I'm constantly fascinated by the parallels between the sweet science of bruising and what used to be known as "the Science of Defence." Both are polite ways of describing something rather brutal, but no less beautiful for the blood. The "sweet science" refers to boxing, of course--the flowery name courtesy of legendary writer A.J. Liebling--while the "science of defence" referred to a wider variety of combat forms prevalent throughout human history. Most of these involved weapons such as longsword, rapier, single sword and buckler, quarterstaff, and many more. Through a long, slow process of evolution, these arts became boxing; prizefighting is both a cultural and technical heir of the old art of fencing. And while the sport of boxing has come a long way, the artifacts of that ancestry are still there.
Last weekend, Cuban-American boxer Rances Barthelemy moved up two weight classes to junior welterweight and spent ten leisurely rounds convincing Antonio DeMarco to retire. Barthelemy's performance was exceptional, marked by the casual arrogance with which he imbues every movement. He seems so cocksure, in fact, that it's easy to attribute all of his success to some sort of innate athletic talent, ignoring the real depth of his boxing skill.
That skill is very real, though. Barthelemy boxes like a fencer in the truest sense. He treats his punches like deadly weapons, throwing with ill intent. He acts as if he cannot afford to be hit in return, placing high emphasis on solid defense, and striking out at his opponent when they leave themselves open. Barthelemy's style is a throwback not only to the early days of boxing, but to the age-old art of sword and shield.
Bear with me.
LINE OF DEFENSE
Traditionally, the lead side of the boxer's body is termed "the Line of Defense."
Sam Langford draws the Line of Defense
In order to strike the vulnerable parts of his opponent (face, heart, solar plexus, liver), a boxer must bypass this line. The defender's hand can move to intercept incoming attacks. He can sit down over his rear hip and bring his lead shoulder up to protect his cheek and jaw. His lead foot, too, makes for a challenging obstacle: with one small step he can intercept his adversary's movement, turning himself to face the opponent and bringing the Line of Defense to bear. And while the opponent tries to work his way around the line, the defender can pepper him with quick, painful jabs, ultimately setting up an attack of his own.
It is every bit the boxer's equivalent of a shield. Here you can see Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) expert Roland Warzecha demonstrating this with a partner.
A boxer's "shield" is considerably smaller than that of Warzecha's viking partner here, but with a few adjustments it provides an equally effective obstacle.
Barthelemy, like Terence Crawford, likes to switch stance to suit his needs. Regardless of his position, however, his lead arm, shoulder, and foot are almost always in the correct position to deflect the opponent's attacks, or prevent them outright.
Here, Barthelemy thwarts every one of Tony DeMarco's attacks, raising his hand, lifting his elbow, and turning his body as needed to bring his arm and shoulder into the path of an incoming blow.
DEFENSE AS OFFENSE
A shield is much more than a simple barrier, however. It is a weapon, as well, and one with which a skilled fencer can cleverly manipulate the opponent. We can look back into history and see many different uses for many types of shield, but one makes for a particularly strong parallel with Barthelemy' style.
This is fencing with sword and buckler, as performed by members of La Sala delle Armi, an Italian HEMA school. The buckler was a small shield normally employed by civilians for purposes of dueling and self defense. It was tremendously effective, and enjoyed popularity as a weapon for some 500 years. Because of its size (most were no larger than 16 inches across), the buckler could not be used in the same way as a large, round shield. Its primary purpose was to protect the fencer's sword hand, and bind the hands of the opponent, trapping or diverting his weapons and leaving him vulnerable to attack.
The buckler was also a tricky visual obstruction. In the example above, you can see both fencers holding their bucklers extended, deliberately obscuring the opponent's line of sight and giving them a brief but invaluable opportunity to strike unseen.
Barthelemy uses his "shield" in much the same way. Watch how he sets DeMarco up for a nasty collision with a hard left hand.
With a little lateral movement, Barthelemy turns an unassuming high guard into a blind, hiding some of the telltale movements that would allow DeMarco to read and evade the punch. By the time Barthelemy lowers his right hand, the overhand is already well on its way to the target, and DeMarco steps right into it, barely having enough time to flinch.
When that footwork is combined with twisting upper body movement, the shield becomes even more effective, and Barthelemy can disguise the trajectory of his punches altogether, making it very difficult to predict where his "sword" is headed next.
I love this maneuver. Barthelemy turns himself away from DeMarco, his feet almost crossed in relation to his opponent. As such, he presents only shoulder and back as targets, protecting his head and center line completely. With a couple of probing jabs, he steps forward, placing his lead foot to the inside of DeMarco's own, and sliding in so that the right side of his body is completely obscured by the left.
DeMarco, veteran that he is, senses that an attack is coming, but he has no line of sight to Barthelemy's rear arm at all. He's forced to guess, and he chooses to protect his head, putting on his earmuffs. Of course, Barthelemy attacks the opening, swinging a hard uppercut to DeMarco's ribs.
There are limitations to this "sword and shield" style of boxing, as there are to every style. For one, Barthelemy's extremely side-on stance makes it more difficult for him to initiate offense. He must turn himself about to face his opponent before he can strike, and that can be enough of a tell in itself. To add to that, an opponent could simply sidle outside his lead foot and move around to his back, forcing Barthelemy to adjust and leaving him vulnerable while he turns.
But Barthelemy knows how to make his style work. Despite his relatively low output, Barthelemy manages to give his opponent very little time to think by constantly showing them different looks and forcing them to react by way of his irritating backhand jab, which constantly probes for holes in his adversary's defense. Mixed into this are occasional combinations of power punches, which keep the other boxer wary of Barthelemy's movements.
There are only so many ways to move the human body. We've known this for a long time. The artifacts of sword and shield in Barthelemy's boxing style are, to a certain extent, mere coincidences. I highly doubt that Rances has studied the medieval martial arts, and in truth his use of the Line of Defense is something pretty typical of Cuban boxers. Nonetheless, I find the parallels fascinating. The similarities place Barthelemy firmly in the midst of long tradition of combative arts.
The tools and the rules may change, but there will always be fighters.
For more analysis (and lots of other waffle) check out my new podcast, The Fistorical Perspective, in which myself and boxing historian Kyle McLachlan talk classic fights, legendary boxers, and more.