At this point, it should not be a surprise that Bronn is a finalist in my tier list. Bronn may not be the strongest or the quickest fighter, but I suspect that he’s the smartest. And he’s also plenty strong and quick on the side, too. Bronn is a highly skilled swordsman, enough so to take on jobs north of The Wall. He is smart and resourceful enough to analyze his situation and improvise based on his opponents and surroundings. Just like Daario, Bronn is often seen cutting down extras, be they Baratheon soldiers or hill tribesmen, in a way that displays his own mastery rather than the enemies merely being fodder.
Bronn shows time and time again, to an even greater degree than Daario, that he is able to instantly adjust and exploit his opponent’s combat style, using their weaknesses against them. The most potent example of this is Tyrion’s trial by combat against Ser Vardis Egan. Throughout the fight, Bronn had a perfect read on Vardis’ distance and tempo – he was able to see every attack before it happened and deflect it by redirecting Vardis’ momentum. The one baffling exception to Bronn’s mastery in this fight is when he haphazardly positioned himself next to the moon door and dramatically wrestled away as Vardis tried to throw him off the edge. While this made for good TV, there was absolutely no reason to Bronn to stand there, indicating a troublingly careless oversight. However, Bronn was otherwise excellent at evaluating his opponent via Syrio’s “true sight” and taking every advantage that he could from his environment. Bronn only attacked or approached Vardis when he was well within the knight’s increasingly sluggish tempo, ensuring that he could kill Vardis without ever endangering himself.
We see Bronn’s ability to adjust on the spot a second time while he is fighting the Sand Snakes. The sellsword is so impressive during this little skirmish that I don’t even need to mention how readily he subdued Prince Trystane (but I really want to). Initially, Bronn struggled to simultaneously deal with two fighters who had very different styles and effective distances. I believe that Bronn, prior to this fight, never encountered a situation where he had to simultaneously avoid a whip’s ability to disable him from afar while also dueling with an up-close-and-personal dagger wielder. However, Bronn eventually learned about both of them and made the necessary adjustments – standing on top of Nymeria Sand’s whip, rendering it useless, so that he could focus on overpowering Tyene Sand’s swordplay.
My main point here is that Bronn shows us over and over again that he is capable of applying his improvisational resourcefulness to any situation, allowing him to adapt and defeat any opponent without any wasted energy or excessive show. Even while training Jaime – because who else would be good enough to do so — Bronn demonstrated how readily he can read and pick apart any opponent’s combat style and use it against them.
As someone who analyzes and teaches swordsmen for a living, even I struggle to think of what sort of person would be able to defeat Bronn in single combat. It would have to be someone who is an all-around competent warrior without any real flaws to their game. It would have to be someone who has more muscle than Bronn but also the agility and brains to match. It would have to be someone who, in the words of Ned Stark, “[doesn’t] want [his opponent] to know what [he] can do” so that Bronn can’t get a read on him. It would have to be someone who could surprise and surpass even the best fighters in the realm. It would have to be, believe it or not, someone like Tormund Giantsbane.
Just like Bronn, Tormund earned his place at the top of the list because no one outside of the first tier would stand a chance against him. Though we don’t see much of Tormund fighting, what we do see shows him as a master who cares much more about killing his enemies than he does about putting on a show for the audience. Tormund’s decisions in combat make both tactical and logistical sense. Tormund’s one fault, if you could call it that, is that he is so wrapped up in killing his opponent that he sometimes continues to fight in poor conditions, such as at Castle Black after his allies have been killed. He also sometimes loses sight of his surroundings. While raiding Ollie’s village, Tormund needed Ygritte to save him from a swordsman who attacked from behind. He also gets shot at Castle Black. However, I’m not particularly concerned because neither of these problems are relevant to single combat. Tormund more than makes up for those issues with how cleanly and effortlessly he kills both villagers and crows.
Tormund’s duel with Alliser Thorne was flawless, at least on Tormund’s end, and it may very well be the most realistic fight on TV. Yes, Tormund seemed to put his weight into some large attacks, but if you look at the way his body is positioned you can see that he never loses his balance and never gets thrown off. His larger swipes still allot him a quicker tempo than that of Thorne, therefore I fully believe that this style of attack was deliberately chosen – it allows Tormund to overpower Alliser without compromising his tempo advantage. Tormund realizes that you don’t need to be able to run laps around your opponent as long as you’re still quicker.
