This weekend Las Vegas will play host to the second annual Combat Con convention running from July 6-8 at the Tuscany Suites. Tickets are $80 for the three days or can be purchased individually for $55 on Saturday or $35 for Sunday only at the Combat Con website or onsite at the Tuscany Suites. The focus of the convention is Western Martial Arts (WMA), which includes fencing and other sword fighting, grappling, and wrestling. Combat Con blends Hollywood cinematic fighting with historical martial arts practiced since Roman times, plugging itself as the convention “Where History and Fantasy Meet”. Hollywood guests include martial artists and fight choreographers Anthony De Longis, Paradox Pollack, Robert Goodwin, and Luke LaFontaine and famous science fiction author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), himself a devotee of Western Martial Arts, will be returning this year as well. One of the most popular and well-received events at last year’s Combat Con was the Star Wars Sword class taught by Kyle Rowling. Rowling will return this year and was a Jedi in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in addition to serving as General Grievous for motion capture, and as Christopher Lee’s stunt double as the nefarious Count Dooku in both the second and third prequel films.
Combat Con was founded by Jared Kirby and John Lennox and while it is only in its second year, Kirby and Lennox are veterans at leading Western Martial Arts conferences. Combat Con is the successor to their ISMAC (International Swordfighting and Martial Arts Convention) show which ran on the East Coast for ten years. The first Combat Con had an attendance of roughly 500 and Kirby reports that numbers are up this year in both vendor booth sales and pre-registered attendees. For Kirby Las Vegas was a natural choice because of its destination status, worldwide renown, and ease for travelers. Attendeese will be flying in from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico with a contingent of European event guests and convention-goers as well.
Among the many activities on offer at Combat Con is the chance to learn from the best masters in the small community of Western martial artists. According to Kirby this is a large draw of Combat Con, the chance to train with “nearly 30 of the the best Western Martial Arts teachers.” Visitors can sign up for whip training class with Anthony De Longis, whom I recognized as the badass Blade from the live action Masters of the Universe. These sessions require an additional fee ($150 for Techniques of the Star Wars Sword from Kyle Rowling and $150 for Anthony De Longis’ Whip Master), but there are also dozens of seminars scheduled with evocative titles like “Everyday Items as Improvised Weapons”, “Fighting the Horde: One Against Many”, “Grappling in High Heels: Brutal Paschen”, and “Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy: Surviving a Cantina Fight”.
So What Are Western Martial Arts?
When I hear martial arts, I immediately think of dojos, karate, senseis, kung fu, black belts, and Bruce Lee. When I hear Western Martial Arts, I think of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bloodsport, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, or even quite literally of Western dredge like the Jackie Chan-vehicle Shanghai Nights or the crossover action of the recent Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films. The Sherlock Holmes movies are not an entirely inaccurate association to make. Combat Con special guest Tony Wolf is an expert in the martial art of bartitsu seen in the recent Sherlock Holmes films, but originally developed over a century ago in London by Edward William Barton-Wright. Barton-Wright coined the portmanteau bart-itsu having lived in Japan for three years, as Wikipedia reveals. While bartitsu is a Western Martial Art, it is a more exotic one. Simply put, Western Martial Arts are the studies of the many different forms of interpersonal combat throughout Western history. Jared Kirby points out that Europeans training their sons in combat didn’t import martial artists from Japan, but rather built on existing traditions. WMA would also include jousting, wrestling, boxing, savate, grappling, and every other Western Hemisphere weapon in between whether polearm, axe, or shield, stretching from antiquity to present day. Modern firearms and their use do not seem to be included, nor any other forms of missile weapons ranging from slings to ballista, though archery is certainly a Western Martial Art. The focus seems to be on melee and close quarters combat. Even within a discipline such as classical fencing, attempts at putting a start and end date on the martial art to limit it to a set range of years is time wasted, according to Tom Rockwell. He posits that classical fencing “doesn’t have an end date any more than classical music does.”
