Spotlight is on Alex Orban
by Jack Keane
Two weeks after he had become the first American fencer ever to win a major European tournament, Alex Orban of the NYAC found himself fencing a nameless opponent on the fourth floor strips of this club “Against Orban,” said the chief judge. “But it was my attack,” mildly complained the lithe internationalist.
“Uh, uh,” said the judge a former sword fighter of such mediocrity he was secretly labeled as a “pigeon” by any opponent possessing even a shade of finesse in the art. “You started the attack but you hesitated and he beat you to the punch.”
Orban shrugged. He has been through this scene many times. He is America’s most misunderstood athletic talent.
World Class Fencer
Orban is a star. An international star. He can do everything that ever was intended to be done with a saber. And he probably can do it faster than anybody. He is generally acknowledged to be one of the three fastest, if not the fastest, man in the world. But all this doesn’t seem to be good enough to convince the short sighted men who judge his fencing. They persist in making Orban conform to their parochial conception of the art. They are, for the most part, men who have never witnessed, much less participated in, international contests in their lives. They tend to spend endless hours arguing the technicalities of some obscurely written rule. Their theatre is usually the college ranks or perhaps even high school. But judging the sons of Yale or Harvard or Columbia is not the same as judging Orban. He boggles their conception of fencing and defies their synapses. And because he is astoundingly assured he pays the price for forcing tough decisions of these lesser men in the sport. They often vote against him and give him a lecture to boot.
A Matter at Style
His fencing and his style are even too much for some Americans who hold the revered international judging licenses. These are last year’s licenses, Orban is this year’s fencer. And so he struggles for understanding from men who will never understand because to understand would be to deny all the things they have so carefully and wrongfully mentally structured over the years.
But there is escape for Orban. Europe. They understand him there. The Russians understand him because he beats them all the time. The last time he fenced them, he defeated their entire team of four. The French understand him and the Italians and the Germans and the whole gaggle of the world’s elite. This is where Orban does what he can do and it is recognized. And appreciated. When he won in Poland in 1968, Jean Cottard, the renowned French master, said, “Orban showed every action there is to show in fencing in perfect style.” Alex Orban looks as if he was bred at the Mendelian Institute of Heredity for Fencers. He stands a shade under five feet, eleven inches and is a svelte 153 pounds. His body is well formed but it is his legs that tell the story. They are fencer s’ legs, shaped in musculature to his art.
Fled in Uprising
When he was fourteen, in 1954, Orban was introduced to fencing by a schoolmate. The schoolmate lasted three months; Orban went on to greatness. At sixteen, he was the youngest fencer ever to achieve first-class ranking in Hungary. He was labeled the coming star of the Magyar squads.
But the 1956 uprising changed all that. Alex decided to leave, arriving in California early in 1957. After a season in Los Angeles he left for San Francisco to join the famed Pannonia AC, then under the maestroship of George Piller, the fabled Hungarian master who also had decided not to return to Hungary after the Melbourne Olympics. At the 1960 National championships, Alex earned a Gold Medal with the great Pannonia team. The opponent, ironically, was the NYAC. Then came three years of military service and finally his entry onto the NYAC squad in 1965.
National Champion Thrice
He started out with a bang winning the national championship and leading the team to victory. Since then, he has won the individual title in 1969 and 1970 and has been the leader of the saber team in an undefeated skein reaching back to ‘ 65. “The New York AC is the only club where fencing actually exists,” says Orban. “Sure, there’s a lot of what looks like fencing in other clubs but there is no feeling of what the sport is basically about. Here we have athletes who are reaching for the essence of the sport. That is what makes the difference. Here we have real fencing because here we have a situation in which the athlete can develop.” The highest influences on Orban’s career were his early teacher in Budapest, as well as George Piller, and the club’s Olympic coach, Csaba Elthes. “I have been very lucky that I always had only the best teachers . I don’ t think I could have gone this far without them.”
Future World Champion?
At the age of 31, considered to be the start of a vintage period for a saber fencer, Alex Orban feels he might have a chance to be world champion. With his club and his coaches and his teammates behind him, he feels the necessary mental support. “When the calls don’t go right, it’s nice to know there are some other people around who know different. It saves me when I’m down.”
SWORDPLAY: The eleventh annual Martini & Rossi tournament will be held in the club’s gym on April 16, 17 and 18. The committee is expecting over fifteen nations to attend, with Russia among the probables. The World Junior
Championships at Notre Dame a week earlier should guarantee a large and enthusiastic field.