Max Heinzer picking mushrooms

Everyone who follows epee fencing knows Max Heinzer. He is the greatest showman of epee, but he’s not just putting on a show – he’s got the competitive chops underneath to earn his place on the podium.

Max Heinzer is one of the most high energy fencers to take on the strip. Whether it is at the World Cup, the World Championships, or the Grand Prix, he is moving and making things happen. No one can miss his signature style. It draws the eye and it draws the crowds – something that we can all agree is important for drawing people to the sport.

What makes Max Heinzer so tremendous is that it is not all show. His flare is pronounced, but it’s pronounced in such a way because it is effective for him. What he’s doing, it works. More than that, you’ll find out in this interview that he is leveraging his natural talent and style to get the result that he is after. It’s unusual and it’s fascinating for anyone who is a fencer or a fan, and hopefully for those who are new to the sport. That same personality that you see with him on the piste, you’ll see it here in this interview as well.

Thank you so much to Max for taking the time to speak with us!

Max Heinzer Interview

27.04.18: Hallwyl; RED BULL – Portrait Max Heinzer. © Valeriano Di Domenico

Igor – I see you’re biking.

Max Heinzer – Yes, I just had a really hard training day and now I’m just cooling down. Just easy. I had two hard training sessions today and my legs are finito. Tired.

IG – First off all, congratulations! I did not know your wife is expecting the second time.

MH – She’s due in the next few days, so soon the baby is coming. The plan originally was to fence Tokyo. My flight was almost booked back from Tokyo directly the day after competition, but now it’s no Tokyo and I’m for sure at the birth.

IG – Now I know the reason Tokyo was postponed. So you can focus on your family.

MH – Yes.

Max Heinzer with his wife and son

Unorthodox fencer

Show or tactics? Max Heinzer is doing his signature jump and back flick
Max Heinzer is doing his signature jump and back flick

IG – The way I see you is that you are the most unorthodox fencer on the circuit.

MH – Maybe.

IG – Not maybe, it’s a hundred percent. Nobody fences the way that you fence. I told someone recently that Max Heinzer reminded me of Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.

You have huge movements. You jump. You move like a boxer from side to side. Sometimes you take the position of a sprinter ready to charge. Can you explain your style?

MH – I go back to the beginning. The beginning was I started at five years old. The reason was that I always looked at pirate films with my brother. In Switzerland, I was at a little club and there was just foil fencing. Not with the cross grip, with the french grip. After that, I was very successful with foil in Switzerland and until I was thirteen I did just foil. But in Switzerland, going to international competitions is just supported in epee fencing and I had my ambitions more than just national. I had to change to epee.

At the beginning I was not really happy to do this change, so I fenced foil, but with the epee. It’s made me a lot of fun. Of course I had to change a little bit of my tactics. Not always to detect a parry. I think the style in my heart is that I’m still a little foil fencer. So I have a lot of action, which I had from foil fencing.

I think at one meter seventy-eight (5’10”), I’m not the tallest epee fencer, so that’s why I have to be fast. That’s why I look as though I’m ready. My athleticism is really important. I always have to move more than my adversary. I try to make him tired. I try to surprise him. Surprise is a big word for me. A lot of different hits because I don’t want the opponent to read me. I try to read my adversary. I fence with a lot of heart and a lot fun. I don’t like the zero/zero one/one games directed to the priority. Normally, I want to fence for fifteen points and I want to be an active fencer, not just waiting for the other. Maybe in three or four years when I’m older and not as fast anymore, maybe I have to switch to being a boring defense fencer. At the moment, my tactic is more forward. The crazy moves, of course maybe sometimes they are just to make the adversary crazy or to try something new. It’s my style. [Editor’s Note: you can see similar lines in the conversation with Yuval Freilich]

IG – It’s interesting because when I look, you are one of the fencers who is always in the news because there are a lot of compilations and Reddit is full of discussions about you. Don’t you think that sometimes you do a little bit more showman and less tactic.

