as any spoken tongue. But, as with any language, the mind guides the way in which it is expressed. If you can’t think in the language of fencing, it does not matter how much you try to copy the fencing poses in Angelo’s School of Fencing. There will be no meaning in what you do. Striking a gallant attitude is not classical fencing. It is fake.


Ritual and Affectation. Those who do not know fencing often hide behind ritual and affectation as a space filler. Overly-fancy actions and flowery language had a place in 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. But these things are not part of our time. If someone wants to make elaborate salutes that take five minutes, or talk like Cyrano de Bergerac, I guess that’s their business.  Simple hand shakes and salutes are important, as they allow us to demonstrate our respect for fencing. Knowing fencing traditions and history give us a sense of continuity and purpose. It is only when these elements transcend the act of fencing that considerable problems arise.


Artifacts. I can give you a dozen good reasons why a fencing student should not be taught things like body evasions and crossovers. Even time-thrusts are questionable actions for beginners. Students should have perfected an effective lunge before they learn to volte, if they learn it at all. The volte was a rejected artifact in Domenico Angelo’s time.


There are evasive actions of earlier time periods that once had relevance because of the nature of the weapons being employed. Heavier weapons meant slower blade actions, which made certain body movements feasible. A study of fencing manuals from the 18th century, when swords became lighter and more maneuverable, demonstrates a distinct preference for standard blade intervention over earlier methods of dodging. Lighter weapons meant faster offensive and counter-offensive deliveries, and this meant less time to respond physically with anything but blade work. For instance, in Angelo’sSchool of Fencing, published in 1763,  we find 25 illustrations depicting fencers lunging, and only 3 of fencers making passes. On the defensive side, 14 illustrations deal with parry-riposte actions, as opposed to 7 featuring disarms; while only 3 make use of body evasions. A single illustration depicted parrying with the hand. Clearly, Angelo, who set the fencing standard for decades, overwhelmingly advocated actions we would classify as modern. Things like passes and body evasions were simply artifacts of the past taught as a matter of convention.


But some classical teachers believe they have to teach such relics, as though twists and turns and odd footwork define classical fencing. The more exotic, the better. When the logic of fencing suggests that simplicity is the essence of effective fencing, why complicate a student’s fencing life with questionable actions?


The Magna Master: He Who Masters All. A fencing master could spend his or her entire life mastering the modern weapons of fencing – the foil, the epee, and the saber--so I am always leery of anyone who claims to be a master of dozens of fencing weapons and styles. And not just one school, but both Italian and French forms, and then into the historical, with broadswords and rapiers and small swords and whatever. I would look twice at any fencing personage who promotes their skills in this sweeping manner. Did they read a book to learn what they know. That qualifies them as literate, maybe. Who is the judge of their expertise? Marozzo? George Silver, Capo Ferro, Angelo? If they are in direct communication with these individuals, I hope they have accurate Ouija boards.


Elitism. There seems to be a strong sense among some classically-oriented groups that what they do is too complex for the average human to understand, as though movement and thought with a sharp object in one’s hand is so mysterious and profound that only the initiated can understand the secrets held within. Certainly, weapon technique historically and regionally varies with types of weapons employed, but it is not as mind-boggling as trying to understand the workings of the human genome – or your spouse. These groups often carry with them sky-high lesson costs and silly demands for secrecy. Such isolationist behavior projects an ugly elitism that does nothing to promote a desirable view of fencing.


A Final Word

I am relatively sure that a lot of fencers and teachers in the classical camp will be angry at me for this essay. I might be looked on as a traitor or an egotist. But I believe that if what we want for fencing is to come about -- to create a fencing that reflects traditional values -- we have to trim away the extraneous dead weight and make Classical Fencing simply  Fencing, with no side issues spinning it off into fantasy land. The fencing we propose must be strong and not strange. It must be practical and applicable. It must have modern relevance and appeal in terms of its value, not come across as an other-worldly anachronism. When I teach fencing, I teach it to my students for those qualities that will enhance their lives, not as a retreat into the past. If the traditional fencing process is to be anything more than a quaint niche in the overall fencing world, it must blend its virtuesinto the fabric of the modern world.

A Moment in Time: The Duel

Nick Evangelista

A Moment in Time: The Duel


By Nick Evangelista

This is not a made-up tale. As is the case with much of my fencing writing, it has been wrung from my own personal experience, sometimes with much discomfort.  I serve myself up as both good and bad examples, mainly because fencing is made up of good and bad experiences. How we adjust to these will determine our fencing future.

The following was an important event for me, a life defining moment. I offer it to you with the hope that it inspires you to regard your fencing, not simply as a game of acquiring touches, but as a method of adding to your personal growth as a person. In this sometimes impersonal world of technology and artificial, and often remote, stimulation, we need all the human input we can get. Life is about experiencing life. The Romans had a saying, Magnae res non fiunt sine periculo;  that is, Great things are not made without danger.


