Back in Houston
I consider Fechtschule America (FA) to be the first HEMA event to bring European-style competition and club interaction to the US. The 2010 Houston International Open Gathering was my first competition, as well, and so I have a soft spot for Houston’s flagship event.
After Scott Brown, FA's creator and organizer for the past four years, chose not to hold FA in Houston or in its regular time slot this year, Christian and Natasha Darce of Purpleheart Armory and the Houston Schwert am Schwert crew (led by Dakao Do, Sam Street, and Nathan Grepares) set up the Purpleheart Open (PHO) in its stead.
The PHO crew's vision was for something smaller, more regional, and a bit easier than what FA had become as it grew in size and scope. The result was a friendly, relatively casual event with lots and lots and lots of fighting. Dakao and Sam were the driving forces behind PHO's three tournaments: the Open Synthetic Longsword, the Open Synthetic Messer, and Invitational Steel Exhibition Tournament. I had the pleasure of fighting in all three.
The Open Longsword Tournament
The Open Synthetic Longsword was undeniably the main event. Starting on PHO's second day, 25 fighters from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Vermont, Virginia (yours truly), and Sweden--plus a few others I surely missed--fenced in pools and then a single elimination bracket for the hope of winning PHO's signature bronze cowboy hat. Yes, the bronze cowboy hat is full size and wearable, and I have it on good authority that 2015's and 2016's BCH's are already waiting on future PHO winners. The ruleset was a slight update on last year’s Manciolino-inspired rules, with the head scoring three points, the shins and below scoring two, the forearms/hands scoring none, and all other targets scoring one point.
Despite the tournament's smaller size when compared to FA's US record of over 60 fighters, it was no easier. The indomitable and returning FA 2013 champion, Dennis Ljungqvist, was joined by fellow Swedish fencer Carl Ryrberg (Silver, Helsinki Longsword Open 2014), with whom I share a rivalry with Axel Pettersson. The roster included many of the who's who of the US competitive scene as well: Eric Bryan Wiggins (Gold, FA 2012), Dustin Regan (Silver, Shortpoint 2013), Nathan Grepares (Silver, IGX 2013), Gray Bennett, and Charles Murdock.
That same list of fighters won their pools or had high enough indicator scores to continue forward into the elimination bracket (swapping Charles, who came in 9th, with promising tournament newcomer Alexander Anderson). The elimination rounds were fought with Mac Armor steel longsword feders provided by Purpleheart Armory, instead of the PHA Type III Synthetics (aka Pentiis) that were used in the pools. The Mac Amour feders handled similarly to Regenyei heavies or Ensifer longs. Their wide, spatulated tips made for good flex in the last 4th and the long handles felt like something out of Joachim Meÿer's plates. Unfortunately that same feature likely contributed to one breaking over Nathan Grepares' shoulder in the semifinals. (Yes, it was me...)
The "Best Fight Ever"
My first fight in the elimination rounds was with Carl Ryrberg, whom I had met a Swordfish in previous years and whom I already respected as a fighter based on his performances there (often culminating in a loss to Axel Pettersson...a plight with which I am quite familiar). I don't think I have ever been so evenly matched with a fighter as I was with Carl. He's tall, fast, powerful, and has the best Absetzen in all of modern HEMAdom. We concluded our two minute bout in a tie, and as Referee Sam Street announced that we would be fighting a sudden death round Carl remarked to me, "Best fight ever." I agreed, and we fought again.
I suspect four minutes or more passed as Carl and I continued to draw stalemate after stalemate. Sometimes the judges would miss a higher scoring blow for either of us that might have decided it, but any errors seemed evenly distributed and we continued to slug it out. Frustrated, I began taking foolish risks while attempting cheap shots for a quick win, but Carl punished me and on one such exchange I stumbled backwards, off balance from a poorly executed Gayszlen on the retreat and knocked to my back by a stout Scheitelhau from Carl. The judges' votes were inconclusive, but I knew I was screwing it up and getting out-fenced by my own stupidity. I resolved to go back to fencing well, even if it cost me the bout.
An exchange or three later I struck Carl with a one-handed blow to the thigh which he avenged with an afterblow to my shoulder or body. The judges ruled two points for me (shin blow) and one for Carl. I had won, but it was wrong. I told Carl right away and we walked out of the ring, both unhappy with the result. A few moments later Sam and judge Hans Heim approached us and informed us that they felt there had been a mistake: my one-handed blow should have only counted for one point. I readily agreed and Carl and I returned to the ring to finish the bout right. Win or lose, it was the right way to go about it and I was a happier fencer.
Perhaps two more minutes of stalemates followed. Carl entered a grapple, threw me; I reversed it, but failed to gain dominance. Get up, try again. We...were...exhausted. Tiredest I have ever been in a HEMA tournament. Two more clashes. No decision. Carl enters a grapple again, he throws me. I'm on my back, Carl is on my head.
