The French are geniuses of the sword. They elevated fencing to an art under Louis “The Sun King” XIV, who elevated most everything to art. The classic French school emphasizes catlike footwork. The Italians want lots of force. The Hungarians are best with sabers. There’s this excellent story about Hungarian Aladar Gerevich, the greatest saberist of modern times, who won Olympic gold medals as if they were souvenirs in a penny arcade — who, in fact, nabbed two of them a staggering 28 years apart, and who fenced straight through World War I. When the country’s Olympic committee told him he was too old to fence at the age of 50, he challenged all the members of the Hungarian fencing team to individual matches. He won every single one.
The literature on the history of the sport is full of delicious, rousing stories like that, ones that favor the cunning underdog. You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest, just the smartest, to win. It is also filled with scarier stories. The word I keep coming back to is “puncture,” as in students in the pre-Kevlar, premodern-blunt-sword, swashbuckling days of the 17th century, who practiced sans protective clothing and often died from punctured lungs. These unfortunate events remain thankfully buried in the past.
At competition level, modern fencing is a magnificent, lightning-fast leaping endeavor, less like the slow, back-and-forth scuttling-crab motions that give away adult beginners, and more like the nimble springing of spiders. A lesson with LAIFC sabreurDaniel Grigore keeps you not so much on your toes as on your thighs (his are like granite), which will burn with the effort of attack-lunging, more than after any glute-torturing Buns of Steel exercise video. He’s an Olympian, Grigore. He fought in the ’92 Atlanta and the ’96 Barcelona Olympics on the Romanian saber team. For someone who could use a saber the size of a toothpick to fillet you like a salmon without even breaking a sweat, Grigore has a patience that borders on the holy.
He gently demonstrates how to push your opponent back toward the end of the strip so he has no place to go, like a boxer worked into the corner. “See? He is uncomfortable,” Grigore says with his sweet smile, then casually traces clean, precise velociraptor slices across his ribs. “Saber is mostly slashing. Not too much poking.”
Los Angeles International Fencing Center, 11755 Exposition Blvd., W. L. A., (310) 477-2266 or www.lafencing.com.