Here, then, is my story:

As I retreated down the fencing strip, my opponent’s foil point slammed against my sternum with the unyielding force of a stove poker. Despite the protective layers of a padded fencing jacket, pain drilled into my chest. A hollow buzz from the electric scoring machine off to one side taunted me.

“Touch right!” the bout director shouted, his voice filling the fencing room.

I stood there staring at the floor, groaning into my mask. With my free I hand rubbed the spot where I’d been hit. I did my best to smooth out the rumple on my lame over-vest where the attacking blade had gouged a neat little crater. Gripping my electric French foil in my damp, chamois-gloved right hand, I fell into a weary on-guard position.

I was doomed!

There, maybe twelve feet away on the narrow fencing strip, loomed the Professional Fencing Champion of the World. I closed my eyes for a long moment, in a vain attempt to block out his overpowering presence. But there was no place to hide.

The evening had begun innocently enough. The great room where we fenced—as wide and deep as an airplane hanger—was thrown open to the friendly sounds and smells of the warm Hollywood summer night. The hall was filled with fencers, some sitting around chatting, some practicing footwork in front of the room’s full-length mirror, some bouting vigorously. The click-clack of contradicting blades filled the air.

I was teaching, ensconced in my usual spot off to one side of the room. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, to just be another evening, no better or worse than any other. I had absolutely no inkling of what was to come.

I was the assistant of my fencing master Ralph Faulkner, former Olympian and movie fencing coach for the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Basil Rathbone, swashbuckling actors of Hollywood's Golden Age.  After years of study and apprenticeship, plus some time exploring European schools of swordplay, I had been made second-in-command at the famous Falcon Studios fencing salle. The Boss, as everyone called him, thought highly of me. I had become the heir to his rich fencing knowledge, the one student chosen out of all his students, to carry on the tradition of his teaching style and thought.

Often I would be working with students from five o’clock in the afternoon until eleven o’clock at night---sometimes longer—with almost no breaks between lessons. When we were really busy, teaching became an exercise in endurance for me. But on this particular evening, lessons zoomed by, and I found myself with some time for bouting. I congratulated myself on my good fortune. It wasn’t often I had free fencing time.

I began working out with a student on the school’s ancient electric scoring machine. It was a giant device, housed in a large, black leather carrying case. When it was opened up, it looked like something a traveling executioner might tote around to carry out freelance electrocutions. The student and I would fence a bit. Then, we’d discuss this attack or that defensive move. Nothing terribly competitive,  just fun, with a bit of learning thrown in.

I was so intent upon what we were doing, I never noticed when He arrived. The Champion. But, suddenly, he was there, hovering, watching, staring at me, through me. I sensed his presence and looked over. I said hello to be polite. Without hesitating, or offered greeting, he asked to join in, with a firm insistence in his voice. Actually, it was less of a request than  a command. “Nicky, we must fence now,” he said emphatically. There was no hint of please in his voice or his manner.

I nodded. Fencing etiquette compelled me to agree. I immediately felt a wave of anxiety flow over me. I didn’t want to face the Champion, not now, not ever.  I knew why he was here on this particular evening. He was after me. And this was no paranoid delusion. At one time or another, since he had come to Southern California from Europe—where he had been a successful master—he made it a practice to fence with and beat every fencer who showed up at our school. Experienced, inexperienced, it didn’t matter.  It wasn’t enough that he was an acknowledged champion of his profession, he had to show everyone he was their superior. With this fact in mind, thus far, I was the only one left who had escaped his indomitable onslaught. I was keenly aware of this, and obviously so was he. Up to this point, by always being busy with teaching, I had been spared the “privilege” of being publicly thrashed by this god of fencing. That grievous oversight was about to be rectified.

The Champion was a world-class competitor, ranked number one in the world as a professional fencer in sabre and number five in foil. He was a fencer with few rivals. But, for him, this fact couldn’t simply be understood or implied, it had to be demonstrated forcefully to all concerned.  The Champion couldn't fence with the Boss, because the Boss was old. Besides, to challenge a fencing master in his own domain would have been a breech in fencing tradition.  I, on the other hand, as Maestro Faulkner’s protégé, was not covered by any such convention.  In a way, I was the symbol of everything the Faulkner School of Fencing stood for. Moreover, I was the chief obstacle to the Champion’s adamant statement of superiority. He had to make certain that all the students, the Boss, and I clearly understood I was his inferior. If there was to be peace in Falcon Studios, it must be a Carthaginian peace.  Totally destruction, not blade of grass left standing. The proving, however, was something I would rather have not faced in this lifetime.

To be honest, I was aware that I’d been dodging the Champion for some time. Maybe not overtly. But I always felt secure in my industry. My teaching was my armor. And that was the crux of the matter. I was a teacher, after all. I worked with every student that came to our school.  I had given most of them their introduction to fencing. I had achieved a position of authority and respect. These people believed I knew something. What would they think if I was ground into atoms before them?  And this was clearly the fate that one person in the room was anticipating for me.  The Champion wanted to crush me and all signs of my ability.  I knew everyone would be expecting me to hold my own with him, but I personally doubted that I could. The entire school would then be a witness to my inferiority. I think to be exposed for our weakness in a public arena is everyone’s fear. Still,  even the Catholic Church, with its emphasis on soul cleansing confession, allows for private disclosure of one's failings. But here I was, I imagined, about to stripped naked publicly,  my fencing defects, whatever they might be, revealed to the world. I didn’t want to lose what had taken me years to build up. This was my life.


