It's All in the Timing:
Concepts of Combative Timing in Historical Italian
By Ken Mondschein
Timing, it is said, is everything. Sun Tzu, writing
his "Art of War" in the time of China's
Zhou dynasty, spoke of when it is advantageous to
strike at the enemy, and when it is advantageous to
wait. On a smaller scale, seizing the opportune moment
in which to strike the adversary, or, consequently,
thwarting the adversary's own attempts to strike oneself,
is an integral part of any martial art. And, in keeping
with the endless classification and analysis characteristic
of Western thinking, European systems of fencing have
a very sophisticated vocabulary with which to describe
timing. These conceptions, which give names to practices
found within the fighting systems of many nations,
will no doubt found to be a useful training tool,
as well as a spur to martial creativity. Indeed, in
his "Tao of Jeet Kune Do," Bruce Lee's concept
of the "intercepting fist" was highly influenced
by his study of fencing. A study of timing may also
aid judges in martial arts competitions, who may begin
to better recognize and give credit to various types
of counters to attacks thereby.
This article therefore intends to explain conceptions
of timing found in one tradition of Western swordsmanship,
the Italian schools of rapier fencing that existed
in the early modern era, in a way that will be useful
and accessible to practitioners of all martial arts.
The reason why we have chosen the rapier to illustrate
these concepts is that this particular weapon is a
long, relatively slow thrust-and-cut sword that necessitates
a sophisticated sense of timing for its effective
use. Later in the history of fencing in Italy, the
weapons grew lighter and quicker, and the definitions
changed somewhat to reflect these new realities.
The concepts of fencing time ("tempo schermistico")
found in Italian rapier are several: "stesso
tempo", or "single (literally, "self")
time;" "dui tempi," or "double
time;" "mezzo tempo," or "in the
middle of the time," the action made "in
tempo," or "in time," and "contratempo,"
"counter-time," or "against the time."
It is important to note that these concepts of "fencing
time" ("tempo schermistico" in the
singular, or "tempi schermistici" in the
plural) are not the same as the concept of "tempo,"
which may be translated as "timing." Timing,
of course is an acquired sensibility as to the appropriate
moment to execute any given technique.
These ideas of timing have a long history. For instance,
Marcelli, in his treatise of 1686, says (translated):
"Time may be considered in three ways: In the
first time, or time of the first intention; in absolute
time; and in time of second intention, or double time."
That is, stesso tempo, mezzo tempo, and dui tempi.
He later goes on to speak of "another, most delicate
action... striking in countertime."
The reader may also note that we seem to be speaking
of "fencing time" as if one fencing time
was a concrete, quantifiable, and invariable period.
This is not the case. One fencing time is a relative,
not absolute thing. It is defined simply as "the
time it takes to perform one fencing action."
Thus, a lunge with the rapier is one time, a direct
cut with the edge is one time, a parry against the
lunge or cut is one time, and a step forwards or backwards
is one time. Of course, actions can be combined, so
a step backwards taken together with a parry, or the
extension of the arm which is an integral part of
the lunge, is still one time.
By extension of this principle, it also takes one
time to jab with a fist, one time to throw a roundhouse
kick, or one time to unbalance an opponent in judo.
In terms of "clock time," it is of course
not the case that everyone's roundhouse kick travels
at the same speed, and, likewise, we know that a jab,
relatively speaking, is faster than a roundhouse kick.
However, they are all alike in that they are single,
simple actions, and so, for the purpose of our discussion,
which concerns the tactical use of "timing"
and not the measuring of "time," we shall
consider them the same.
Given the definition of what one fencing time is,
it is easy to understand the concept of "dui
tempi," that is, "two times." This
is, quite simply, one simple action followed by another.
Thus, a parry followed by a riposte (that is, a counterattack)
is considered "dui tempi," a block followed
by a punch is likewise two times; and a defense against
a throw followed by an attempt to counter-throw can
be seen as two times. Two jabs thrown in quick succession
is two times; likewise, a jab followed by a reverse
punch is also two times. Again, the relative speed
of the actions is not important; what is important
is that they are two discreet actions, whether offensive,
defensive, or a combination of both. This is the most
elementary mode of offense or defense: One attacks,
and then one defends; or, conversely, one defends,
and then one attacks.