MH – Maybe sometimes if I want to enjoy the match, maybe it’s a little bit too much. When I do a really nice point, and it’s eight/eight and I do a really nice point, I hear the whole public crying and then I have to keep attention and stay in my concentration. But while the match is on, I don’t want to be a showman. I just want to win the match. But it’s not always easy to stay focused after I did a really nice point.

I see fencing as a really small sport worldwide. With my style, I know maybe I can have more people looking at me when I fence. I’m not boring. That’s also a reason why I don’t like boring fencers. Because when it’s a boring fencing match on TV and you see fencing for the first time, and all you see is zero/zero, you will never look again at fencing.

Jack Sparrow of modern fencing

Max Heinzer with his signature jump and back flick
Max Heinzer performing his epic back flick

IG – It’s not without reason that I compared you to Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, because it is very theatrical. Definitely not boring. Anything but boring. Which I think is very important because it is a very niche sport and it does need to be promoted. You take almost any other fencer and you can sort of predict what will happen. With your match it is like a rollercoaster.

MH – That is correct. What is the question?

IG – Then the question is the following. You fence for performance. You have all the titles in the world. Don’t you think that sometimes you need to kind of adjust the style for the goal and not the goal for the style?

MH – I think my first goal is to win the match. I won a lot of matches with nice points. Boring matches. I think on fifteen points there will always be one or two spectacular points because this is my style. I think if I tried to do a fifteen point match  with just boring actions, with normal epee actions, I don’t know if I could win the match.

IG – What is your favorite match? If I need to ask you your best memory. The one you want to highlight as the one that everybody knows: this is Max Heinzer fencing.

MH – I know the match, I don’t want that all people will go watching this match. There you will see all my tricks.

IG – We already know all your tricks. It’s compiled.

MH – I watched some weeks ago at my match on the half final of the Grand Prix 2011 in Bern. I saw, ok my fencing in the last nine years has changed a lot. I think that nine years ago I did many more crazy things than I do now. I think now I’m almost a little bit of a boring fencer.

IG – Last year, the bronze medal with China, last touch is nothing but boring.

MH – It was just one touch. I was one thousand percent sure that the Chinese fencer would do just a straight lunge and I was sure I could do this touch. Of course it’s more nice to win this bronze medal with this touch than with a boring touch. There it was a little bit for the show. Also for my heart. If you do this point and it’s what works, you can win the medal with this point and I think maybe you’ll remember better also for yourself.

IG – So if I give you a choice – lose a match with fantastic touches or win a match with boring touches.

MH – Win a match.

IG – Winning will prevail.

MH – In competition, yes. In training, no. In training, it’s not really hard if I lose matches. I think I lose a lot of training matches because I always try to create new touches. For me, it’s not hard if I lose matches in training.

Team Switzerland

Switzerland - 2018 Men's Epee World Champions
Switzerland – 2018 Men’s Epee World Champions

IG – Switzerland as a country had fantastic success in the last five, six, seven years on the team level. How do you think the Swiss team is doing and what do you think are the strengths of the Swiss team?

MH – I think we always had very strong trainers with the two Italians. We had really good tactics for the team competition. Team fencing, I think I’m a better team fencer than individual fencer. That’s for sure good for our team. I think in almost each team competition I do really good matches. Better than individual. So I think I can really help my team.

IG – Why do you think you are a better team fencer?

MH –  I think I’m a little bit cooler in the team. Individual it’s really fast. You’re out or you’re around. In a team, there’s more time and the bouts are just three minutes. I know I can give three minutes one hundred percent and survive. Fifteen points, sometimes I give one hundred percent and I’m tired and I lose the match in the end. Of course, there is a lot of motivation for me if the team is behind me. They push me so I have extra motivation and extra power. In individual fencing you are really alone on the piste and maybe I have this extra boost in a team setting. In the European Championships I was two times second, three times third, also in the individual. I also have some good individual results. Or my ten World Cup and Grand Prix victories. Not so bad.

