I was fortunate to be able to attend the Men’s Epee top 16 through finals event at the World Championships in Milan, Italy. I had not observed a live epee final at the world level since 2012, when I was still competing on the world cup circuit. It was amazing to see such talented and athletic fencers in action again. Below are some of my observations I wanted to share with our members. I hope you enjoy and feel to reach out if you have any questions!
The top fencers are very athletic and kept a very close distance. Each was able to keep distance and react to opponents incredibly quickly. Actions were usually very simple. Long, chasing fleches were ineffective. Fencers were exceptional at parry riposting with contortions to avoid getting hit while still angling their tip to get their own touch. DiVeroli, Koch, and Cannone were each extremely agile, flexible, quick, and could contort their bodies in whichever way was necessary to score a hit. Ruslan Kurbanov, had the most traditional technique which was successful for most of the day until he met Koch, with his non-standard tactics and technique.
Koch, the 2023 world champion, was very low and made short quick steps but was always threatening his opponent with his arm mostly extended. In response his opponents would shoot to the hand but he was always ready and able to react with incredible speed to avoid it, countering the risk of having one’s arm so exposed. I don’t recall a single surprise hand/arm touch scored against him. Koch threatened his opponents with that straight arm and very close distance but was adept at keeping the close distance and avoiding getting hit. He would use his extended arm as a prep and either launch a surprise flèche, bait for a parry 4 riposte, or drop to the foot. Sometimes he would get impatient and launch a poorly timed flèche at the beginning of bouts. He looked upset but it is a good idea to let your opponent know that a flèche is possible at any moment. He was pretty comfortable getting pushed and countering into opponents attacks with awkward angles (seven, four) and contorting his body to disrupt any classical attack. This was how he was able to get ahead of Siklosi in the final moments of their bout in the top 8.
Against DiVeroli they had similar tactics and styles and both were adept at applying pressure. They did not bounce but made small steps in and out but stayed planted for more extended periods of time to prepare for parry ripostes or simple counterattacks to the arm. Their movement and distance were similar to foil in many ways. The distance was so close there were moments when the tip extended past the bell guard of their opponent which is insanely close. They would hover in this distance and play chicken, waiting for the other to react first while lying in wait with a last millisecond parry riposte.
In one sequence of the bout, Koch launched an extended step lunge but DiVeroli was able to pick up the parry riposte since the timing was more standard. Later on in the bout, Koch launched a similar attack but this time was able to slightly stagger his movement and pause briefly to draw out the parry riposte and disengage it last second. This was probably my favorite touch of the final bout (link to touch). DiVeroli had an excellent touch where he took a 4 parry and then transferred to a prime and was able to flick Koch on the side of his leg/torso. Koch also acknowledged the skill of that touch. Both fencers were incredibly brave and willing to launch attacks with no hesitation.
DiVeroli was a lefty and kept his blade in line also constantly threatening his opponents. He did not bounce but made small steps and pivoted back and forth on the ball of his rear foot. He was able to defeat Cannone with primarily defensive actions (Link to bout). Cannone was able to surprise him early with a very nice direct flèche attack but, after that, DiVeroli made it increasingly challenging for Cannone to surprise him and break through with his attacks. This was largely due to DiVeroli’s exceptional ability to parry, contort, and land ripostes against one tempo actions. This was a scenario where one tempo was not an advantage for Cannone and he got increasingly frustrated and desperate, launching himself a couple times and colliding with DiVeroli, earning himself a yellow and a red card. He also injured his leg and needed to take a 5 minute medical break (tactical break?).
Fencers were doing things that coaches often advise against, but they worked! As a coach, this caused some internal debate but you can’t deny when something works. High level fencing is always evolving and it’s important to pay attention to emerging trends at the top level. Another thing to consider with non-standard technique/tactics is they usually require an advanced fencer to experiment with them while first having learned traditional tactics and technique. Once those have been mastered, then a fencer can begin to experiment and find a way to test the limits of their own physicality to attempt new types of actions. The bottom line is these actions need to be effective and not increase the risk of injury. Here are some of the things that we typically advise against but were effective.
• Keeping arm extended (Koch) - Typically if a fencer leaves their arm extended they are very likely to get hit on the top or bottom of it by more experienced fencers. Koch was always ready and able to block all attempts. Something to experiment with but fencers must be vigilant about protecting that exposed target.
• Overextended lunge/splits (Cannone) - Cannone has a rare combination of incredible physicality and flexibility which he has adapted very well to epee fencing. In slow motion analysis of his lunge (see image above) one can observe that he is able to fully extend his front leg into practically a full splits, very low to the ground, and somehow manage to land his front foot. Most fencers would injure themselves attempting this type of lunge, I know I sure would, but if one is naturally that flexible then this is something that a fencer could be able to perfect with the right practice.
• Not bouncing (Koch/DiVeroli) - While these fencers weren’t bouncing the way traditional fencers do (Cannone, Siklosi, Kurbanov, etc.) the Italians are very effective while staying low, relatively more stationary, and always ready. They make up for the lack of movement with quick reactions, excellent blade work, and the ability to contort their bodies while parrying to avoid the touch and scoring their own.