October 1995, page 32-33.
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THE LIVING SWORD
Aldo Nadi, Laureate Press, $17.95
Those of you who, in an idle moment, have wondered who was the best fencer
ever can now read the autobiography of a strong candidate: Aldo Nadi.
Born in 1899, he was the son of a fencing master and younger brother
of Nedo Nadi whose five gold medals (two individual and three team) in one
Olympics (1920) is a record that will probably stand for all time. Like
his brother, Aldo turned professional after the 1920 Olympics and so the
record books forgot him. Yet for 12 years he challenged and defeated every
champion, amateur or professional, who was prepared to fight him.
It is, of course, inconceivable in today's climate of intensely
competitive sport that a fencer could remain undefeated at one weapon let
alone all three. But in the days when there were relatively few
competitions and training meant a few days practice before an event, good
fencers could be equally adept at, any weapon.
Apart from the Italian professional championships, which he won at all
three weapons for four consecutive years, Aldo Nadi did not normally
submit to the rigors of competitions so we will I never know whether he
had the stamina to stay the course of world championships and Olympics.
But in a single encounter, he was unbeatable.
Two years after his last public defeat at the hands of the great
Lucien Gaudin (see The Sword, April 1988), he arranged a return match
(unscored) and made the last three hits. Afterwards Gaudin, who went on to
win the 1928 Olympic foil and epee titles, refused to meet him again,
saying, "No one will defeat Aldo Nadi in the next 20 years."
The following year he beat Rene Haussy, who was to be professional
foil champion of France for 14 years, 14-9. Roger Ducret, 1924 Olympic
foil champion and runner-up at epee and sabre, chose to take him on at
epee and was crushed 12-5. Olympic foil silver medalist in 1920 and 1924
Phillipe Cattiau went down twice 10-4 and 14-8. Triple world epee champion
Georges Buchard lost 12-5. The 6ft 6in tall double world foil champion
Gulio Gaudini was destroyed 9-2.
In 1933, running out of fencers prepared to meet him, Nadi entered the
most important foil tournament outside the world championships, open to
amateurs and professionals. In the direct elimination final tableau he won
his first fight 10-2, beat the 1931 world champion Lemoine 10-4 in the
semis, and then just had the strength to overcome the French military
champion Battesti 10-9 in the final. After that he decided never to take
part in competitions again.
The only adversary he could never entice on to the piste was his
legendary brother. But in 1935 Nedo agreed to a demonstration match that
was billed as being "between the two greatest fencers in the world."
Because their father would be watching, Nedo insisted that at the end of
the bout neither should be able to claim superiority. Aldo reluctantly
consented, but placed four hits in quick succession on his brother before
allowing the bout to finish as agreed.
Nadi says little about how he achieved his remarkable victories. It is
left to former pupil William Gaugler in a postscript to explain something
of his technique. All his parries were executed from a central position,
which he maintained reduced the distance a parry had to travel to deflect
the incoming steel. And his attacks were deliberately made in the best
protected lines, demoralizing his opponents by striking through their
Although written in 1955, the book has remained unpublished until
Gaugler, its guardian, found a publisher prepared to make it available to
the fencing public. And deservedly so, for it illuminates not only Nadi's
extraordinary exploits but a lifestyle that has vanished for ever.
Not that Aldo Nadi comes across as any sort of sporting role model.
Arrogant, vain and selfish, he was the playboy sportsman par excellence
who gambled his way across Europe with a succession of beautiful women.
For nine years he kept a suite at one of the best hotels in Paris. When he
ran out of money, he arranged another lucrative match, needing only three
or four a year to keep himself in luxury.
But in 1935 the clouds were gathering. With Mussolini in power and the
risk of being called up to join the Italian army in Ethiopia, Aldo decided
to leave for America. What a shock that was. Short of cash, he enlisted
the help of Georgio Santelli, the leading professional in New York, and
put on a gala display. To his distress the public showed little interest
and he lost money.
After 15 years of earning a good living from giving a few exhibition
matches a year, Nadi was faced with the brutal truth that to the Americans
fencing was a non-event. With the war coming in Europe, he had little
alternative but to settle down and teach fencing to survive.
In the hope of using his talents in Hollywood, he moved to California,
but producers found him too critical and uncompromising. He dismissed the
swashbuckling swordplay in "The Three Musketeers" and "Scaramouche" as
Nadi was equally contemptuous of American fencing in general and
competition organizers in particular. Not surprisingly, he had little
regard for the immediate post-war world champions, regarding D'Oriola as
second rate on the basis of reports from three Italian friends.
Aldo Nadi's hero was Cyrano de Bergerac and like him he took a
perverse pleasure in being disliked.