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In Praise of Agility

Fighting is often regarded as a battle of strength. From the Colosseum to the octagon, the stronger fighter, replete with muscular force and physical fortitude, fulfils the public definition of a warrior and is seen to have the potential to vanquish all weaker opponents.

This thesis would be all but self-evident if it were not the case that in the unfolding of a competitive fight, it is frequently the more agile competitor who succeeds.

The agile fighter, fleet of foot, is in control of the ring space and therefore decides whether and when to make the engagement with the opponent, whatever their strength. Agility bestows the ability to escape when this is the right thing to do, and close the distance when this is the right thing to do. This advantage is a major one.

The control of space is all a fighter requires. The more agile adversary will seek to accomplish command of the space between the two bodies, because he or she is habituated to creating shapes that serve his or her next move, and matching the outline to his or her intentions.

As agility controls space it steals time – naturally, as bodies only move through space at a certain speed. With time – and timing – on their side, agile fighters work when they wish to work, rest when they wish to rest, and perceive what is happening quicker than their stronger opponents. They may anticipate and evade each strong assault.

To a discerning spectator, the agile fighter is poetry in motion. The air ‘is cut away before and closes from behind’ the body of an agile athlete. An agile display can be breathtaking; a brute strength one merely impressive. The agile fighter can touch and not be touched, hit and not get hit – the mantra that most tellingly determines the outcome of any fight.

I was deeply satisfied to hear a former Savate world champion say to me recently that our sport is not about strength but cleverness, which in this context I take to mean both mental and physical agility. It pleases me to study and refine my understanding – forever incomplete – of the strategy that defines the art of French boxing, in which agility is widely understood to be the mark of the superior fighter.

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