NHFL – I lost every bout and I loved every minute

Guest post by Markus Koivisto

The first season of The Nordic Historical Fencing League is over. The first Nordic (and at the same time the first international) historical fencing league has reached it’s conclusion at Bergen Open, and we have our winners. I participated in three out of the four tournaments, lost every single bout in each of them, and can’t wait to get back in the ring.

Tournaments are of course a widely debated topic among HEMAists. I too have changed the way I think about them. At first I was rather skeptical. I mean, we are training a lethal martial art – surely competitions warp and distort our training? And besides, the level of competition at such tournaments is way too high for a relative newbie like me. I’d just get in the way or injure myself. As the tournament closest to me, Swordfish, heavily discouraged fighters from entering as their first tournament, it looked fairly unlikely for me to make the trip abroad to any such tournament in the future.

Of course, I still watched all the tournament videos I could possibly get my hands on, and I couldn’t help the feeling that I’d really like to have a crack at competing. When the NHFL was first announced nine months ago, I was happy to hear that the first tournament was going to be held in Helsinki, a mere two hour drive away from my front door. All I had to do was to sign up and show up. Since I was fresh out of excuses, I decided to try my luck.

Instead of sparring with members of my own club, I was paired up against skilled fencers from all over the Nordics. Looking at my pool, I thought I might have a shot at winning at least one match, but that was not to be. I lost all my bouts and I was lucky to score any points at all. Still, I got a lot of good and actionable feedback (don’t be so passive, move around more, look for the opening, don’t leave your hands exposed etc.) that I could use to direct my training in the months that followed.

The matches themselves only took about half an hour on my part, but the event lasted all day, including the afterparty. I got a chance to meet up and chat with fencers from all around the world (as far as Chile) while we watched the elimination matches and cheered on our favourites. All in all, not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Encouraged by the experience, I decided to sign up for the Swedish tournament as well, since traveling there was still fairly easy. The Örebro Open was held at an old military barracks, and we got to sleep in actual beds and were served actual hot meals, which is ridiculous luxury. Of course I again held high hopes of winning a match in my pool, but again I proved too optimistic. I finished dead last. It would have been easy to explain it away with saying I faced an exceptionally tough pool, but the fact remains that all of the participants in the tournament were far more skilled fencers than I am. Still, I again got valuable feedback and some of the people who saw me fence last tournament complimented me on my progress. I also distinctly remember saying “I try not to let finishing last get to me, but I can’t help but feel I’m not relevant to the league at all” to Petter Brodin, one of the NHFL organizers, who immediately replied saying “You show up and fight, and that’s really important.”

Bergen Open 2014 mixed longsword. Photo by Eliisa Keskinen

I missed out on the Copenhagen event since I couldn’t afford the plane tickets, but I had made a promise to Petter and other Norwegians that I would show up to Bergen, so I held myself to it. My goals were clear from the outset: don’t finish last, and don’t get injured. Of course, neither of those were to be. I thought I was fencing better than ever, but in my bout against Marius Rafoshei we ended up outside the ring while grappling, and I hit the back of my head on the floor and got a concussion. I was immediately directed to go sit with the paramedics, and that was the end of my tournament as a competitor. The rest of the tournament was a pure spectator experience for me.

One thing you couldn’t help noticing as the tournaments progressed was how the level of historical fencers keeps rising regardless of the country, and how there are constantly new people joining in. I for one also feel I’m a better than I was in January, and I can confidently say that participating in the competitions accelerated my development.

Tournaments are a very different experienced compared to sparring. The presence of a ref and judged change a lot, and in the first few bouts in particular I was confused when I was told to get back to my corner and ended up going to my opponents corner instead. I also couldn’t help getting annoyed at getting hit in the arm, the shot still smarting, and seeing the judged flag it as a hit to the head. Still, judging is hard, and you can’t let judging change the way you fence. As I gained more experience, all of these feelings became easier to manage. In the end, since I’m not in it to win championships, the points don’t matter. It’s more important that I know what happened.

Fighting people outside of my own club also made for a very different experience. All of the tiny bits of self-deceit get brutally ripped away. You can’t keep thinking “ooh, I had that one” when the points are staring you in the face. Also, in tournaments you can’t choose who you fight against. You have to be prepared to face all comers and to the best you can against each and every opponent, whether they are champions or relative beginners, or big or small.

So what compels a person go abroad for a weekend to fence, especially as they lose every single bout? What should you spend the rest of your weekend on when all your gear is packed away and your towel is hung out to dry? Well, when you lock fifty odd HEMAists into the same space, what you end up with is first and foremost a social event. All of the participants are united by a love for historical fencing, and it’s easy to make friends and talk with people about just about everything. I exchanged training tips and thoughts about sparring and worked out tactical scenarios with other fencers. As the tournament was wrapped up for the day, people organised impromptu workshops or fucked around with dussacks. In other words, it was exactly what you’d expect when you spend a weekend with HEMAists – loads of fun.

I eagerly await the start of next season. I can’t wait to get to fight against fencers far, far better than me again. I can’t wait to get good feedback to direct my training. Above all, I can’t wait to get to catch up and exchange thoughts with my newfound friends again. I hope to see you all (and hopefully many of the readers too) next year!



  1. Super inspiring… I’ve been putting off competing for a year and a half, although I sometimes have to go months without training, so my confidence is never really built up to ever feeling “ready”. I guess I just need to jump in and go for it. But first, off to training. First time since February. Let’s see if I remember how to do this 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s