171203 A Matter of Opposition

In a previous blog post we discussed the importance of getting the opponent’s blade out of the way so that it cannot hit you and so that you can hit your opponent.  One of the simplest tools to achieve this goal is also one of the oldest – opposition.  Although the mechanism and application of opposition in sword and buckler (from the early 1300s), longsword (the 1400s and 1500s), rapier (the 1500s and 1600s), small sword (the 1600s and 1700s), and classical fencing (1800s and 1900s) differ in detail from how we apply opposition today, the concept was there.  For over 650 years fencers have used opposition – do you suppose they might have been on to something?

What is opposition?  Well, the dictionary definition of opposition includes the act of opposing, resisting, or being placed opposite to something.  The most recent glossary of fencing terms compiled for the United States Fencing Coaches Association by Maitre Rob Handelman, with the assistance of Maitre Green, defines opposition in Fencing Foil as:

“… a type of prise de fer performed in one line, as a riposte or attack, that maintains contact, controls, and progressively binds and pushes away the opponent’s blade a sit hits the opponent’s target.”

Gennadt Tyshler and Vitaly Logvin define opposition in the Federation Internationale d’Escrime’s Sports Fencing professional coaching manual as:

“… a forceful action of the blade on the opponent’s blade, intended to redirect the threatening blade point outside the limits of one of the valid target sectors, in order to avoid a hit (cut).”

We can summarize this as opposition being an action that places the fencer’s blade on the opponent’s blade and displaces that blade to allow the fencer to hit and deny the opponent’s ability to hit.  But opposition is more.  Before the parry was defined for the convenience of the referee as a specific place on the blade, we used to have opposition parries as preparation for the opposition riposte.  Opposition always has been part of the range of attacks into the attack in the form of the time hit.  And in the attack we have had over the past 150 or so years a wide variety of attacks in opposition, known by a confusing variety of terms, and ranging from simply sliding down the opponent’s blade in a subtle movement to prevent an action into the attack to a strong displacement of the opponent’s blade taking it well outside the limits of the target.

What this means is that opposition is an important tool in the attack for all three weapons – in foil to gain and control right of way, and in sabre and epee to hamper the opponent’s counterattack and prevent two lights.  It is critical in defense in epee, and very important in sabre and foil, especially if the referee has trouble seeing a parry or in determining whether the parry came before, during, or after the hit.  It is an important technique in the preparation by parry of the attack (the riposte) after the control of the opponent’s attack in all three weapons – important in foil, quite important in sabre, and critical in epee.  And it is an important technique in the attack into the attack (the counterattack by time hit) in all three weapons to prevent the counterattacker being hit in all three weapons.

So what is the key to successful execution of opposition?  The same elements that are key in any other fencing action: correct distance and timing, a good kinesthetic sense of where your body parts are, concealed action that hampers the opponent’s reaction, appropriate speed of movement, accuracy of blade placement, accuracy of point placement, and the initiative.  Let’s look briefly at each of these:

… correct distance and timing – opposition taken too early and too far out allows the opponent to execute derobement or trompement  or to cede as either a parry or attack.  Opposition will not solve an action taken too late or with the opponent too close.  Taking opposition is very much like the goalie’s problem in soccer – how do you block access to the goal (target) by cutting down the available angles of attack to reach the target.

… good kinesthetic sense of where your body parts are – if you are going to prevent a point landing on your target, you have to understand the relationship between where your fingers, hand, and arms are to the opponent’s blade and to your target.  If you insist on trying to protect the width of two or three of you, the opponent will have all the time in the world to escape your opposition in offense, counteroffense, or defense.  And the reverse is true – if your body image is still 120 pounds and you weigh 180 your opposition will be positioned to close off 120 – the remaining 60 pounds will be free range target.

… concealed action – opposition is most successful when the opponent discovers that it is happening way too late to do anything about it.  There is a case for strong, even violent, application of opposition, especially close in to the target.  However, in offense or counteroffense, if your first move is to establish opposition followed by forward movement of the blade the opponent may well have time to evade or cede leaving you trying to master empty air as she hits you.

… appropriate speed – because opposition actions are subject to evasion or ceding, you should be faster than your opponent (either actually faster or have picked a distance where you are tactically faster because the distance is short enough that the opponent’s response time is too long to evade your action).

… accuracy of blade placement – opposition works when you gain leverage by applying strength to weakness.  This may be the forte on the foible, gliding in to the target maintaining pressure.  It equally may be overcoming a physically weaker opponent who simply cannot resist your pressure.  And even worse, if your hand closes the line but your blade is angled across it, he will simply shove through your opposition like a Chinese cleaver through soft butter.

… accuracy of point placement – opposition that does not result in a hit is a futile exercise.  If you do opposition with your point 45 degrees off the fencing line (the line connecting your back heel, front heel, front toe to the opponent) you are giving the opponent an additional 3 or so feet of reaction time to counter your action.  This is particularly true with the opposition parry – keep the blade in line and the point in line.

… initiative – opposition is an initiative action.  For it to work well you have to be in control of what is going to happen next.  If the opponent is attacking, you want her to attack at a time and distance of your choosing that allows you to prepare your opposition action with a clean opposition parry.  If you are attacking or counterattacking you want the conditions to be right physically or psychologically to gain control of the opponent’s blade.

So, whether you intend to do a glide, glissade, coule, or opposition thrust, an opposition parry, opposition riposte, or a time hit or opposition stop hit, it is time to practice technique and application.

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