The Origins of Combat Con and Growth in Western Martial Arts
When I spoke with Jared Kirby he was taking a break from filming Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter in New York City, where he is based. Besides training actors in martial arts, Kirby teaches combat at a martial arts academy and recently taught stage fighting for three plays in June. Reflecting on ISMAC after ten years of running it with John Lennox, Kirby thought forward to the next ten years and predicted that ISMAC wouldn’t have the same level of impact as it already had and started to rethink the conference. As he put it, he went through a number of “bad ideas” including mixing a music festival in the vein of Lollapalooza with Western Martial Arts. Instead he turned to the common background of most modern WMA practitioners: sci-fi, fantasy, and comics fandom. Whether they arrived at Western Martial Arts via Renaissance Faires, LARPing, or role-playing games, Kirby points to these activities as the entrance points for most professional teachers of WMA and also points to a shared – if subdued – love of comic books among WMA enthusiasts.
For Kirby a Renaissance Faire was the magical introduction to Western Martial Arts. Already a Dungeons & Dragons player, the Minnesota native attended a Renaissance Faire and discovered human chess, played with life-size pieces by actors who battle dramatically. He “thought it was amazing” and vowed to do it one day. He was 15. After graduating from high school, Kirby did eventually get cast for the human chess match at that Ren Faire and went on from his training to pursue it more professionally. Combat Con’s programming director Tim Ruzicki was always into stage combat and a friend of Kirby’s from his youth. When Ruzicki returned from a trip to Scotland, he brought a smallsword back for Kirby and taught him what he had learned abroad. The two had an informal group in Minneapolis, teaching others what they’d picked up, but the call to arms was strong for Kirby and he travelled to Scotland himself, studying under fencing master Paul MacDonald. While in Britain, he attended a workshop taught by Maestro Martinez on Spanish rapier. On the fence about whether to return to Minnesota, the hour and a half class changed Kirby’s life. He informed Martinez that he would be studying under him at his academy in New York. Sure enough, Kirby turned up at the maestro’s academy three months later and is still learning from Martinez, but Kirby also teaches combat there at the academy now himself.
Kirby points to the Victorian era as the start of the revival of interest in historical martial arts. He compares present-day interest in Western Martial Arts to interest in Eastern martial arts in the 1950s before Bruce Lee popularized millennia-old interest. Eastern martial arts were certainly being studied, but there wasn’t a karate or judo school in every town. “we kind of need our own Bruce Lee, which is ironic, because Bruce Lee actually studied fencing and told his protege Danny Inosanto ‘You can’t be a complete martial artist unless you’ve studied fencing.'” Combat Con was born out of this desire to spread WMA, “to create a bigger event that would expose more people to Western Martial Arts and show how many different ways it permeates in our culture, whether that’s films or games or fan-based fiction. All of these things involve some sort of violence.”
On his current project Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter, Kirby is designing the way the hero interacts with the vampires. It’s intriguing for him because the vampire hunter doesn’t kill his prey (or other humans for that matter). He does fight with stakes though, with techniques Kirby has lifted from the combat manual Flower of Battle, published in 1409 by Italian master Fiore dei Liberi’s, or Flos Duellatorum as it was known at the time. One of Kirby’s own favorite on-screen sword fights is the cliffside battle between Wesley and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, not for its swordplay or authenticity, but rather because of how it advances the plot and story of The Princess Bride by revealing more to the audience about each character than they knew at the start of the battle.
When asked about a possible surge in interest in Western Martial Arts from the upcoming Olympics and its broadcast of fencing events, Kirby corrected my assumption and gave the analogy that “kendo is as close to katana as Olympic fencing is to real fencing.” He explained that even the term of fencing came from the shared root of offense and defense; literally to fence is to practice the art of self-defense. Modern sport fencing focuses only on offense, but as Kirby says “in what we do, if you get hit while you’re hitting the other guy, we call that ‘two dead idiots’.”
While he will be busy behind-the-scenes managing and running Combat Con, Kirby will also be co-teaching “Rapier and Smallsword for the Screen” with Luke LaFontaine as well as co-teaching on the dusack, which is a training tool for messer combat. As into medieval weapons as I am, Kirby had to explain that the messer, German for knife, “was the most common sidearm in the Germanic areas” from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Particularly exciting though, Kirby will be co-demonstrating the instructional possibilities of the shock knife, a “training tool” that features an electrical current through the knife’s edge with four settings ranging from Low to “Insane”. According to Kirby, for one and a half seconds, you actually feel like you’ve been cut by the blade. Of course, I think I need to verify this for myself at Combat Con, but sadly shock knives are restricted, besides being expensive. No shock knife LARPing… yet.