But by seeking me out this day, the Champion had brought the matter to a head. He had thrown down the gauntlet, a challenge as meaningful as any issued in the heyday of dueling. If I said I was too tired, or too busy, or too anything, it would have been clear I was backing down. I was trapped. Not fencing would have been more humiliating than bouting and losing.

Using the electric scoring machine made the meeting all the more convenient for the Champion. With the box’s flashing lights and blaring buzzer, there would be no doubt when a touch had been scored. One, two, three, four, five touches! Bout over. Everyone would be aware of his triumph over me. A moment of paranoia slithered through my brain as I wondered if someone had tipped off the Champion to the situation  at Falcon that night.

(Modern competition fencing weapons are wired to score touches electronically. Both fencers are hooked up, via extension cords, to a piece of machinery that both detects and announces when a blade has made contact on an opponent. There is a small depressible button on the end of the blade. When it is pushed in fully, it establishes an electrical connection that triggers the box. It is not unlike pressing a door bell. For fencers, ding-dong, your dead, metaphorically speaking.) 

As I waited for the Champion to suit up, I did my best to bolster my resolve. After all, I might not lose badly. I reminded myself I was a pretty fair fencer. But I was not the Champion.  The Champion was six feet, five inches tall, and two hundred muscular pounds of lightning responses. The Champion had, from a very early age, been trained and molded in Europe’s finest salles into a polished fighting machine. The Champion was ranked with the finest fencers the modern world had produced. I, on the other hand, was five feet, ten inches tall, one hundred thirty pounds, and, most definitely, not the champion. There was not a lot of buttressing I could do with these particularly stark, uninspiring facts.

I suddenly felt the borders of the fencing strip closing in on me. Forty feet long, six feet wide. It didn’t seem like much room to maneuver in. And as the Champion approached, his reach resembling an extension bridge, it seemed to grow smaller by the second. I was thinking a football field would have been worth a lot of money about then.  People, I noticed uneasily, were already assembling to watch the carnage.

The Champion slowly attached the cords that connected him to the electrical circuit we were now sharing. “Are you ready, Nicky?” he said amiably, his voice full of a mocking self-assurance that told me I had already lost. He was saying to me, in his own professional way, he could make it a thousand touches to zero if he wanted to. He really wanted to rub it in. I had escaped my fate for too long. “I’m ready,” I replied, my stomach flopping over. I ground my teeth together to keep them from chattering.

Then, it was time to start. The director of the bout called us to attention. “Fencers salute.” Then, “Fencer’s on guard. Then, “Fencers ready?” We nodded in unison “Ready.”  Then,  a crisp “Fence!”

The Champion immediately exploded down the fencing strip like a freight train caught in a tornado, his blade whipping through the air like a swarm of bees. He hit me with his point harder than I’d ever been hit before. It hurt so much, I thought he’d broken something inside me. He’d meant to do that as a warning of things to come. Intimidation is a proven negotiating tool. I stared up at the ceiling and sighed.  I folded inward.  I cannot beat this man. I cannot beat him. He can’t be stopped.

Then, suddenly, something inside me spun around. A light came on in my head. This wasn't what fencing was about. I stepped back and shook my head, realizing what I was actually thinking. My negativity was a slap in the face. Wait a minute. I’m not approaching this like a fencer. I’m giving in to an idea, a preconceived notion. I’m not just being beaten, I’m helping to cause my own downfall.


That provoking jab of the Champion’s foil blade into my body had done me a service. It snapped me out of my despair, and made me start thinking. There was no point in dwelling on the outcome of this encounter. It was going to be whatever it was going to be, whether I worried about it or not. If I was going to accomplish anything, I had to forget about winning and losing. I needed to fill my head with fencer thoughts, and get on with the business of fencing the way I’d been taught. I needed a plan. I needed to think about strategy.

There are four questions to be asked in fencing:  What is my opponent doing?  How is he doing it? What can I do to counter it? And, finally, Can I do what needs to be done? These are not only the stepping stones to understanding every opponent, they are the foundation of traditional scientific inquiry.  If I played my cards right, I might even learn something to become a better fencer.

"Fencers ready?"

I launched an attack, a one-two. Not as fast or as forceful as the Champion’s onslaught, but well-timed and deliberate. My intent had caught him by off guard. He had expected to keep me totally on the defensive. I touched him on the chest. My light blinked on the scoring machine.

"Touch left."

Then, I got another touch. A coupé  into sixte. That one surprised both of us. Suddenly, I was ahead. Now, I felt loose and ready for action.

Two touches to one.

This was followed by an insane, straining fleche into quarte, and that hit, too. Was I fencing? I was fencing!

