To the saber fencers visiting this web site Vladimir Nazlymov does not need an introduction. He is a world renowned saber coach after having been a world famous competitor: three Olympic medals and numerous World Championships medals. His coaching career spans several decades, two continents, and many Olympic Games.
Currently the head coach at Ohio State University, Maitré Nazlymov has visited the D.C. area several times, where I was fortunate to work with him. The notes that follow were taken in conjunction with several saber seminars given in the DC area. Any errors in the material presented are solely my responsibility.
Maitré Nazlymov began each seminar by emphasizing fundamentally sound technique. In none of the seminars did I seen anything startlingly new. Maitré Nazlymov always emphasized our work being done slowly and perfectly. He always started at the beginning - with on guard - and moved to more actions step-by-step.
THE ON GUARD...
As one might expect, Maitré Nazlymov believes that good fencing comes from a good on guard. Maitré Nazlymov advocates a slightly wider on guard in saber than my classical French training would have advocated. This on guard seems to bring the bigger leg muscles into play, and helps the beginning saber fencer control their tendency to get very off balance while moving. For Maitré Nazlymov, being off balance is the bane of the saber fencer.
In on guard, the arm is always loose. Even in the extension to attack there is never any strain or tension in the extension or the cut. The arm is never "popped" on the cut. The arm never reaches more than 90% of its extension when making the cut. This enables the arm and shoulder to always be loose; the direction of the blade can be changed quickly, and the fencer can easily move from attacking to making a parry. While in on guard the hand is held back slightly, close to the body. This protects the hand from attacks or counter-attacks. This also has the advantage of letting the fencer move the hand forward to show the start of an an attack to the referee without exposing the arm or hand to stops or counter-attacks. Maitré Nazlymov emphasizes putting the hand in play at the last necessary moment.
"...it was a misconception that the Soviets had dominated fencing through the use of their footwork..."
In the past, I had heard that Soviet-schooled fencers dominated the game through their superior footwork. I had certainly seen amazing footwork by Soviet trained fencers while I was at competitions. At the first seminar I attended, Maitré Nazlymov stated that it was a misconception that the Soviet's footwork had lead to their domination of fencing. He stated it was the tactical use of distance, position, and choice of actions that enabled the Soviet system to persevere over older, more established fencing countries. Of course, after saying this, the group proceeded to do a solid hour of footwork!
During these drills, the technical execution of the footwork was important. Footwork was never done quickly, but always slowly and smoothly as possible. The students must understand that momentum is the enemy of the fencer. The fencer must be able to start a step, see a change in his or her opponent, and change direction to turn the situation to the fencers advantage, either on the attack or the defense. If the opponent creates an opening or commits a fault, the fencer must be ready to flow into the space left by the opponent and finish strongly. The fencer must be able to change direction and retreat in the face of a strong action by the opponent, changing direction without the loss of balance. The lunge is always short, balanced, and solid. Long lunges are to be avoided.
In all the seminars, the footwork drill was identical. The students would form a line across the gym, and Maitré Nazlymov would face us. Maitré Nazlymov would begin by making a retreat (he usually did the footwork on guard himself) and calling out the time of our corresponding advance step: "eeeeeh - one" and we would move our front foot forward slowly at the "eeeeeh", landing on the heel of the foot. On "one" we would bring the back foot up quickly, rolling onto the front foot to complete the step. Occasionally Maitré Nazlymov would change direction and advance towards us after we completed the first half of our advance. We would then turn the half-advance into a retreat to escape Maitré Nazlymov's "attack".
This drill then turned into a choice drill for the students. Maitré Nazlymov would lead the line of fencers in slow advances. When Maitré Nazlymov changed direction and "attacked", the line of fencers escaped his "attack" with several quick retreats. The students would then, at his signal, "take over the attack". Maitré Nazlymov would retreat several steps in the face of the student's advances and then finish with one of two actions: he might make a counterattack into the student's "attack" (forcing the students to finish with a lunge) or he would make a random parry, and the line of students would cut to Maitré Nazlymov's opening line. This was all done without weapons by either side.