Combat Con and Its Vendors
When not attending a workshop or seminar, attendees can browse a selection of weapons, clothing, and other props on offer from Combat Con’s vendors. Clothing companies include Dark Fire Clothing with a range of T-shirts, Bad Attitude Boutique offering corsetry, and Enchanted Eras also offering corsetry, as well as Renaissance and Victorian garb. LARPing or re-enactment garb can be accentuated with jewelry from Gryphon Song Gems or Obsidian Moon Creations who will also be selling in the Vendors’ Hall. Alexandra Wolfe, proprietor of Dark Fire Clothing, attended last year and will be selling new shirt designs as well as chainmail jewelry this year. Her shirts are mostly targeted towards gamers and WMA enthusiasts. Wolfe is no stranger to sword combat herself and enjoyed talking shop with other fighters at last year’s Combat Con, though she did find sales to be slow. Having fought for over half her life, Wolfe describes herself as a fencer, but she also likes to fight “heavy” in full armor with rattan weapons just as much and enjoys a variety of weapons.
Of course, at a convention called Combat Con though, the focus is on weapons and there will be plenty of them there, along with their makers.
David Baker’s Hollywood Combat Center
David Baker from the Hollywood Combat Center will be bringing aluminum training swords, rapiers, prop swords, and small swords to Combat Con, ranging in price from $250-$500, but arguably Baker’s claim to fame at Combat Con is his three-season run on Deadliest Warrior aired on SpikeTV. All of Baker’s blades are custom-made, designed either by himself or based off a historical design. Some of his customers are historical re-enactors and Baker attempts to match the weapon created for the re-enactor with his or her real life counterpart’s weapon.
Speaking about last year’s inaugural Combat Con, Baker said that it was a lot of fun and that the theatrical “crowd” got very involved with the historical community, leading to an exchange of information. Baker is excited by the merging of the theatrical community, the entertainment industry, Renfaire fans, and classical martial artists that goes on at Combat Con. The result, in his words, is that these related groups “come together to promote the Western Martial Art as an actual martial art as opposed to what it’s been for years with guys trying to do swashbuckling.” Not that swashbuckling doesn’t have its place, but Baker and the professionals of Combat Con would like to see more reality in depictions of Western combat, which has gradually been emerging in the last few decades.
Baker started out in Hollywood as an actor, moving behind the camera into the production-side of films after a decade pursuing roles on-screen. He now describes his primary business as being a “prop-builder and/or prop man in the entertainment industry, but I specialize in historical weapons, bladed weapons primarily. So I study them and when I’m making something, I’m making it to be used, not just for looks.” Anything else that looks good, but doesn’t have the right heft or function is a “wall hanger” in Baker’s opinion.
Baker doesn’t know of any comparable convention to Combat Con. Any similar gathering of Western martial artists usually focuses on the skill set and not on the performance aspects of the combat. “By combining the theatrical and/or entertainment industry aspects,” Combat Con “opens Western martial arts up to a much larger audience who otherwise might not see good technique,” says Baker. Baker is “always frustrated” when he sees bad sword fighting in movies, “because it just promotes more bad sword fighting and/or more myths about how ‘Oh broadswords weigh a ton!’ or ‘Oh, you can take a small sword and cut a rope with it.’ Things like that.”
One panel that Baker will be part of this year is “The Reality of Reality TV”, covering what really goes on behind the scenes on reality TV productions. He will also naturally be on a panel about the third season of Deadliest Warrior. Baker’s favorite depictions of on-screen sword fights include Tyrone Power inThe Mark of Zorro (1954) as well as Scaramouche with Stewart Granger (1952). He also enjoys the French film Le Bossu (1997) with Vincent Perez, calling the sword-fighting in it “wonderful” and “a lot of fun.”
Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment
Tom Rockwell heads Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment, based out of Santa Fe. His swords are for classical fencing, being essentially the same as modern sport fencing weapons except for the grips and the lack of electricity built into the blades. Rockwell calls it “Olympic fencing pre-electricity”. One thing that sets Rockwell’s blades apart is that they use Italian grips instead of the more commonplace French grip. For Rockwell, Combat Con is a chance to meet with customers face to face whom he has only dealt with via email, as well as a chance to make both new friends and customers in the small community of classical fencers. Rockwell explains that his customer base is “worldwide, but it’s a really shallow pond.”
One new category of product that Rockwell will be bringing are castings of smallswords. Rockwell is personally a fan of the saber, citing the heavy saber duel between Harvey Keitel’s character and Keith Carradine’s in the cellar in the middle of The Duellists as his favorite on-screen duel. Jared Kirby on the other hand favors the smallsword and prefers the opening fight in The Duellists, during which smallswords are used. Rockwell will be bringing Italian epees and for the first time will be offering true ricasso blades, in addition to the new smallswords.
Some of Rockwell’s customers are fans of steampunk or steampunkers as he refers to them, but he points to Tom Badillo and Dave Charles as classical fencers first and steampunkers secondarily. Badillo uses the walking sticks that Rockwell manufactures in his classes on Victorian Cane and 19th Century Defense Against Thugs. Famous in the steampunk community, Badillo taught and demonstrated at last year’s Combat Con and sponsored the singlestick tournament. In the world of LARPing, battle gaming, and the SCA a “stick jock” fights with a foam boffer or rattan sword and prefers combat to role-playing, but within the world of WMA, singlestick isn’t a reference to a single sword, but rather a wooden cudgel and a very historic branch of combat according to the Wikipedia entry on singlestick.
And Others: Macdonald Armouries
I did not speak to Paul Macdonald, but I definitely heard a lot about him from those I reached. Another maker of weapons, Macdonald runs Macdonald Armouries in Scotland. Tom Rockwell knows him first and foremost as a fencing master, followed by his design of weapons. Jared Kirby studied under MacDonald and speaks highly of his work in forging weapons and posseses a few MacDonald-crafted blades. Another MacDonald production was a gem-encrusted replica of the Six-Fingered Man’s sword from The Princess Bride for a fan of the film. One anecdote that Rockwell shared involved the egos that can be involved in the small world of swordplay, when I asked whether rivalries existed and if I might possibly goad sword masters into fencing one another. He related how an online exchange in the pre-Facebook era resulted in MacDonald and Rockwell’s own fencing master, John Sullins, meeting in San Francisco to settle the online dispute and crossing blades with one another.
Other Combat Con Offerings
Besides best-selling author Neal Stephenson, Las Vegas’s own Maxwell Alexander Drake will be attending. Like Stephenson, Drake attended last year and sat on a panel about writing fight scenes. As an exhibitor Drake must man his booth most of the time though he did enjoy the Highlander Tournament at the 2011 Combat Con. Drake will be previewing his comic collaboration with Jason Engle, Downfall and found the relatively small size of Combat Con to be intimate, allowing for increased fan access to professionals.
On Saturday, July 7 there will also be a Time Traveller’s Ball from 9:30 PM to midnight, featuring a costume contest. On Friday night there will be a Meet and Mingle from 7:00 to 10:30 PM. Besides those social events and all the classes, panels, and demonstrations, there will also be a number of tournaments. Registration includes admission into the Unarmored Longsword Tournament, the Armored Tournament, the Rapier and Smallsword Tournament, the Stage Combat Tournament, and the Costume Contest. There will also be actual gaming of the wargaming or role-playing variety as well. Additionally, Combat Con sent out an email reminder that a weapon-check is available and SHOULD be used because the Tuscany Suites forbids carrying weapons or wearing masks on or near the casino floor, just the sort of exciting warning that hints at how serious the attending fans will be.
Stay Tuned for More Combat Con 2012 Coverage
Having never heard of Combat Con until a few weeks ago, I was somewhat skeptical about it until I spoke to Kirby, Baker, and Rockwell and discovered their wealth of knowledge and expertise. Now I can’t wait to see how they fight in person and possibly learn a thing or two to up my game in Dagorhir or NERO LARP, both of which I have been getting into in the last two months. It is thrilling to be out of my depth and exposed to new knowledge and I hope to pass along as much as I can in the coming week or two.