by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Geoff Wood
In a warehouse across from Meredith College, Wes Caudill is running a fight club. Boxing and fencing, two of the oldest sports on earth, are finding new blood at his NBS Gym.
The 20,000 square foot operation on Neil St. is a new location for the gym, which Caudill, a former wrestler and nationally ranked collegiate fencer, started in 1997 as a studio for Muay Thai kickboxing, a combat sport. His fledgling enterprise also became the headquarters for Raleigh Fencers, a club he founded to train a growing number of Triangle-area fencers for competition. Today, Caudill still teaches Muay Thai as well as judo, and he has recently added Olympic-style archery with an indoor range.
But at NBS, the classic Western martial arts of boxing and fencing command center stage and fill the air with the staccato rhythms of jump ropes, the thumps of sparring partners, and the clashes of fencing’s épée, foil and sabre weapons.
It makes for an aura of timelessness. After all, fencing’s history traces back to the Middle Ages. Its lexicon (En guarde! Allez!) and techniques (fleche, parry, riposte, prise de fer) are civilized expressions of a tradition dangereux. Even older than fencing is boxing, one of the original sports in the Olympic competitions held in Olympia, Greece in 776 B.C. Pugilism then all but disappeared from civilized society until it reemerged in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today, these ancient sports are finding converts of all kinds.
“Fencing is a safe sport that can be learned at any age and with any ability,” says Caudill. “We have between 40 and 50 fencers, ranging in age from 6 to 65, many of whom have participated in Junior Olympic or U.S. Fencing Association competitions, including USFA nationals.”
Hillsborough’s John Crumpler, 21, began fencing regularly at NBS when he was 14 after taking his first class with Caudill at 12. “When my parents told me there was a sport that I could play that used swords, I couldn’t wait.” At NBS, Crumpler met Michael Marx, a five-time Olympian and eight-time U.S. men’s foil champion who coached at Duke. After completing high school, Crumpler trained with Marx for two years at Boston Fencing Club. He was recruited by Notre Dame, and is currently competing on the Fighting Irish varsity team.
“None of it would have happened without Wes,” said Crumpler.
Becoming a sabreur
Caudill, 43, was a standout high school wrestler from Lexington, N.C., who came to N.C. State as a freshman in 1987 with dreams of making the Wolfpack team. It was not to be. But after taking fencing in P.E., Caudill tried out for the varsity fencing squad. He made the cut, and quickly developed as a skilled sabreur. Within a year, he was sabre team captain. Unlike foil and épée, which only allow scoring on touches of the tip of the weapon, sabre is an aggressive fencing style that involves scoring with touches from the blade. By his senior year, Caudill was named most valuable player on the 1991 State team that finished in the top 25.
Six years later, while working as a video production specialist, Caudill created a home for fencing here when he opened NBS. Today, roughly 30 boxers train at his gym, ranging from novices seeking a challenging workout to aspiring prizefighters chasing a title. Nick Thompson, a 28 year-old Raleigh firefighter who began boxing at NBS in 2006, recently received his pro card and is seeking fights as a heavyweight. Caudill is his manager. At 6 feet, 5 inches and 270 pounds, Thompson’s warm, easy-going manner belies his startling intensity in the ring. “I’ve trained other places, but this is the most unique atmosphere I’ve ever experienced,” Thompson says. “Everywhere you look, there is something new to learn that can help you improve as an athlete.”
Caudill says he has long understood the benefits to both boxer and fencer of training in each other’s company.
Good fencers develop a combination of explosive lower body speed and upper body finesse. Boxers train for upper body power and deft footwork. “Some of the fencers end up working out with the boxers, and the boxers will practice agility and foot speed with the fencers,” said Caudill. “They always come away with respect for each other and a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses – I’m a big believer in cross-training that takes you out of your comfort zone.”
Caudill says his training philosophy is, in the end, the journey self-discovery. Students inevitably learn something new about themselves. It’s a reward that never gets old.
NBS Gym: 3701 Neil St., Raleigh. NBSGym.com.