Violence for Charity
Two fighters danced around the dueling circle, probing each other for weaknesses. One held a long wooden spear affixed with a rubber head, the other had only a small training dagger. The weapons were fake but the stakes were not. The spear shot out to its opponent, who narrowly dodged it, well out of reach for a counter-attack. The dagger-fighter was desperate, looking for any opening to get close to the spear-fighter, who held the supreme distance advantage over him.
The dagger-fighter faked right and dashed in left, blocking a thrust with only inches to spare. He grabbed the shaft of the spear and rushed forward, bringing it up and out of his way. The spear-fighter panicked and retreated, trying to regain his advantage. The dagger-fighter closed in and brought his weapon down in a hammer-grip onto his opponent’s helmet, striking a fatal blow. Cheers erupted from the spectators, and the loser went to the back of a long line of fighters ready to step into the ring.
For the last three years, the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship has hosted an annual charity tournament, and this year was their biggest one yet. From around the country, men and women of all backgrounds joined forces on January 13 and 14 to raise money for Streetlight USA, an organization focused on providing counseling and shelter for young women aged 11-18, who have been the victims of sex trafficking and sexual trauma.
Founded in 2008, the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship (PSHS) was created by Richard Marsden, a local high-school history teacher, with the intent of resurrecting the lost fighting arts of the past. He bases his knowledge on manuals written between the 14th and 19th centuries by fencing masters such as Fiore dei Liberi, Johannes Lichtenauer and Salvatore Fabris. Richard’s club is part of a larger international movement called Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA for short. Adopting modern protective gear and training methods, HEMA practitioners study the weapons depicted in the manuals, hoping to accurately portray how people fought and died in the old days.
Now, in 2017, the heyday of these martial arts is half a millennium past, but their legacy lives on in the present. Gathering in the morning at a fitness gym in Phoenix, HEMA practitioners helped create a unique system of giving to charity.
The fighters partake in a one-on-one, king-of-the-hill style tournament. The person with the longest streak of consecutive wins is declared the victor, and wins a number of prizes, including training weapons, gear coupons, and future tournament registration vouchers. If a fighter is hit, they lose a life and are sent to the back of the line of participants awaiting their turn to fight. If they lose all five of their lives they are out – unless they spend $5 to buy another life to try again.
As long as a fighter kept paying, he could keep purchasing lives until he was too tired to fight. Under this system, every penny of the money spent on buying new lives went directly to Streetlight USA.
Throughout the weekend, there were three of these tournaments, one on Friday and two on Saturday. The first was using the Singlestick, which is a training weapon made of a length of rattan (a type of hard reed), and fitted with a leather guard for the hand. Being light and fast to strike with, it produced a tournament that was a flurry of parries and ripostes. At times, the weapons were struck so hard and so fast against each other that there was a faint smell of burnt wood coming from the dueling circle.
After a long and intense round of fighting, Joshua Gilbrech of Albuquerque was victorious, with a streak of eight wins to his name.
The second tournament was Mixed Weapons. A die was rolled twice with every new round, once for each fighter, and they received a corresponding weapon, made of synthetic materials for safety:
- Dagger – a small, one-handed weapon with a 12-inch blade. Although it has the smallest reach, it is the most useful weapon when closing in to grapple, allowing for quick thrusts at close range.
- Sickle – a historical farming tool and common weapon of defence, roughly 16 inches long and shaped like a crescent moon. An odd weapon to fight with, its unique shape allows the wielder to catch weapons with the inside curve; useful for closing the distance and employing disarming techniques.
- Saber – a 36-inch blade with a slight outward curve, featuring a protective bell-shaped guard for the user’s hand. Quick and nimble, its balance allows for rapid circular movements around the wielder’s body, useful for parrying attacks and delivering powerful strikes
- Sword-and-buckler – a weapon combination consisting of a one-handed straight sword about three feet long, with a small shield of 10 inches in diameter that is held in the grip of the left hand. This has the greatest defence out of the six, letting the fighter block with the buckler and strike with the sword at the same time. The buckler can also be used to press an opponent’s weapon against them
- Longsword – a two-handed sword measuring around 50 inches in length. The most versatile of the bunch, its double edges and relatively long reach allow for a wide variety of techniques that can be used. Whether it’s cutting from multiple angles in rapid succession, or using the pommel as a small club, the longsword has an answer to nearly any situation.
