An argument for wrestling
In today’s article, I’m going to be outlining a few reasons to start grappling in HEMA classes, and in longsword classes in particular. Some people just train longsword in isolation, which is strange from a historical point of view, as a medieval fencer would not just have trained in one weapon, they would have trained in many combat arts, including wrestling. Training longsword in isolation like that is not the best way to develop martial skills either I feel. Other HEMAists already include grappling in their training regime, and they should continue to do so; this article is aimed at groups that don’t already do any grappling, and will outline a few reasons why they should.
It produces a more well rounded fencer
“…learn art which decorates you [and] in combat exalts with honor. Wrestle, good grappler; lance, spear, sword and Messer valiantly wield and make useless in other’s hands.”
Johannes Liechtenauer, quoted by Sigmund Ringeck, MS Dresden C487. C.1504-1519. Translated by Christian Trosclair. Folios 11r-11v.
A fencer should never just be able to fight with one weapon, they should be able to fight with several, or with no weapons at all. A fencer that only knows how to fight with one weapon set is not particularly well rounded or versatile. For example, a longsword fencer that knows how to grapple can choose to grapple during a longsword fight when appropriate, a fencer that doesn’t know how to do this does not have this option. A fencer that does not know how to wrestle also won’t be very effective if an opponent grapples against them.
Additionally, if someone trains both longsword and wrestling, they will be able to draw parralels between the two practices, and be able to identify how the same principles manifest across both systems. Someone that only trains longsword cannot do this.
Finally, as the verse above states, Liechtenauer would have expected fencers to train with different weapon sets, or without weapons. Simply put, it is not really accurate to train Liechtenauer tradition longsword without also training other systems. There is a limit to this obviously. Most people cannot afford armour and a horse, so there are parts of Liechtenauer’s art which will remain out of reach of most HEMAists; however we should still try to train those parts of Liechtenauer’s art which we can.
It develops important fencing skills
“And know that all grace and skill comes from wrestling and all fencing comes basically from the wrestling.”
Anonymous. MS 3227a. C.1389. Translated by Thomas Stoeppler. Folio 86r.
The biggest reason that I include wrestling in my classes is that it helps to develop skills such as structure very efficiently. If a fencer has poor structure with a longsword, this is often not very apparent to them. With poor structure, they will probably be unable to parry heavy incoming blows, though if they do not particularly intense sparring, they may never notice this.
Even at slow speeds, wrestling makes issues with structure far more apparent. Someone with good structure might make a throw looks effortless, while someone doing that same throw with poor structure will find that throw more awkward. People can feel the difference between a throw they structured well and one they structured poorly much more easily than they can feel the difference between a well structured and a poor structured parry.
Concepts such as grounding get brought to attention far more when training wrestling. Grounding is something that people often find hard to understand or to put into practice despite how important it is. When you ask someone to throw someone else, you are putting them into a context where the importance of grounding becomes a lot more apparent, and people find it easier to understand in this environment.
Things like good footwork, structure, grounding, the ability to read an opponent’s pressure will all be developed by wrestling, and these skills will then transfer over to longsword fencing.
Some instructors may shy away from wrestling because they do not believe it is safe. Certainly, wrestling can be done in a very unsafe manner. There is a key skill though that all fencers should have for their own safety though, which is breakfalling.
Even if your group does not grapple, other HEMA groups will, and as a fencer you will occasionally be put in a situation where an opponent grapples against you. You will not always be able to stop an opponent from doing this, so you must be able to fall safely. If you are thrown, and you do not know how to breakfall, then you are at much greater risk of injury.
This is a particular concern if a fencer wants to enter more intense tournaments. Entering a tournament where wresting is allowed without being able to breakfall effectively is rather unsafe. It is therefore key I think that HEMA groups make breakfalling a regular practice.
A common objection: a lack of time
Many HEMAists will say they can’t train wrestling because there isn’t enough time. True, there is only so much time in a training session, and most people will only attend one training session a week.
Our longsword classes are 2 hours, once a week, and almost every week, I spend on average about half an hour training breakfalling and some basic throws. This is about a quarter of the class that I can’t spend training longsword techniques but I’ve felt that the trade off is definitely worth it.
Similarly, when I first introduced slightly lengthier PT, there was a concern this would take up too much time. Again, I found that our student’s increased physical ability and the understanding they gained of physical structure from PT more than made up for the shorter training time with a weapon in hand.
There are simply some lessons that wrestling can teach easier than fencing, so I believe that even if there is limited class time, taking some of that time to train grappling will be extremely useful. You don’t need to dedicate lots of time to this, nor do you need to become really good at wrestling, but putting some time aside to intelligently train wrestling in a way that’s relevant to your main weapon and that will provide a solid understanding of wrestling basics will help your fencing skills to develop.