IG – Not at all, not at all. Which match don’t you like?

MH – I like more to speak about matches that I like. I like the final in Vancouver. I think we were nine touches behind Ukraine in the title. I fenced in the final and I did the first eleven hits in a row. Eleven single hits in the final of the World Cup. We won against Ukraine. This was one of the best comebacks. In the individual, maybe I can answer your question from before. It was fourteen/eight for in the half final of Tallinn and I won fifteen/fourteen. I had only thirty seconds time for this comeback (here is the video)

I just risked my life. It was fourteen/eight and I knew one little fault and I am out. It was already the half final of the World Cup, so I know I am already at the bronze medal. So it was easy for me to risk. Each point I hit, the opponent was more afraid of me. I saw this in his eyes. I saw that he is not sure that he will win. I did there I think also one back flick. One foot. One parry. I think I did eight different touches. That’s always my goal to do different touches so that the opponent can’t read me.

IG – How much time do you spend learning your opponents? By now you know everybody and you’ve learned everybody.

MH – The young new fencers I don’t know and I lose a lot to them for the first time. I think the second time when I fence them I don’t lose anymore. I do it the evening before my matches. I know in this part, I could be better. But I have no time and no energy.

IG – It looks boring for you?

MH – It’s just that I’ve fenced now since I was five years old. That makes that I’ve fenced twenty-seven years and in my free time I don’t have a desire to look at fencing matches. I like to do something more with the family. I like fishing or searching for mushrooms, but I don’t want to look at fencing matches.

Max Heinzer at one of his pastimes: fishing

IG – Your opponents, you say that you want them to be surprised. You want to surprise them. But you are a very watched fencer.

MH – Yes, that is why I have to change always. Because they all look at my actions. They know I do the back flick on the shoulder, so I have to have a similar action that begins the same way, but I end another way. They don’t know if I do this or if I do that. But don’t think it is easy for me – this is hard for me. I’d like to be a twenty years old me and my opponents don’t know me. I think I could win a lot of matches.

IG – What type of fencer is the most difficult for you to fencer. Not the name but the type.

MH – This is also too tactical for me. When I say this, all will try to do this. (laughing) When I finish my career we can do another interview. Right now I cannot give you all of my tactics.

IG – Would you change anything with your fencing? How you approach the decisions, how you approach the training.

MH – Yes, one thing that I would do differently. I was leading three/zero at the Olympic Games 2012 against Ruben Limardo and I went to the defense, but the three points against Limardo I did in the offense, and after that it was five straight for him. I’m sure that if I had come to him with the attack while I was leading three/zero, it’s better for me. I won the first match fifteen/two. I was leading three/zero in my second match. It was my day and I was in really good shape and there I made a mistake to go on the defense. That’s the reason maybe sometimes I’m leading now and I don’t like to go to the defense because I prefer to lose the match in the offense than in the defense. This is one match I don’t forget. After that, he was Olympic Champion.

IG – He became the first Venezualan to become Olympic champion ever.

MH – You can ask him, I was one time speaking with him about this match. When I was leading three/zero he was thinking “Oh my god I will get killed fifteen/five..” He has no idea. I was too stupid to come to him with that tactic.

IG – One thing is when you do the individual match. Another is when you go for the team.

MH – Team has a tactic and I always want to discuss this tactic and if I agree I play one hundred percent with the team tactic. But individually, I think it’s my match. If I lose I don’t get the pay from my sponsor. It’s my job. I win money with this. Individual, I’m my own boss. Team match, ok coach is boss, federation is boss, the whole team is the boss.

Welcoming revenge

HEIDENHEIM, 10/12 January 2020 World Cup Epee Men In photo: SWITZERLAND VS ITALY Photo Augusto Bizzi

IG – How difficult is it for you to fence people who you have lost to before?