- Spear – totaling about six feet, it possesses the greatest reach, and can be used to attack the opponent while remaining a safe distance away. Because of the leverage, the spear can be moved rapidly at the opponent, threatening multiple openings which forces them to act defensively; a usually fatal mistake. The only way to defeat the spear is to get behind the spearhead, which is no easy task. However, once that happens, the spear is nearly useless.
Cheers of support and lament came from the sidelines whenever a hapless fighter with a smaller weapon had to engage another armed with a larger one. But the martial arts that they study proved true in practice, and even a saber could win against a longsword, or a sickle against a spear, if the fighter wielding it was quick and clever enough to find an opening.
With great skill, and luck from the dice, Gary Ledford of Los Angeles was crowned the winner, claiming six wins in a row.
For the very brave and skilled, there was a third tournament they could enter; the Martial Challenge. For a fee of $100, the stakes were winner-takes-all; they could not be hit even once by any other competitor! If a fighter was struck with a blow judged sufficiently powerful, they were ejected from the tournament, and if both fighters hit each other, they were both out.
For the Challenge, each fighter was given one of a pair of brand-new steel longswords from SGT Blades in Canada, worth over 3 times as much as the cost of entry, and were the prizes themselves.
The matches were silent and tense, since even the slightest mistake could spell defeat. Impenetrable silence was broken by the sudden clash of steel, and in an instant, the matches were over. Many doubled out, but of those who stepped into the ring, it was James Grant of Phoenix who emerged victorious, winning the very sword he held in his hands.
The loser of the final match got to witness his blade be auctioned to the crowd. A fierce bidding war erupted, with the final price of $390 being declared after a heated two-way battle near the end.
John, co-founder of the PSHS along with Richard, shared his thoughts on the tournament:
John, how did the Streetlight USA charity tournament come about?
“Richard and I were originally a little hesitant to take on the responsibility of an event, since sometimes it can consume a club. So we said that if we’re gonna do it, let’s do something a little bit different, something that’s not just a “badass” competition; it has to have a good cause so the hassle would be worth it. Streetlight USA is a really unique program, there’s not a whole lot of places like it in the US. There’s one, I think in California, and nothing until you get closer to Chicago.”
How did you find out about Streetlight?
“I knew a young lady at my church who had gone through their program as a young girl, and how it was transformational for her life. They helped her graduate high school, she ended up getting an art degree and worked as a painter, and went back to Streetlight to start an art class program for the organization. She talked about how much trauma and difficulty she had growing up, but because of all the support she had from Streetlight, she was able to flourish and start a family of her own.”
What do you think of the dichotomy between all this violence raising money for a charity? There’s some humor to be found there.
[Chuckles] “Yeah a little bit, little bit. One of the reasons this is first year we had a guest speaker from Streetlight show up, is because I was thinking, “Aw man, I don’t wanna bum everyone out.” It’s not something you want to turn your back to, but the whole weight of the world can’t be sitting there on your shoulders. But honestly, the HEMA community is super generous. I think we’ve had about $3,200 worth of prizes donated from various sponsors and people in the community; I was really blown away by that. We did a quick estimate of what we’ve raised for Streetlight, and right now we’re closer to $7,000 than $6,000, which is WAY more than what we raised last year.”
Basically double if I recall.
“Yeah, the first year was $2,000-something, last year was about $4,700. Like I said, we wanted to do something different, not just a regular longsword tournament, so that’s why we chose singlestick, then we added the mixed weapons, this year we added the Martial Challenge, and for next year we’re looking at adding another event. Maybe something like the Martial Challenge, but “bring-your-own-steel.” If you wanna use a backsword and targe, or if you wanna bring a rapier and dagger, you can. You’ll have to have longsword-rated gear for safety; everyone may just show up with a longsword, but I think it’d be really interesting to watch. Although a big part of it will be managing expectations, since we don’t have the experience, or commitment really to make this huge. We can’t be Longpoint. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge and experience and dedication that goes into that, so we warn everybody that bad calls are par for the course, but everybody’s been real cool about it.”
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
“I’m very grateful for everybody that came out, and to all the sponsors and people that donated online. It’s really impressive what 50 hobbyists can accomplish in a weekend.”
With proper organization and positive incentives, even a relatively small group can contribute a huge amount to a good cause. The weekend fund-raising goal was $4,700, but the participants knocked that number out of the park. From a pool of 50 fighters, they raised a total of $8,841, averaging $176 per person. Although sore and exhausted, the fighters remained uninjured through the weekend, fighting hard to benefit those who need help the most.
Gary Ledford said it best: “In the words of Sylvester Stallone from Rocky III, ‘Charity hurts.'”