But, now, the Champion hunkered down, realizing he had underestimated me. Using his powerful  footwork to threaten me, he moved forward aggressively; got me to fold and run, instead of thinking strategically; and hit me with the fastest disengage into sixte I had ever seen. When I finally tried to parry, it was too late. His blade simply pushed mine aside like a straw.

A crowd began to form on either side of the fencing strip. The bout had become the center attraction at Falcon Studios.

A moment later, I did a coulé-disengage from quarte into the low outside line. The feint of coulé in the high line masked my true intent. Coulé-disengage, dessus-dessous. I had once been told that no one could watch a well-framed feint of coulé running down their blade without making a forceful parry of opposition, which would then tell you immediately when to derobe off their blade. This was no exaggeration. Even better, the Champion did not know I was familiar with low line actions. I had tried nothing in the low line thus far. Surprise is always a potent factor in fencing.

Four. I was at four touches.

Now, I needed only one more to win.

But the Champion came back with a long, unstoppable beat-straight hit. I should have countered with a non-resisting parry to channel his energy away from me. But I’d hesitated for just a second, which caused me to absorb all the power of his beat.

The score was now four to three.

The next action came out of nowhere. The Champion disengaged into quarte. I parried contra de sixte with a croisé. The croisé, with leverage behind it, miraculously displaced the approaching blade. My point landed right below my opponent's bib.

I couldn't believe it. I did it. I’d won! I’d actually won!

I thought.

The Champion switched to Plan B.

When I went to shake his hand, he stepped back, pulling his hand away. “Nicky, you know we are going for ten touches.”

No, I did not know that. I think this was a bit of improvisation that would never have materialized if the score had been turned around the other way. But what could I say?  Liar, liar, liar!  To a world champion fencer? I don't think that would have helped. I just shrugged.

My spirits plummeted. This was the end. The Champion had obviously under-estimated me--even more than I had--but now he was surely going to pull out all the stops. He took off his mask for a moment to wipe the sweat from his face. It was a face that was determined and confident of victory.


I pulled myself back together. I regrouped my forces. The Champion was going to have to work for his triumph over me. I reminded myself I was still in the lead. I would not be bullied.

The Champion did not get his wish. Over the next few minutes, we traded touch for touch. I had never fenced this well in my life. Letting go of losing, letting go of winning, I just fenced, finding myself, finding my potential.

I brought the score to nine-seven with a quick parry-riposte in quarte. Once again, I was one touch away from winning, this time really winning. I could actually do it. And there would be no continuations.

One more touch. Just one. But some touches never materialize. They linger in the air, like the image of the Holy Grail.


Abruptly, the champion lifted my foil tip into high septime with a horizontal flip of his  blade, slamming a touch square into my solar plexus. It was meant to hurt more than any of the other touches, to shake me up. It did. It took me a minute to catch my breath.

The score was nine-eight.

Sweat dappled the ground around the Champion’s feet. His chest heaved, and he tapped the floor impatiently with his foil blade. The crowd pressed closer. Even Mr. Faulkner came over to watch the outcome of the match.

The director held up his hand. “Fencers ready?” A slow nod. “Fence!”

The Champion advanced on me with an aggressive burst of speed, his blade waving back and forth menacingly to throw me into a panic. This was his favorite move. I had seen him use it repeatedly on other fencers. Based more on sabre actions than foil, it was nevertheless very daunting. I realized what he was doing, but I fell into his trap, anyway. Sometimes, just knowing isn't enough. You have to feel what you are doing to be in control. I retreated, reacting without thought, my blade beating the air wildly, my body tightening. His previous touch had accomplished the result he wanted. He's sucked me into his trap. He forced me to open my guard. His weapon, shooting out and downward in a deadly arc, found its mark just beneath my sword arm.

I looked down helplessly, shaking my head.

The score was tied: nine touches to nine.

Lungs laboring, I stooped over, my hands resting on my knees. I thought about the distance I had traveled in my mind since the bout began. From self-styled loser to an opponent with purpose. Now, I was one touch away from actually winning. But so was the Champion.

I realized abruptly that I wanted this bout more than anything I had ever wanted before in my life. But it had nothing to do with merely winning or losing. The Champion could beat me, and no one could possibly fault me on my performance. Even Mr. Faulkner would be pleased with my fencing. It was something else, something that had more to do with who I was. It was about completing the journey and becoming. Becoming what? A real fencer? A real fencer, yes. That was it. With the whole thing boiling down to a single touch, that one touch was all touches for the rest of my life. Could I reach down deep inside myself, and control that which had once mastered me? Could I create, under the greatest pressure of my life, one unknown something that would truly say, This was fencing.  Or would I be left at the gate looking in? The fight was not with the Champion but with myself.

The director glanced in my direction. “Are you ready?” I took a deep breath. “Yes.”  He looked at the Champion? “Are you ready?” “I am.” This was it. “The score is nine to nine, la belle. Fencers ready?" A long, long pause. "Fence!”

I came on guard with a snap.

