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The Most Incredible Sword Fights in History

Posted by JT Hats

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Martial Matches

It's on to China and Japan next, home to some of the most practiced and skillful swordplay the world over. In particular, we'll take a good long look at Japan's most celebrated swordsman.

Wang Xiangzhai vs. Kenichi Sawai
He who doesn't kill me becomes my teacher

Wang Xiangzhai
Destruction: 1
Skill: 5
Honor: 5

One of history's most unusual martial arts sword fights is also one of the most difficult to believe.

Wang Xiangzhai, founder of an internal martial art called Yiquan, became famous in Beijing in the 1920's because of his unusual empty hand skills and his undefeatable swordsmanship. Wang had begun an ancient system of training called zhan zhuang when just a child, in order to overcome poor health, and developed unusual abilities as a consequence. Applying those talents to martial arts brought him fame and fortune, plus an unending stream of challenges to prove his abilities were real.

In 1939, Colonel Kenichi Sawai of the Japanese Imperial Army traveled to Beijing for a challenge match with Wang. Though Sawai was highly skilled in judo, Wang tossed him about like a rubber ball during the empty-hand competition. Sawai, a fourth-dan in kendo, was confident he'd do better with weapons and drew his favorite blade to test Master Wang's sword skills. Wang picked up a convenient stick and mysteriously knocked Colonel Sawai back several yards and off his feet.

Sawai conceded and became Master Wang's student, eventually founding his own branch of mystical martial arts — Taikyokuken — in Japan.

Musashi Miyamoto vs. Arima Kihei
Thirteen year-old with a stick defeats Samurai with a sword
Destruction: 5
Skill: 3
Honor: 1

One of Japan's best swordsmen, Musashi Miyamoto, substituted wooden swords for steel blades on occasion, and fought many of his sixty duels with a bamboo bokken. Musashi's methods were brutal and deadly rather than mysterious.

His first duel came at the age of thirteen, when a traveling samurai named Arima Kihei posted a public challenge and Musashi signed his name beneath it. Relatives attempted to intervene but Arima Kihei said his honor could only be satisfied by a match. Musashi ignored efforts to settle the issue peacefully and met Arima armed only with a tree branch shaped like a sword. Arima drew his wakizishi and Musashi knocked him down, finishing the match for good by beating Arima to death with the stick.

A Clip from Toshiro Mifune's "Samurai Musashi Miyamoto"
Musashi Miyamoto vs. The Yoshioka School
Musashi defeats three brothers. Or maybe just one.

Destruction: 4
Skill: 4
Honor: 2

Historians question some accounts of Musashi Miyamoto's achievements, which nevertheless gained a solid place in the history of swordsmanship. Two versions of his feud with the Yoshioka School in 1604 tell two very different stories.

In the version told by Musashi's followers, Musashi challenged the head of the school to a match, limiting the action to one blow. Musashi struck Yoshioka Seijuro's left arm with his wooden bokken and permanently crippled him.

Yoshioka Denshichiro, Seijuro's brother, sought a match with Musashi for the sake of revenge, and also lost. The school's remaining brother, 12-year-old Yoshioka Matashichiro, arranged a final duel with Musashi and wisely organized a force of archers and swordsmen to accompany him. Musashi waited in ambush at the temple where the duel was to be held, and when Yoshioka arrived, leaped out of hiding and struck him down.

The second version of the Yoshioka duels, written by the Yoshioka School, claims that Musashi fought only one duel — with Yoshioka Kenpo — and lost.

Musashi Miyamoto vs. Sasaki Kojiro
The most famous sword fight in Japanese history
Destruction: 5
Skill: 5
Honor: 3

The Funajima Duel between Musashi Miyamoto and Sasaki Kojiro raises a few questions even though it may be the most famous sword fight in Japanese history. Sasaki Kojiro had no traceable past, and possibly chose a pseudonym for strategic reasons, since motives for the duel were political.

Musashi accepted the terms but showed up late for the match, which took place on Funajima Island. Sasaki's weapon was the nodachi, the Japanese long sword, and Musashi's usual bokken would have been less than effective against it. While riding the ferry boat to the island, Musashi carved a bokken from a spare oar, creating a wooden blade longer than the nodachi.

Stone Statue Commemorating the Battle

The short fight ended with Sasaki's death. Sasaki's supporters turned on Musashi. Some suspect his late arrival was actually perfect timing, since Musashi escaped on the ferry boat just as the real tide turned in his favor.

A Filmmaker's Interpretation of the Famous Duel
Muso Gonnusuke Vs. Musashi Miyamoto
Musashi Miyamoto's only defeat in armed combat
Destruction: 1
Skill: 5
Honor: 5

Muso Gonnusuke Katsuyoshi, a master of the bo or wooden staff, encountered Musashi Miyamoto twice. In their first meeting, Muso walked up to the famous swordsman as Musashi trimmed bushes in his back yard with a small knife. Muso challenged Musashi by asking to see the swordsman's style, stating he had already seen Musashi's father's style of fighting. Musashi replied curtly that if Muso had seen his father's style, then he'd seen his, and continued his gardening.

Muso took this as a personal insult and stepped closer. Face to face with Musashi, Muso demanded to see his style, and instantly found the point of Musashi's pruning knife poised over his heart, while the sharp end of a cut branch lay against his throat. Musashi explained that the first lesson involved proper combative distance. Muso bowed and left the master to his work.

Musashi in the Movies

Years later after a lengthy meditative practice, Muso dreamed about a young boy fighting a sword-wielding samurai with nothing more than a short staff. Taking this dream as the inspiration for a new fighting approach, Muso trained with the jo or short stick until he felt ready for another match with Musashi.

Musashi accepted the challenge and came to the duel armed with his two combat swords, not his wooden bokken. Muso stepped close, repeating his first mistake in order to put Musashi off guard. Quick action with the jo disarmed Musashi and knocked him down. Muso spared Musashi's life, as the master had previously spared his, and became the only man to defeat Musashi Miyamoto in armed combat.

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