MH – I’m always happy to have revenge. I think I can always learn from my defeat. I have not an adversary who I think “I can’t beat him.” Of course I’d choose one that I’ve beaten ten times in a row, but if it comes one that I lost to last time I’m ok.

IG – What you’re saying is that you welcome revenge more than you’re afraid of the opponent.

MH – Yes, of course.

IG – How many times do you review your lost matches, if at all?

MH – Yes, I go back to the match and look at what was good, what was bad, what can I do better. But of course, the other one will also be thinking about his victory. I look at the match before.

IG – The Olympic Games are postponed. I definitely hope that you’ll go and wish that you will go. It looks like Switzerland since the last Olympic Games had fantastic team results.

MH – Yes.

IG – What does it mean, the postponement of the Olympic Games? Does it change your plans, does it change your scheme?

MH – I will be one year older. I hope one year better. But it’s possible to be one year slower.

IG – One year wiser.

MH – Yeah. At the beginning when it was first postponed it was harder, but yeah I cannot change it. Normally we decided to have our second kid after the Olympic Games and now we have it before the Olympic Games. Now I hope that it will be a really good motivation to have already two kids and one wonderful wife and to fence for them at the Olympic Games.

IG – Does your wife watch your matches?

MH – Yes, on the livestream. Sometimes she comes in with me. At the World Championships in Budapest, when I did the good last touch, she was there. Gives me always extra power when my family is there.

IG – So you like it when your family watches you?

MH – Yes, but I don’t like when I lose and they ask why I lose.

IG – Everything comes with a price. It’s wonderful when your family can watch you in real action.

What kind of advice would you give to young fencers?

MH – One advice is for sure that they have to be a complete fencer. Not just a defense fencer, not just an offense fencer, they can do everything. If not, they will always have opponents against which they will never win. There are a lot of fencers who can just do some things and always when I see them fence against someone who they exactly don’t like, they will always lose. For me, a real good fencer is a complete fencer. One fencer who does not just win one important competition, but who is ten years in the top of the field or something. For that I think you have to be a complete fencer and not only have two or three actions. For me you have to work a lot of basics or techniques when you are young so that you can be a complete fencer.

IG – Being a complete fencer. A lot of different actions in defense or offense. Tactical fencing. What about the mental part?

MH – The mental part is really important, yes.  You have to be a winner and you have to be one who can lose. You have to learn to lose. There are no fencers who will win all matches. You have to know this always. It’s always possible to lose a competition. If that’s happened, it’s happened, it’s not the world crushing down. If you are a fencer who thinks that you are the best and no one can beat you, you will not survive a long time. Of course greatness is to never give up. Always fight until the last point.

IG – Who’s your favorite fencer? Who’s the most interesting fencer?

MH – For me, Pavel Kolobov. He’s a really nice fencer. I just fenced him one or two times in team competition. When he stopped fencing I was beginning. He was before my generation, but I think for me if I can choose one favorite fencer it’s Kolobkov.

IG – He’s fantastic. One of the greatest epee fencers ever. Your style is so unconventional. I enjoyed this discussion a lot.

MH – I enjoyed it a lot. And I did now sixty-five minutes on the bike, so I did my training for the night.

IG – Yes it was not wasted time. A lot of good luck in the next World Cup and I know I will see you in the Olympics. Good luck with the baby! Thank you.

MH – Thank you. Ciao.

This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as even though Max was riding his bike the entire time, he was still very generous. He didn’t even run out of breath once. It is published with his approval on this blog.

We at AFM are tremendously thankful to Max Heinzer for letting us get into his champion mind just a little bit. His energy and technical  prowess in epee is something that we are grateful to be able to learn from, and we are excited to see the ways that he promotes our sport with his fantastic fencing! Thank you Max!

Budapest, 22 July 2019 World Championships Foil Women and Epee Men day 8 In photo: Max HEINZER Photo by #BizziTeam