I could write pages about the subtle mastery of Tormund’s strategy against Alliser Thorne. In one short duel, Giantsbane displays complete situational awareness, an ability to read and exploit his opponent’s style, and a lack of hesitation when it comes to applying his abilities. Certainly this is the “true sight” of which Syrio Forel spoke. Throughout the entire duel, Tormund never wastes a single tempo. His attacks are direct without any sacrifice of power, and his parries deflect Alliser’s momentum rather than wasting any of his own strength. Tormund always places himself at the exact distance from Alliser at which he is the most dangerous – he is a little closer than he necessarily needs to be in order to hit Alliser, but he’s also just too close for Alliser’s longer broadsword to pose any real threat. Tormund is always at his exact effective distance, which happens to be closer than Alliser’s minimum effective distance. And now we get to the real reason that I believe Tormund is capable of killing every other character about whom I wrote. Again, this is why I wanted to compliment Tormund rather than critique Alliser.
You may have noticed that there’s a lot of repetition in this duel. Tormund whales on Alliser again and again from more or less the same distance with more or less the same tempo. He is pressing just enough to keep Alliser focused on repelling attacks. You can see this careful manipulation from the fact that Alliser immediately jumps forward with attacks of his own — attacks that Tormund has anticipated and readily blocks — as soon as Tormund presents him with a window. These windows are not accidents. Rather, Tormund is training Alliser to be the perfect opponent. By occasionally opening the distance and pausing his attacks, Alliser — again at no fault of his own — sees these breaks in the tempo as opportunities. It’s a testament to Alliser’s skills that he is even able to attack into these openings because only an excellent swordsman would be able to capitalize on the brief tempo breaks that Tormund provides. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s falling right into Tormund’s plan and becoming conditioned to push forward and attack with his characteristically-large strikes as soon as Tormund pauses. Do you see how Tormund’s strategy is coming together? Thanks to his careful manipulation, Tormund now knows exactly what Alliser is going to do and how he’s going to do it — even before Alliser does. So how does Tormund end the fight? He rolls away, deliberately implanting the thought in Alliser’s mind that he is running away and therefore vulnerable. Alliser makes the seemingly rational decision to run in for the kill, only to find that Tormund isn’t actually trying to escape.
Alliser was prepared for the distance to close as a result of his attack against a retreating Tormund. However, Tormund, who had orchestrated the whole fight, was ready for Alliser’s attack. He suddenly doubled his tempo and closed the relative distance twice as rapidly as what Alliser was expecting by stopping his backward motion and landing in a stationary crouched position. With Alliser moving forwards and Tormund no longer moving backwards, the distance immediately collapses. Thorne was caught off guard and Tormund, now way too close for Alliser to defend himself, quickly blocks the oncoming attack and guts his opponent.
We can’t really blame Alliser for his folly — the whole exchange was carefully orchestrated by Tormund such that Alliser merely fell into place, seeing and acting upon the false opportunities that Tormund laid out for him. Now that it’s all been explained, Tormund’s manipulative approach may seem obvious. But trying to decode his style without getting overwhelmed while Tormund, very much playing the part of the bloodthirsty barbarian, is slashing at you again and again, is a nearly impossible feat.
So Tormund Giantsbane is our champion. We’ve seen many fighters who are able to predict and capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes, but Tormund is the only character who was able to take that extra step and force others’ mistakes rather than simply waiting for them to happen.
In my own fencing lessons, my maestro drilled me on this again and again. No matter the scenario, he would ask, “In this situation, what do you want your opponent to do?” Before I knew better, I would provide a specific counteraction for which I was prepared. But I would be interrupted as my maestro recited the correct response, which never changed from situation to situation. “One thing.” Eventually I learned, “What is the one thing that you want them to do?”
“What I want them to do.”
“When do you want them to do it?”
“When I want them to do it.”
The specifics are irrelevant. Syrio Forel is right: “The seeing, the true seeing, that is the heart of it.” But true mastery comes from taking things one step farther. Alliser Thorne truly saw Tormund running away, and he responded appropriately. Tormund Giantsbane saw Alliser Thorne responding to his conditioning. He saw a swordsman who would make one specific attack when he suddenly retreated. The secret to swordplay is to not only see what your opponent is going to do, but also to give them a false sight such that you make them do exactly what you want. Tormund seems to be the only character who knows this, and that is why he is the best swordsman in Game of Thrones, capable of manipulating and overpowering anyone. Ladies and gentlemen, I present your champion, Tormund Giantsbane.