Below two action sequences illustrate "dui tempi"
timing. In the first series Maestro Martinez parries
Ken's cut to his head and then responds with a cut
of his own. In the second, unarmed sequence, in response
to Ken's reverse punch, Maestro Martinez first blocks
the attack, and then simultaneously checks Ken's arm
(Click pictures for animation)
Considered offensively, however, "dui tempi"
uses time as a weapon. As Sun Tzu says, "All
warfare is based on deception." Thus, a fencer
may threaten the opponent with a feigned strike to
the head (that is, a feint), and, as he raises his
blade to defend himself, deceive the parry and cut
him in the flank. In karate point-fighting, one deceives
by threatening a backfist (uraken) to the head, and,
as the opponent raises his hands to defend, launches
a sidekick (yoko geri) to the stomach. In semi- or
full- contact fighting, a jab can be the set-up for
a devastating reverse punch. In judo, one unbalances
an opponent in one direction, and, when he compensates,
unbalances him in the other direction as a set-up
to the throw.
This is the principle of the feint, which those considered
"natural fighters" grasp instinctively.
The rest of us, however, may benefit from some analytical
study. The most important element is that "the
feint must be made with absolute conviction,"
forcing the opponent to react. As he reacts, the strike
is made in the space uncovered. Likewise, the false
attack must always be able to transform instantly
into a real one, in case no reaction is provoked.
One can instantly recognize the value of certain Zen
concepts, such as the emphasis placed on the tranquil,
immovable mind, in not overreacting to feints and
making the adversary's job easier. The feint is indeed
a difficult art to master, and one requiring years
of practice, as well as great mental acuity.
Defensively, "mezzo tempo," or "in
the middle of the time," is more sophisticated
than the simple parry/riposte or block/punch. It is
an extremely useful concept, but it requires training,
as it utilizes a more finely developed sense of timing
and tactics than "dui tempi." In rapier
fencing, one may use a "mezzo tempo" action
against a cut by lunging and striking the opponent
with a thrust as he raises his arm to strike. Or,
if the adversary makes a feint to the face followed
by an attack to the abdomen, one may likewise act
in the middle of his time, lunging at the instant
he begins to lower his point, hitting him before the
actual attack can develop.
In a Filipino martial art, a quick blow to the fingers
of an opponent who is trying to strike with a stick
may be seen as a "mezzo tempo" action. In
karate, one can defend against a roundhouse kick using
a time action by stepping in as the kick is thrown
and delivering a jab or side-thrust punch (jun tsuki)
to knock the opponent back and rob the kick of its
power. Two pugilistic defenses making use of time
actions against a hook punch are throwing a quick
counterpunch against the shoulder of the opponent,
and stepping in with a rising elbow to the chin (jodan
hiji-ate), taking the punch on the arm.
Two action sequences below illustrate "mezzo
tempo" timing. In the first Maestro Martinez
responds to Ken's flank cut with a quicker thrust
in "mezzo tempo." In the next, unarmed sequence,
Ken sets up a roundhouse kick, but Maestro Martinez
closes in, striking before the kick can be developed.
(Click pictures for animation)
The astute reader will notice that all of the aforesaid
"mezzo tempo" actions require either moving
in, throwing a quicker counter-technique, or both.
Unlike a "dui tempi" defense, one does not
wait for the opponent to finish his attack before
countering; rather, one makes a proactive defense
by not allowing the opponent to finish his attack.
The downside to this, of course, is that if the maneuver
is performed incorrectly, one winds up stepping into
the oncoming attack. Continually stepping into attacks,
or, for that matter, fearfully striking out as an
instinctive reaction at having an attack made at oneself,
is neither skillful, nor particularly wise.
Perhaps the hardest of all these concepts of timing
to explain and perform, but also perhaps the most
elegant and effective, is the concept of "stesso
tempo," in which defense and offense become one.
Because of its relative slowness, a "dui tempi"
response to an attack with the rapier would take an
impractically long time, allowing the opponent time
to perform a counter. Therefore, historical masters
such as Fabris advised fencers of early modern era
to defend themselves and wound the adversary "in
stesso tempo" with an intercepting attack, an
action both defensive and offensive. One way to do
this with the single rapier is to catch the opponent's
thrust in such a manner that the point is diverted
with the portion of one's own rapier nearest the guard,
while one's own point was directed against the adversary's
target. One's own target, meanwhile, is further removed
from danger with an evasive body movement. This is
a technique that requires a sure sense of distance
and timing, as well as a mastery of technique, great
sensitivity, and a sure hand.