I don't know how I did this--I really don't--but somehow I kicked my legs up and neck-muscled out from under Carl and put myself into a side mount. Carl was pinned and punching me in the head repeatedly. Sam calls halt. The judges come together to discuss. Carl gets up, I'm on my knees, sucking wind, waiting for the result, hoping that whatever it is it isn't "No Agreement." The judges are kind, and they give me the point for domination in the grapple. I won, as narrowly as I could have.
Carl is a great fighter and a great sportsman. People who haven't fought so hard or so passionately--summoning every ounce of skill, scrounging for every last shred of motivation--will never understand why we compete. I had fought Carl before, casually, at Swordfish and on the first day of PHO. I wasn't positive I could take him and, he told me, he wasn't positive he could take me. It took the competition to force us both to dig so deep and give everything. It doesn't happen every time we compete, but when it does, we're reminded of why we do. My victory wasn't that the judges mercifully tipped an evenly balanced scale in my favor--it was in forcing the best out of my opponent and bringing the most out of myself.
...And the Winner Is...
Exhausted but enthused I fought Nathan Grepares, another fighter I had never met in a tournament setting and who was as challenging as I expected. My final bout was for the gold against champion Dennis Ljungqvist. I was gassed, still paying for my fight with Carl, and more than a bit worried about Dennis, who's been on a roll with victories throughout Europe over the last two years. I'm generally satisfied with my fight with Dennis, even though the clock moved too quickly and my limbs too slowly. For the second year in a row he won Houston. I was pleased to have been part of the process.
Dennis is a monster, by the way.
The Open Messer Tournament
The 20-competitor Open Synthetic Messer tournament was a pleasure as well. Purpleheart Armory's relatively new Messer design is the best non-metal Messer simulator there is. Most of the fighters had little-to-no Messer experience, and I figured this would either give me a major edge or end up being something of a saber tournament fought with Messers. I like saber, too, though, so I figured I was ready either way.
The pools went by cleanly and the top two from each entered the elimination bracket: Dennis Ljungqvist, Carl Ryrberg (in his first Messer experience), Dustin Reagan, Sam Street, Jorge Rodriguez, Eric Wiggins, Da’Mon Stith (a talented Tuareg fighter), and I. Competition was fierce throughout, and I was outclassed by a cool-headed Sam Street, who would later go on to win Bronze in a tight match with Da’Mon Stith. Dennis beat out Carl in a somewhat one-sided bout for Gold, making him the second Swede to win both the Longsword and the single-handed sword of the year in a single Houston tournament.
The Invitational Steel Longsword: It’s (Not So) Good to Be the King!
Tired and battered the original top eight from the Open Longsword, now with Charles Murdock stepping in for Alexander Anderson, lined up for the Invitational Steel Longsword tournament. The rules, developed by Sam Street, riff on Franco-Belgian structure by placing a King in the ring against the other fighters who make a line of challengers. The King remains in the ring for two minutes, defending a beginning pool of 12 points. Every time he strikes a challenger, the challenger goes to the end of the line. Every time the King is struck, either cleanly or as part of an afterblow, he loses one of his 12 points. Both fighters lose a point for doubles. The Challenger, barring doubles, cannot lose points but may gain a bonus point if he strikes the King cleanly three times (having done so, the Challenger returns to the end of the line). All targets were allowed, all scored equally. Every competitor gets two minutes as King, with the winner being the fighter with the most points at the end of everyone's turn as King.
The game promoted some strategies that became apparent after the first minute or two. Challengers had very little to gain in playing too cautiously, as the burning clock worked to the King's advantage. Against better fighters, hard aggression returned the best results, as an afterblow for either party would sap one of the King's points and send a fresh Challenger into the ring. Against an equal or inferior opponent, however, landing three hits and gaining the bonus point was too sweet of a prize to throw away recklessly. The King, meanwhile, was trying to cleanly hit (and thus rid himself) of more difficult Challengers while trying to draw the clock out as long as possible against those he evaluates as being less of a threat. A miscalculation on the part of either the King or the Challenger in these strategies meant more points lost.
Beyond all of that, there was a simple joy in standing in the challenger's line and shouting, "Hurry up! Hit him! Don't let him run out the clock!" while praying for doubles for every fighter but yourself. As challengers we were all on the same team except when one of us was in the ring.
In the end, Gray Bennett took the gold, aided by a long period of not much fighting with Dustin Reagan, who couldn't get Gray to take the bait. Dustin earned the silver, using the same cautious tactics, and Carl and I tied for bronze across all indicator scores (points lost, strikes landed, etc.). Sam proposed a tiebreaker, but Carl and I had had our fill of tiebreakers for the weekend and we agreed to share the medal. Carl took the original home and Sam will be sending me mine later.
Like I said, Carl and I are about as evenly matched as we can be. The numbers prove it. Science!
