Iocane Comes from Australia   1 comment

Silver or DiGrassi or one of those period windbags states three fundamental principles of combat: Measure, Tempo, and Judgment. You’ll hear them restated repeatedly. Marozzo has another, Simultaneity of Attack and Defense (his statement is “Always defend when attacking, and attack when defending”). Again, a pretty good idea. There are a couple of others.

To these principles I add “Self-Knowledge” and “Opponent-Knowledge”. Do I think I’ve discovered something the ancients hadn’t? No, just never found them put this way. But this does require, then, a defense: Are these really principles, just good ideas, or goals that will lead you down the wrong track? Dante recently bought me Steven J. Pearlman’s “The Book of Martial Power”, and in it Pearlman lays out a rough test for martial principles:
Most principles become recognizable not only by arguments supporting them but also if not more importantly, because we cannot argue against them.

Starting with Self-Knowledge, and refusing to assume it to be a principle, we can apply this test: Is it worthwhile to know your range, your foot tempo, your toolset, your reaction to adrenaline, your panic parry? Can it be argued that any of these aren’t worth knowing?

Applying the same test to Opponent-Knowledge: Is it worthwhile to know your opponent’s handedness, their range, their foot tempo, their toolset, their reaction to adrenaline, their panic parry? Can it be argued these are useless information?

In a consideration merely of the potential of true knowledge, these then do appear to be fundamental principles. The instinctual counter-argument, though, is “But what if your information is wrong?” What if you assume Opponent Knowledge that is just wrong.

Just as we speak of the True and False edge of the blade, the Forte and Foible, and the way they contribute to Mechanical Advatnage, we must classify, then, True Knowledge and False Knowledge, and through their interplay the attainment of Mental Advantage. I tell new fencers the old cliché that fighting is 10% physical and 90% mental. The 90% is the pursuit of Mental Advantage.


In every drill we expand our knowledge of our abilities; we define our limits and then expand them, or we add to our toolbox or shift its contents. And at the end of the drill we have a better knowledge of our physical self. And that’s great, you know stuff now, hooray. Except, you don’t know much. Even studying period manuals and practicing their techniques does not carry with it any guarantees about your actual ability in a fight.

The bulk of the drills out there don’t induce a whole lot of mental stress, so we don’t examine ourselves under stress, or improve our abilities to cope with stress. Yes, fighting at practice does push us mentally, but not in a systematic and controllable manner. A full mental inventory is really hard to come by, partly from observer bias, partly from the downright orneriness of humans in controlled study. Is there an efficient means to quantify and improve our true Self Knowledge? No idea. I’d love to hear ideas.

What we can do more easily, though, is eliminate false knowledge about ourselves. Take me as a for instance: I get cocky, I believe I am invincible. This is wrong. This gets me in trouble. It’s false knowledge. I think I have more ability than I actually do, and it loses me fights. I should really do something to correct my “knowledge set” so that I stay wary. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen quite a few fighters who believed themselves to have less control and ability than they actually did, and that lost them the fight.

As some Greek dude once put it, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A constant re-examining of our knowledge strengthens us by identifying unperceived and misperceived weaknesses.


Learning about yourself is a pain in the ass. Learning about your opponent is easy.

To paraphrase the smartest Wistric I know:

“There’s a whole lot of prior “reconnaissance”, starting even before you set foot on the list field. Talk to your opponent, find out what he’ll tell you about him. Watch your upcoming opponents fight, and pay attention to their style of fighting and the range in which they’re comfortable and the range from which they retreat when pressed. Talk to their previous opponents, or the people they practice with, and find out all they can tell you about the fighter. Then you take the field with them, and do more analysis based on their movement and appearance. Once on the field, people set up in stance before lay on is called, so you can then exam their form.

When lay-on is called, don’t move. Let your opponent move first, displaying their confidence, grace, and preferred fighting range, or lack thereof. Throw a single shot and step out, watching their reaction for their panic parry, the economy and speed of their reaction.

While always keeping yourself well-protected, and while sharing as little True Knowledge with your opponent, steal as much as you can from your opponent.”

Of course, it could all be wrong. Everything your opponent shows you could be a lie (I usually try to look more exhausted than I am, it’s a pretty easy lie to sell). So, start applying the scientific method (Observe, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, observe, repeat). “Hey, the blue and yellow fucker looks tired; I bet he’s tired; I’ll throw an aggressive feint to test the energy of his response; he counter-thrust energetically; the bastard’s lying.” Assumptions are not Knowledge. Hypotheses that stand up to testing start to become knowledge (and, as a scientific determinist, I don’t recognize the existence of “philosophical truths”).

Mental Advantage

Above I described a process by which a fighter can begin to form educated hypotheses about his opponent, while depriving his opponent of the same ability.  It is by no means the only process; I would guess there is an infinite variety of means of maintaining a one-way flow of true knowledge.  And while considering the gain of true knowledge, we have the two options of transmitting to our opponent no knowledge or false knowledge.  This ebb and flow, I would say more than anything, determines the outcome of the fight.  The net gain or loss of knowledge we experience is what then informs our judgment as a fighter as to which tool in our toolbox we use: the line, measure, and tempo of our attack.  If we have the mental advantage, our attack will land.  And it’s the damnedest thing that, as much as we practice finding our opponent’s sword, establishing and maintaining mechanical advantage, we in Kappellenberg (and, from what I’ve picked up around the web, few other places) have almost no practice for obtaining mental advantage.  I can think of one drill, and only one drill, where out-thinking your opponent is an essential part of the drill (one of the glove drills, which rewards the establishment and detection of traps of measure and tempo, as well as good form and footspeed).  My winter telecons may well be spent trying to figure out just one more way to practice one more element of gaining mental advantage.  But first I’d have to quantify a good number of elements.  Maybe next week.

Posted December 17, 2009 by wistric in Musings

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