Now, there are moments in fencing when ability and true potential intersect, and you transcend your usual approach to technique and strategy; when the veil lifts and the truth of the fencing experience becomes apparent, crystal clear, converging to a fine point of awareness. Where this recognition comes from, I have no idea. But when it descends, it feels like a gift.

For me, it happened here.

I looked at the champion, and instantly I knew what he was going to do. I thought to myself, he’s going to try the same attack he just hit me with. He can’t help himself.  I was certain of it. Maybe it was the way he came on guard. Or the way he held his blade. Or the way he shifted his weight to his front leg.  I simply knew. It was also his favorite attack, and it had just worked extremely well against me. I was obviously susceptible to his bait. I had flinched. I had backed down.  It seemed obvious he would pick such a move to end our bout with.

If I retreated, as I had before, if I locked into his fanning blade motions, attempting to parry, as I had before, he would have me for sure. I would be fencing his game. His speed and strength would shoot his point right through my defenses, and the bout would be over. How satisfying for him.

But I knew.

All this passed through my brain in the instant I came on guard. I also knew what I had to do. Yet, I wondered, would I have the self-discipline to carry out my plan? I relaxed, breathing deeply, fighting back a tension that was attempting to wrap its paralyzing fingers  around me.

The room grew still. Suddenly, the action is now, forever the present….

The Champion steps forward.


Everything is in slow motion. In my mind I am both fencer and casual observer. I see everything clearly, with an unhurried sense of peace and certainty. I hold my breath. Sound fades away.


The Champion raises his sword arm first, his foil point dancing in the light. His feet float above the floorboards, carrying him, like a huge wave, toward me.


I feel the thump of my heart, the push of blood through my veins. Or is that the beat of the universe?


He comes on, but I hold my ground. I do not retreat this time. I won’t retreat, I tell myself, I won’t. Instead, I simply extend my arm straight into the Champion’s advance—a counterattack-- a stop thrust, a tactic as old as fencing. My foil is an extension of my body, of my nervous system. It is part of me, responsive.


The Champion has been ambushed. He actually did expect me to back down. He tries to change his plan. As he comes forward, he swings his blade in a huge circular parry, to scoop my blade helplessly out of the way.


With a tiny twist of my fingers, barely visible, I deceive the savage, desperate sweep of his blade. Motion blends into motion with the softness of water meeting water.


The Champion, to his surprise, misses my blade entirely. It is there, but not there. Two bodies opposed, yet working in perfect harmony.


Carried forward by his own momentum, the champion falls onto my waiting foil point. It hits him neatly in the middle of the chest. The blade bows deeply, then relaxes.


I don’t hear the buzzer on the scoring machine, but I look over slowly to see one light, my light,  flashing.


Suddenly, I hear a voice. The director. “Touch left. Bout!” he announces in long  drawn-out words, lingering forever in my ears.


The image of one touch freezes in time….


It was over. I looked at the Champion. The Champion looked at me. I had won. I had beaten him. We shook hands. “Thank you,” I said, and meant it. “Nicky, my boy…!” the Champion returned, crushing my hand in his. He meant that.

Still, at that moment, I felt like he was my best friend in the world. Maybe, in a way, he was. He’d inspired me to the best fencing of my life. He was, of course, a much better fencer than I was. I know that. And he would most likely always be that. But, in those brief moments of exchange and opposition, he helped me see how good I could really be. I’m sure he’d have chosen otherwise. Oh, well…!

I glanced over to where Mr. Faulkner was standing.

He nodded once, then turned away, heading off to his office.

Fencers began packing their equipment bags to depart.

The class, for the night, was over.

Although this bout, this duel, took place over forty years ago, I remember it as though it happened only yesterday.

From Nick Evangelista's The Inner Game of Fencing (McGraw-Hill Books).

© 2000.

On Becoming an Anachronism

Nick Evangelista

Me 7.png

On Becoming an Anachronism

 By Nick Evangelista


I have spent the last forty-five years of my life becoming an anachronism. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines an anachronism as, “Anything that is or seems to be out of its proper time in history.” I am a fencing master. Fencing is the passion of my life. Fencing is my reality, my truth. I’d rather fence than eat. Fencing, in one form or another, has been the focal point of my existence for over two thirds of my life. But, for all that, swords are not part of our everyday accessories (unless we live in the Highlander world). Swords are part of humankind’s days of yore. That puts me strikingly out of sync with modernity.


Being an anachronism, then, comes with the territory in fencing. I teach an ancient art and science, grounded in needs that are no longer part of the human condition. Fencing is from another time, another place, another everything. Imagine a mist covered field in Louis the XIV’s France, two swordsmen coming on guard in a duel to the death, their seconds standing by in watchful anticipation; or maybe a shadowy eighteenth century London alleyway, swords flashing in the dim lantern light as one man desperately fends off two masked robbers. These are the things we conjure up when we think of sword fighting, not the glass, steel, and concrete sterility of the 21st century. Fencing’s purpose, once upon a time, was to allow men to kill one another efficiently with swords. To hit and not be hit, is the age-old premise of fencing. But people don’t need swords today to kill one another. We have guns, cars, drugs, designer germs, and  bombs. We are so much more civilized than the denizens of past ages.