However, a "stesso tempo" action need not
be made solely with the weapon. Another way of defending
and offending in "stesso tempo" would be
to deflect the oncoming attack with the left-hand
dagger that was often the rapier's companion, while
simultaneously executing a body displacement and counter
thrust with one's own rapier. One may also attack
with the single rapier or rapier and dagger in "stesso
tempo" against a "dui tempi" feint
and attack, defending oneself and offending in the
same time -- while the opponent feints, you hit. Needless
to say, incorrectly performing a "stesso tempo"
action can be disastrous.
In the action sequences below Maestro Martinez counters
Ken's lunge with a counter thrust in "stesso
(Click picture for animation)
An example of a "stesso tempo" action in
unarmed fighting might be to deflect a hooking punch
to the head with a jab delivered in such a manner
as to both deflect the punch and strike the attacker.
Another would be to partially deflect a punch to the
body with one hand, while at the same time displacing
one's body and driving home a counter punch with a
step forty-five degrees forward. However, the close
distance and relative quickness involved in empty-handed
fighting can make these sorts of maneuvers extremely
challenging to perform.
In the action sequence below Ken attempts a reverse
punch, but Maestro Martinez simultaneously deflects
the oncoming attack and strikes with a counter punch
in "stesso tempo."
(Click picture for animation)
Time actions, or actions made "in tempo"
("in time"), are another method of manipulating
moments in time to defend oneself and offend the opponent.
A counterattack made "in tempo" may perhaps
best be understood by the example of the stop-hit,
or "colpo di arresto." For example, as the
opponent lunges with a sword thrust to the knee, one
can merely draw one's leg back, lower the point of
one's own sword, and transfix his wrist. The same
with karate: As an opponent lunges forward with a
backfist, draw back and launch a sidekick into the
unprotected flank. The "colpo di arresto,"
in short, is a counteroffensive movement made in the
same time as the attack, together with a body evasion
that removes the target from reach.
In the first action sequence below Maestro Martinez
executes a stop against Ken's cut to his leg, with
body displacement. In the unarmed sequence, in response
to Ken's reverse punch, Maestro Martinez again displaces
his body and makes a hit "in tempo."
(Click pictures for animation)
Marcelli is correct in calling counter time "most
delicate," for an improperly executed counter
time tactic results in both combatants being struck
-- a pyrrhic victory at best. One does not trade blow-for-blow
with sharp swords. Contratempo, or "counter-time,"
is intimately linked with the colpo di arresto."
"Contratempo" is an action against the adversary's
stop. "Contratempo" may also be used against
the fearful opponent who strikes out blindly in response
to any attack. A counterattack may be provoked with
a false attack, and then exploited in "contratempo."
With the aforesaid example of the stop-hit against
the attack to the leg, the fencer attacking his opponent's
knee may stop his attack short, bind his opponent's
blade, and strike him in the face. Likewise, a savvy
karate-ka, aware that the opponent tends to counter-kick,
may avoid the kick by a block or sudden change of
direction and continue the attack. At this point,
the contest comes down to who has the greater skill,
experience, subtlety of movement, and presence of
In the action sequnce below Ken makes a false attack,
drawing Maestro Martinezí stop, and then binds
the blade and strikes.
(Click for animation)
To conclude, the concepts of timing found in the
Italian school of fencing provide a convenient and
useful framework for considering and practicing offensive
and defensive tactics in a variety of situations.
We hope that readers have found this article useful,
and that it aids them in their own development, no
matter what art they study.
About The Author
Ken Mondschein is a New York City writer, amateur
historian and Associate Editor for European Sword
Arts at FightingArts.com. After achieving a masters
degree in European History he became a student of
classical fencing and historical swordsmanship under
Maestro Ramon Martinez. He is also knowledgeable about
European classical dressage, the art of horsemanship,
and its history and application in mounted combat.
Other martial arts studies include karate where he
is now a student at the World Seido Karate Organization's
New York City headquarters. Mondschein currently works
in textbook publishing.
The author is grateful to his own teachers, Maestro
Ramon Martinez and Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez
of the Martinez Academy of Arms, for not only introducing
him to the Italian school of fencing and nurturing
him therein, but also for proofreading this article
and guiding its writing. The author must no less acknowledge
Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura and the World Seido Karate
Organization which have guided his development both
as a karate-ka and as a human being.
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