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Michel Alaux (1924-1974) was a world renowned French-American Fencing Master and author, hailed as a “towering figure” and “genius” in his field.1He approached the sport of fencing as an art, a science, an ethical practice. He taught fencing as an exciting combination of rapid analytical thinking and elegant movements.
Viewed historically, Michel Alaux bridged the worlds of Classical and Olympic fencing, inculcating the former while succeeding brilliantly in the competitive realm of the latter.
Michel Alaux Michel Cover
Born in France, into a family of artists and engineers, Michel developed a passion for fencing early in his youth. He gained admission to the College de Joinville and continued his studies at l' E.M.E.S.C d'Antibes, the French Military College, whose Fencing Master’s degree program - arguably the most rigorous in the world - consisted of practice and theory six days a week, eleven months a year for a minimum of three years.2
Fort Carre Antibes Michel Fort Carre 2
Graduating from l' E.M.E.S.C. d' Antibes in 1947, Maitre Alaux was assigned to a military regiment in Montpellier and appointed Professeur d’Escrime. Within the year he acquired his own fencing salle in Montpellier, L’Association Jean-Louis.3His students’ successive victories in foil and epee Individual and Team Championships soon propelled Michel and the club into national and international limelight.4
From this “conservatory of young champions,”5 as the Association Jean-Louis came to be dubbed by the press, there emerged Maitre Alaux’s most renowned student, Christain d’Oriola,6who soars as one of the Greats in fencing history. Celebrated as an “escrimeur de tete,” a cerebral fencer, d’Oriola dazzled opponents and spectators alike with his brilliant technique and lithe, elegant style.
Oriola Oriola Montpellier
At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, d’Oriola became a national hero, when he triumphed as the Individual and Team Olympic Gold Champion, winning all ten matches in the Team event. His fencing was described as “…one of the most original ... most perfect example of art the sport can offer.”7Le Monde wrote of the “purity” of d’Oriola’s victory and paid tribute to Maitre Alaux for his outstanding work.8Le Figaro ran an article headlined “After the Success of d’Oriola at the [Olympic] Games, Let Us Render Unto Cesar…” in which it praised the talents of Maitre Alaux.9
In the heady atmosphere of post World War II Europe, the two young fencers, four years apart, developed a synergistic relationship as teacher/student that catapulted them both to the top of their world.10Between 1947 and 1956, d’Oriola won four world titles and six Olympic medals.
In recognition of d'Oriola's stunning achievements at the Helsinki Olympics, the French Government’s Ministry of Sports awarded Michel Alaux the Gold Medal of Honor in 1952. Michel had already received the Bronze Medal of Honor for the World Championship in 1949 - barely two years after graduating from the Fort Carre. Maitre Alaux was again decorated by the Federation Française d’Escrime and the French Ministry of Sports for d'Oriola's victories at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. During that time, Michel was also editing and publishing the monthly Bulletin des Maitres D’Armes, which was read avidly in Paris as well as in Casablanca, Rabat, Madagascar, Haiphong, Saigon, Sidi-Bel-Abbes, even Detroit.11In 1962, for services rendered to French sports and French culture, Michel Alaux was named a Knight in The Order of the Academic Palms by the French Government.
Enthusiastic for new challenges, and married to an American, Valerie ‘Pat’ Fulton of Cap d’Antibes and Paris, Michel accepted in 1956 the position of head Fencing Master12at the N.Y. Fencers’ Club - a position he occupied until his death in 1974. Within that time, Michel endeavored to “develop American fencing to the level which he felt was within its potential,” wrote Richard Gradowsky in American Fencing.13
From 1956 to 1974, Maitre Alaux served three times as U.S. Fencing Olympic coach: 1964, Tokyo; 1968, Mexico City; 1972, Munich. He served several times as U.S. World Championship coach and he was responsible for U.S. Nationals Men’s Foil and Men’s Epee Individual and Team Champions as well as Women’s Foil Individual and Team Champions.14Among his many successful American pupils were Herbert Cohen, Jeffrey Checkes, James Melcher, John Nonna, Ruth White and Neal Cohen.15
In the same period Michel Alaux contributed to the development of official standards for American fencing. He chaired and directed the Accreditation Committee16of the NFCAA, now the USFCA (U.S. Fencing Coaches Association), which in 1965 devised the official examination for the first professional diploma of Fencing Master in the U.S. The graduates became recognized by L’Academie d'Armes Internationale.
Prior to chairing the NFCAA Accreditation Committee, Michel chaired The Committee for the Development of A Text for Defining Fencing Terms (1962-63), whose members included M.R. Garret, President of the NFCAA (National Fencing Coaches Association of America), Irving Dekoff of Columbia University, and Julius Alpar of the University of California at Berkeley.
In the span of his French and American career, Michel Alaux wrote about fencing and served as fencing consultant for a variety of publications, plays, films and television programs which included, among others: Bulletin des Maitres d’Armes (Bulletin des Anciens d’Antibes), which he co-founded, edited and published from 1949 to 1953; L’Equipe; L’Escrime Francaise; The Fencing Master (UK); American Fencing; The Swordmaster; reference sources such as The Encyclopedia Americana; Theatre companies such as The National Theatre of Madrid; and network television, including PBS.
In his book Modern Fencing,17Michel Alaux analyzed the wide repertoire of fencing actions and phrases available to foil, epee, and saber as well as the psychological and mental components that make a great fencer. He stressed in the book, as he did in much of his teaching and other writings, the importance of progressing beyond mechanical executions. “Fencing is more than the constant charging of the opponent” (p156), he wrote. As a ‘tactic,’ the move demonstrates insufficient strategic and conceptual thinking. “Fencers very often perform actions that are meaningless or ‘motions without intentions’. They are neither prepared to attack nor, even less, to defend themselves because they rely on their reflexes or instinct rather than on tactics and strategy.” (p77)
His pedagogy stood in contrast to the “it’s-all-about-winning” school, which he believed kept the game on a primary level and prevented its development to a more nuanced and complete expression. “Once a fencer has learned the mechanism of basic movements, the activity losses its primary, total physical requirements and becomes more of a mental exercise.”
Throughout his career, Michel Alaux appeared in numerous national and international newspapers and magazines such as Midi Libre, L’EQUIPE, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Marie Claire, LIFE, Sports Illustrated Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.
A perfectionist, who was as outspoken as he was generous, Michel attracted his share of controversy and adversaries - usually to his utter amazement. Equally amazing to him were the worldwide expressions of esteem and affection that he received from colleagues and students throughout his life.
When his life was unexpectedly cut short in 1974, Maitre Alaux “stood at the pinnacle of his profession”18and was slated to become U.S. Fencing Olympic coach for a fourth time. Following his death, twelve annual American Grand Open competitions were named after him. The Michel Alaux Grand Open (1975-1987)19 was a three-day event based in NYC, “considered essentially the same as the Nationals.”20Michel Alaux was inducted in the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame in 2006.21In 2010, the Fencers Club organized the Michel Alaux Cup, a tournament that welcomed veteran competitors from all over the U.S.
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    “World renowned" or "Famous”- Profesora Czajkowskiego, Zbigniewa. “The Essence and Importance of Timing (Sense of Surprise) in Fencing.” 29 May 2005.