So, why have I devoted my life to such a seemingly useless activity? Why would anyone in their right mind pick something like fencing to base a life on? Why not choose to be a doctor, a mechanic, a greeter at Wal-Mart, or a politician?


For myself, I think I was born with the image of fencing in my brain. As far back as I can remember, there was the siren’s whisper of the sword beckoning me. I just knew that one day I would learn to fence. Where did that come from? Some people would say it was a calling. Others might defer to reincarnation. Some dower types dressed all in black might mutter, fate, fate, fate. Others, less kind, have suggested what I do is simply a bizarre compulsion, fixable through medication. I just say, ok. Fencing is part of me, inside of me. It’s what I do, who I am. My grandmother once asked me, “When are you going to learn it all so you don’t have to go back anymore?” She was very supportive.


But, beyond that--beyond being guided by Satan, or having a problem with substance abuse--what is it about fencing that attracts and never lets go of those who get bitten by the urge to participate in this relic of the past? A fencer might fence for sixty years, and never tire of it. Sometimes only death separates us from the art. My own master taught fencing until two weeks before he died, at the age of ninety-five and a half. I plan to be the first 100 year old practicing fencing master. I only have thirty-four years and eleven months to go.


So, again, back my initial the question: Why? Why fencing?


I would suggest, to begin with, superficially, perhaps, there is the romance of it all. Romance! We have it in us to see life through our heart. Fencing hits on an emotional level that drives us beyond thought. Some fencers are born romantics, searching for a link with a past full of heroes and brave deeds. In a way, fencing turns us into time travelers. Thoughts of musketeers and knights circulate through fencing brains like blood through arteries.


Too, there are traditions in fencing that tie us to an age-old brotherhood that spans the ages. This is a strong lure: to belong. It is where many fencing students begin their quest. Some might call it an escape from the present, but I think of it more as embracing an enriching ancient legacy. The day I first came across fencing equipment in the back of an old sporting goods store in Hollywood, California, in 1969, I felt I had found an incredible treasure. Actually, I had.


Then, there is the exciting physical reality of fencing, its insistent antagonistic challenge to our physical nature and our inner feelings. From day one, fencing immediately questions our bodily and psychological limitations. We know intellectually that these weapons we hold in our hand are harmless; but emotionally, we have much to overcome on the fencing piste. In the heat of combat, we may forget those behavioral parameters we seek to observe, and plunge headlong into fear and mindless reaction. This is a weakness that becomes predicable and exploitable. To gain control over knee-jerk impulses and to operate with measured efficiency and judgment, to be on purpose under fire, to make the sword—in the guise of a foil, epee, or sabre--a living extension of ourselves, is our goal. First, we learn to control us; then we learn to control our opponents. That is the order of our mastery. Within designated limits – there is implied violence, but no one is hurt, no one dies – we seek to uncover what is best in ourselves on many levels. Fencing is a vehicle to this end.


We understand the outcome of our reactions and responses against one idea: what if these weapons were sharp? There is a Latin saying that pertains to fencing: In ferro veritas, which, simply put, means, “In the sword is truth.” You find out much about yourself, and others, on the fencing strip. Aldo Nadi, one of the great fencers of the early 20th century, once observed, “The fencing strip is the mirror of our soul.” If ever there was a gauge to measure human possibilities, like a thermometer reads temperatures, fencing would be that device. There is much satisfaction in the crystal clear perceptions fencing brings to the fencer, of understanding, of doing, of accomplishing when the situation demands it. There are moments of excellence one never forgets.  It is our ultimate goal to make ourselves the weapon. To be aware on the fencing strip is to be aware in the world.


Fencing has been nicknamed Physical Chess. In the simplest way, this translates into focused thought being acted upon assertively. Fencing is an obvious display of motor responses, and this is what impresses people; and yet, ironically, it is the mind game that endures and sustains the fencer over time. Even as age diminishes physicality, a trained fencing brain can continue to map out an effective approach to even the most adamant opposition. This keeps fencing accessible late into life to those who think. I am a better fencer now than I was at twenty-five. I have learned to out-think my opponents, rather than meet them on their own, generally physical, terms. The opportunity to remain continually relevant and competitive in a culture that is decidedly youth oriented is, I think, one of fencing’s greatest benefits.


I began fencing as an awkward kid, the same as thousands of other fencing students stretching back over lifetimes. I was nothing special. I showed no genius. I was not a born fencer. But I applied myself. I invested more of myself into fencing than the average student, so I reaped a greater return. If I had any genius in me, it was for patience and perseverance. You can learn a lot in forty-five years. Now, I teach others to fence. This was not a conscious plan. Like most of those experiences in my fencing life that have given me direction, the opportunity to train others was a gift. I do not question this. If we question gifts too long, sometimes they go away.


Fencing has given me a living. It has brought me recognition in the world. It has expanded my brain and colored my personality. It has also brought me companionship of the best kind. What else might fencing be for? That ends up being part of the personal journey every fencing student embarks on.