Classes & Workshops
The Purpleheart Open isn't all games. Dennis, Hans Heim, and I all returned as Fechtschule America veterans with new classes for the PHO crew. We were joined by Gene Tausk, Carl Ryrberg, Dakao Do, Nathan Grepares, and Da’Mon Stith. Hans presented two messer classes, which always make me a little nostalgic as it was Hans Heim and Alex Kiermeyer who turned me onto the messer about 11 years ago; I still look up to Hans as one of my HEMA role models. Gene presented drills associated with his interpretation of I.33. I regret missing Nathan's "David and Goliath" class on strategies for taller opponents (I'm looking at you, Dennis Ljungqvist). Da'Mon and his partner Brian "Tree" Fischer introduced their impressive reconstruction of the African saber art Tuareg to a bunch of HEMAists before schooling the gross majority of us with it in the messer tournament the next day. (Side note: I can't express how cool it is to see HEMA-esque movements for so many other cultures nowadays.)
My own class was something completely new, both for me and possibly for HEMA at large. Dakao, who was in charge of the instructor roster, had asked me to put together a class on dealing with "combat stress" for historical fencers. I wasn't sure if the little program I had put together would achieve my goal of forcing an adrenaline dump for some participants and imitating its effects for the rest of the class, but everyone seemed happy with the results. In 90 minutes I screamed myself hoarse (assisted by co-screamers and Swedish Army veterans Carl and Dennis) putting the class through drills under the most intense circumstances I could create. It's not everyday you get to ask Natasha Darce if it's okay if you shriek infantry-grade obscenities at 20 people at the top of your lungs in front of her children in the gymnasium of a Lutheran high school...and she says yes with a toothy grin.
The Social Scene
Most HEMA events are social gatherings as much as they are martial ones. The joy of spending an entire weekend with other people who understand your obsession with swords, fencing, fighting, old books, and obscure fencing theory (not to mention the obligatory review of HEMAdom's most recent dramas) is one of the greatest appeals for any event-goer. At the end of the day we're all friends before we're teachers, students, or competitors. The PHO crew set out with an eye to showcasing southern hospitality. Most participants met for dinner each night at Buffalo Wild Wings or the Logan's Roadhouse (for the annual peanut fight). Saturday night's feast took place at Newman’s Castle, an impressive mock-castle (complete with moat, drawbridge, and functioning trebuchet) which functions as a banquet hall and home to owner Mike Newman. Because the castle is about an hour from the event, most participants rode in a chartered school-bus to and from the party.
Yes, riding the school bus was as much fun as it sounds like.
The meal included a four-foot loaf of bread and an entire roast pig, plus ever-plentiful beer and wine for those who cared to drink. The PHO crew rolled out the medals and awards for the Open Longsword Tournament, recognized staff, winners, and guests, and made sure we had the chance to tour the castle and fire the trebuchet. Sure, I'm a cynic and I rolled my eyes about the goofy Texan castle at first, but the magic took hold pretty quickly and I fell in love with Mr. Newman’s dream home.
Fighting? Was There Fighting?
Yes. A lot of it. Dennis, Carl, Nathan, and I all ran sessions of coached sparring, something that was of greater interest to guys like me and Eric Wiggins who run clubs but don't have coaches of our own. As always, a lit bit of fencing led to a lot of fencing, and there were always friendly matches going on between tournament phases or classes or after the end of each day's scheduled activities.
My favorite sparring partner, possibly of all time, remains Dustin Reagan, who made sure I was always fencing if I wasn't in a tournament or teaching a class. Eric Wiggins was my first partner of the weekend; I maintain that he's one of the most promising fighters in American HEMA. I managed to work in bouts with Carl Ryrberg, Dennis Ljungqvist, Chris Cunningham, Charles Murdock, Chad Unruh, and Alexander Anderson. I fought constantly, all weekend, even when I thought I couldn't anymore.
Don't You Have Anything Bad to Say?
Not really. Was the organization perfect? No...PHO suffered from many of the organizational challenges that plague most tournament-based HEMA gatherings. Classes started late, tournament pools ran over, some weird calls were made and sometimes the table got it wrong.
But...honestly...so what? PHO is exactly what we need a lot more of in the US: regional events with tournaments and classes run by a cadre of HEMAists working together, delegating responsibilities out, and learning from the experience. Everybody was cool, everybody was patient, and everybody got heard. Christian, Natasha, Dakao, Sam, and the rest of the PHO crew put on a great event on a regional scale that featured international-level classes and competitive opponents. They deserve a big pat on the back and continued success as PHO becomes the new HEMA fixture in Houston. --JPN
(Personal Note: I want to thank Gene Tausk and the Darce family for their hospitality, rides, and a bed to sleep in. Also thanks to Dustin Reagan and the Ordo Procinctus crew for rides and a place to shower before dinner.)