    “Towering figure” - Blanc, Eugene. “Michel Alaux.” American Fencing Vol. 26, Number 4. Mar - April 1975.

    “Genius”- Gradkowski, Richard. “Michel Alaux.” American Fencing Vol. 26, Number 4. Mar - April 1975.
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    “Invented in the Middle Ages and then codified by royal decree signed by Louis XIII personally, this unique art [fencing] has always been a French speciality. For a long time it was taught by the army at the Fort Carré in Antibes, where trainee instructors fenced as part of their duties for at least three years, from Monday to Saturday eleven months out of twelve. ‘One learned the foil in the first year, the sabre in the second and the épée in the third.’ recalls Gilbert Lefin, now sixty-five years old and the “father” of the profession. ‘Four hours fencing a day, then one hour of theory. Only the toughest stuck it out to the end. But when we came out we were masters of our art.’” - Mercier, Alain. “Fencing, A Perennial French Specialty.” Label France/ Magazine #46 - April 2002. French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    In 1967, as part of a national restructuring, the E.M.E.S.C.(Military College of Fencing and Combat Sports) moved from the Fort Carré in Antibes to Fontainbleau. Le Fort Carré d’Antibes became a museum.
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    “Association Jean-Louis” - Fencing club in Montpellier, France, founded in 1830 by the formidable Haitian fencer Jean-Louis, Commander in Napoleon’s army. It closed shortly after Maitre Alaux’s departure.

    In his book, Modern Fencing, Michel Alaux devotes a chapter to Jean-Louis.

    For an excellent French article which assesses the myth and reality of the historical Jean Louis, see Jean-Louis Michel, maître d'armes by Guy Laurans.
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    “French national limelight” - See PRESS section, which includes excerpts of articles from Midi Libre (1947-56), L’EQUIPE (1950-1956), Le Figaro, Le Monde.
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    “Conservatory of young champions” – “L’Association Jean-Louis.” Midi-Libre 1949-1950.
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    "d'Oriola, Christian" Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 5 Apr. 2007
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    “Helsinki Olympics – Fencing- Pure art” - Maulnier Thierry. “Sport & Littérature / Les Jeux Olympiques.” ADPF-Publications 15 mai 2002. Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres
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    Rommel, Adrien.” L’Escrime A Helsinki.” Le Monde 2 Aug. 1952.
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    Bontemps, Louis. “Apres Les Succes de d’Oriola aux Jeux, Rendons a Cesar…” Le Figaro 3 Sept. 1952.
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    Letters of Christian d’Oriola to Michel Alaux, 1947-1971.
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    Letters from Readers of Le Bulletin Des Maitres D’Armes to Michel Alaux 1949-1953.
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    “Head Fencing Master” - Blanc, Eugene. “Michel Alaux.” American Fencing Vol. 26, Number 4. Mar - April 1975.

    Wallace, Kevin. “Salle d’Armes. Onward and Upward With The Arts.” The New Yorker, May 10, 1958
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    Gradkowski, Richard. “Michel Alaux.” American Fencing Vol. 26, Number 4. Mar - April 1975.
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    “US Nationals” - Blanc, Eugene. Preface, Modern Fencing. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1975.
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    Shaw, Andy. US Fencing Historian,
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    “Accreditation Committee” - Gradkowski, Richard. “Michel Alaux.” American Fencing Vol. 26, Number 4. Mar - April 1975.

    Tichman, Jeffrey R. “Letters” p.3 Swordmaster. Summer 2003
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    Alaux, Michel. Modern Fencing. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1975.
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    “Pinnacle of his profession” - Blanc, Eugene. Preface to Modern Fencing. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1975.
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    “The Michel Alaux Grand Open” - Pitt, David E . “Fencing Taking Big Steps,” The New York Times 12 Jan 1987.
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    “Considered essentially the same as the Nationals” - Pitt, David E. “Fencing Taking Big Steps,” The New York Times 12 Jan 1987.
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    U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame 2006
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