So, is it worth becoming an anachronism?


For me, it has been, and always will be.







Legacy: Life Skills

Nick Evangelista

Legacy: Life Skills

By Nick Evangelista


I’m not in fencing for the money. If I wanted to get rich I’d have become a plumber. Fencing, then, has a deeper meaning to me. I should say that I am talking about traditional rather than anythingforatouch fencing. Fencing, as an intricate skill to be mastered, has fascinated me for over forty years. This goes beyond the one-on-one competitive thing, encompassing all the personal skills that must be developed and honed to adequately function in a setting that does its best to represent a “what if these were sharp?” fencing approach. (Anyone who knows me understands I am not including manipulating an electric scoring box or intimidating a director through extraordinary histrionics as part of my use of the term “fencing.”)


We can start with becoming adept at the physical side of fencing. This is our first challenge. This means replacing everyday people reactions with distinct fencer responses. Fencing is a foreign system of behavior to our nervous system, and must be mastered and internalized.  Within the realm of the physical we must also develop endurance and pacing. But countless fencers never get beyond simple, knee-jerk reflexes, their game revolving abound simply being stronger, faster, and more aggressive than their opponents. If the fencing student is being trained properly, he will eventually integrate basic strategies and tactics into his process. This is a step up in fencing’s evolutionary development, but it is still a fairly mechanical pursuit until the brain is fully engaged.


To be a superior fencer,  one’s development must go beyond these obvious martial attributes. A well-rounded fencer should have an understanding of human psychology, and this must pertain to  his own mental workings as well as others. This is where fencing takes on new meanings, as each individual encountered becomes a distinct entity to be overcome. Now, strategy becomes a more creative and flexible endeavor. As the fencer gains more control over himself -- his thoughts and his actions – he gains more control over his opponent. Judgment, uncolored by emotional imbalance, is enhanced. Actions are geared to what is truly happening with an opponent, instead of being haphazard and  sometimes unstable expressions. In the end, fencing, like all meaningful activities in life, becomes an on purpose proposition. This is where fencing gains the depth that is hinted at in the writings of the great masters. Moreover, it should be obvious that in gaining these inner skills, the fencer transforms himself beyond the fencing strip. Balance, judgment, discernment, and self-control become part of one’s approach to everyday life.  Conclusion: fencing, in its traditional form, with its demands for inner human qualities, gives us a template for what might be best described as life skills.  



As athletic as sport fencing is, when I see photos and videos of the quick-draw matches, the off-balance, toe-to-toe poking and whacking, and the childish outbursts of anger in defeat and the boorish displays of “superiority” in victory, it is plain that the fencing touted by the USFA and the FIE is just a game, as shallow in intent and outcome as the latest popular video game. But what can be expected in a pursuit where outcome is dictated by whim of rule and intimidation of officials, as it is clearly demonstrated on fencing strips around the world every day? The powers-that-be can romanticize what transpires, ignoring, for instance, the reality of the multitude of interpretations of priority. They can laud the efforts of their “champions.” But they only fool themselves. The gyrations performed are only a shallow parody of fencing, and the new race of fenceletes are typical modern athletic stock: egocentric, selfish, and childish.


have encountered many of this type over the last thirty or so years. Fencing begins and ends with them. They have little understanding of the inner-workings of fencing as it has existed for centuries, nor, apparently, do they care to. There is no logic or variety in their game, which is a purely physical encounter. In many cases, such as in saber, fencing has devolved into a kind of “quick draw,” followed by a reflexive turn to the scoring box to find who will be rewarded with the flashing light and who will not. A winner may perform some sort of exaggerated victory performance; the loser might let fly with an angry toss of weapon or mask. This kind of fencing has no purpose beyond the “reward.” There is no learning, no growth. It is basically a vehicle for the ego to express itself. Personally, I can live without this kind of fencing and this kind of human being. I am embarrassed to think that I might be associated with these fencers in any way. One might ask what kind of life skills are being taught in an irrational, ego-oriented fencing? Sadly, they often mirror what is ugly and repugnant in present day society.


 Traditional Fencing

I am not saying that the traditional game of fencing has not bred its share of ego maniacs and jerks over the centuries, but there was a time when the fencing establishment chose not to make these individuals their heroes. I grew up in a fencing world that still held within its precepts the idea that fencing offered more than a place to vent one’s poor behavior. Within the confines of tradition, mastery, and human interaction, a kind of world view was forged, where, as I noted earlier, the fencer had an opportunity to grow as a human being as well. Believe it or not, fencing was seen to benefit the person, as opposed to the other way around.


 Fencers Behaving Badly

Back in the 1970s, I was at a tournament where one fencer, having lost a decisive bout, threw his mask across a gym in a fit of anger and hit a bystander. His coach immediately hauled him in front of those present, made him apologize to everyone, and then publicly disowned him as a student. I believe the fencer was banned from the  Amateur Fencers League of America (as the USFA was once called) for a year.