This was the start of all the seminars. After this warm up, we moved to paired drills.
The first drill was a simple variation of the warm up we had started the seminar with. In uniform and with weapons, the students would pair up and face each other at an advance-lunge distance apart. One student was the Defender, and the other, the Attacker. The Attacker would make a slow initial advance, just as done in the warm up footwork. If the Defender stood still and did not react to the advance, the Attacker should lunge to score.
Alternately the Defender could make a retreat on the Attacker's initial advance. The Attacker should immediately make another, more aggressive advance, "stepping" on the Defenders retreat. This should cause the Defender to make an early parry in reaction. The Attacker should cut to the opening line to score with a lunge. The Attacker does not make any deep or obvious feints to provoke a reaction: the "feint" stems from the suddenness of the Attacker's second advance. This is an attack done entirely with footwork.
After several repetitions of this drill, with the Defender mixing the two responses, the Defender is given another, third choice. In this third option, the Defender may pull a much larger distance on the Attacker's initial, preparatory, advance. The Defender is now considerably out of distance from the Attacker. The Attacker should complete the attack anyway: making a very short lunge that fails to reach the Defender. The Defender will then feel comfortable in taking the attack over from the Attacker, and come forward attempting to score. The Attacker should recover and make a parry and riposte to score.
As an aside, this three option drill would not be out of place in foil. More and more, distance is being used to defeat attacks in foil, and the dynamic is much as practiced here. In a separate clinic, with Gia Abashidze (also a coach at Ohio State) we did much the same drill.
The second drill begins with the two fencers facing each other at a long distance, equivalent to the on guard lines, or perhaps a bit less. Both fencers make an advance lunge to score with simultaneous actions. Each fencer notes where they were scored against (whether their opponent cut head or flank or chest). After several simultaneous actions, the Defender should lunge slightly short, and make a pre-planned parry in the line that the opponent has been cutting during the previous simultaneous actions. The skill here lies in making the approach to the parry look as much like an attack as possible. If the fencer tries to pull the space too short, the opponent will recognize this and change lines. One must dare! (As Nazlymov pointed out several times).
Now the opponent has faced several simultaneous actions, and been hit with a parry and riposte. In a real bout, if the opponent had executed some of the actions poorly, they might have also been scored against on some of the "simultaneous" actions. At this point in the (theoretical) bout, Maitré Nazlymov suggests that it is expected that the opponent will make a false action and pull space in an attempt to make the fencer fall short or over commit on the attack. Here the utility of the slow first step comes into play. The student who executes their footwork correctly sees the opponent pull the fencing space and does not over extend on the attack. Instead, the student can now follow the opponent until the opponent slows or stops moving. At this point, the opponent will probably attempt to make a sweep for the fencer's blade. This must be avoided, and an indirect cut can then be made with a lunge to score against the opponent.
Now the opponent has had many touches scored against them in this simulated bout. At this point, the student is in command of the opponent. The opponent is still dangerous (and Maitré Nazlymov simulated this in demonstrations by trying to mix up or confuse his partner in order to cause them to deviate from the tactical progression that had been established) but essentially the fencer controls the opponent and the bout. By continuing to fence in a similar manner, the fencers should win.
This simple tactical progression "models" the bout for the student. Each action follows from the other in a logical sequence. In demonstration (and while working with the students one-on-one) Maitré Nazlymov occasionally threw in small variations in the progression. Despite the appearance of a "road map" of actions, the student must still fence with "open eyes", ready for the variations that only happens in the bout. Never the less, this approach to fencing is one sorely lacking in many lessons. It's benefit to the student is obvious. I look forward to future visits by Maitré Nazlymov and his insights on the tactical progression in saber.
Copyright © 2005 by Allen Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.
When I first moved to the Northern Virginia area, I was fortunate to spend a number of weekends with Vladimir Nazlymov, the esteemed saber coach. While orginially written in 2005, much of this document is still pertinent to modern saber.