These days, bad behavior is so common, in many cases it merely warrants warnings. I have known young fencers, reared in this new atmosphere, who seemed to believe that fencing did not exist before they decided to honor it with their presence. The fact that few fencers salute or shake hands after bouts is sad because, as unimportant as such actions might seem to many, they actually take the fencer outside himself, requiring him to acknowledge the value of others. To ignore tradition reveals a lack of respect for fencing and other fencers.

It is regrettable that modern fencing is so bereft of true meaning that the pursuit of it no longer imparts personal enlightenment. This happens when “champions” are employed to define meaning of sport.  When messengers become the message, the real message is always lost. As far back as the 1700s, the likes of Domenico Angelo saw the merits of following fencing’s path. He understood that discipline and mastery led to personal growth. It was called nobility of spirit, which is probably old-fashioned and useless by modern standards. Today, being a champion leads to commercial endorsements and financial gain. I am not against making money, but as Ebenezer Scrooge found out one Christmas, life is made up of more than dollars.



I should point out right here – before someone else says otherwise -- that I am not a moralist. Nor do I hold myself up as a paragon of virtue. Also, I do not consider myself the center of the universe. I can be cranky, and sometimes selfish. I do not always make the best choices in my life. But I know pretty quickly when I screw up, and I do my best to learn from my mistakes. Fencing has done a lot to improve my take on life. Life is not about being perfect, but shooting for the best we can be. That way, we can at least transcend the present. I would hate to think I had learned nothing in sixty-five years of life.


A Life Question

Once, my wife asked me when I knew I was a good fencer. This was probably the most difficult question I had ever been asked about fencing, and I sat for a long time with my mouth open. I came up with a number of predictable, mundane answers: when I won medals in tournaments, when I beat my opponents regularly, when my master chose me to be his assistant. I knew these all said something about me, but they were not the answer to the question. Finally, with a lot of brain squeezing, I came up with the answer: when what I was doing on the fencing strip was on purpose.  Isn’t this supposed to be true of our lives as well?



Overall, I teach to keep the art and science I was taught alive and healthy. This is especially important in a world where the fencing alternative is a thing without art or science, a mechanistic ritual that requires technology to fortify its inherent weaknesses.  Traditional fencing, as it has been pointed out, is a human skill that imparts much to the individual. It is important to keep such things of value from fading away into nothing. It doesn’t take long, in an atmosphere of ignorance, for valuable abilities -- abilities that underscore our humanity -- to be lost. I believe that every skill we lose, every skill we relinquish to technology, makes us a little less human. At the very least, it makes us less capable human beings. We have to pass on our information!


Beyond that, I teach what I teach because I think it makes a positive difference in my students’ lives. In their mastery of fencing, they gain a view of what is possible in the world. Fencing seems like such an insurmountable problem when we begin, and then, one day, through much expended effort, we find ourselves actually doing what we once only imagined. Not only does the student gain self-confidence and a more positive picture of themselves, but they also learn the value of persevering.


As to be expected, not every student who starts taking lessons continues with fencing. I have worked with literally thousands of students in the years that I have been teaching, but I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority no longer fence. This is just the way of the world. You hope everyone who comes to you will become a lifelong fencer, but it just doesn’t happen that way. Your next hope is that you can enrich the student’s life while they are with you, that something you say sticks with them. This is more reasonable.


I received a letter from a former student a while back that helps to illustrate why I teach:


                I am a former student of yours from Los Angles prior to your moving back East.  I cannot tell you how much fun I had and what a great job you did as an instructor. As a kid from East LA riding the bus to your studio, I was often teased and ridiculed by my friends and neighborhood kids, but once at your studio none of that mattered, and it was  all well worth it. I continued to fence for about a year after you left, but eventually hung up my foil because of other obligations. I cannot  wait for my kids to be old enough so I can tell them about the sport and get them into it. I want to thank you for being a great teacher and part of the wonderful memories of my youth.

                I hope you remember me.  I was a young Latino kid that would come from East LA to fence. Today, I am the regional consultant for the California State Health Department in the Central Valley. I am at a point where I’ll be in graduate school for epidemiology or law school this summer and will decide within the next few month. In the meantime,  I think it’s time to get back into fencing. Thanks again for the positive experience!

I would rather receive a letter like this than have a dozen students winning medals. Why? Because this is about life. This is where fencing impacts the real world. This is about life skills learned!



This raises another question: do I want my students to become champions? Yes and no. I want them to strive to be the best they can be on the fencing strip and in life. I want them to be honest and truthful. I want them to be understanding of themselves and of others. I want them to be balanced  individuals. As for winning, winning is something to strive for. No one takes up fencing as a way to continually experience losing. That would be dumb and somewhat weird. Obviously, wanting to win is a good thing; it implies a desire for excellence and mastery. I teach my students, then, a process by which they can develop those skills that will maximize their possibilities for fencing success throughout their lives. If they seek to become champions, I give them the vehicle to achieve this goal.  But I do not put becoming a champion above all else in life, and I am leery of those that do.


Anyway, this is why I teach.