Donavon Phillips took a deep breath before starting the final round of the 2019 World Championship.
He had been there before. Twelve times to be exact, but he had never finished first. He finished second seven times, but had never been crowned champion. He was the last competitor of the day and he knew he had to have a good run to beat the current frontrunner, Dan Keffeler.
“I didn't think I had a chance of beating him,” Phillips said. “He ran a smooth and accurate course. My only hope was to be just as accurate but a little faster.”
Tall and bearded with a massive blade—more machete than knife—in his hand, Phillips rolled his neck and looked down at the 2x4 in front of him. He raised his blade high and began to just wallop the bejesus out of the chunk of wood. It took him less than eight seconds. He followed that up by chopping (in this order) a thick-as-hell rope, candles and wicks, a rolling tennis ball, a rolling golf ball, a hanging piece of paper, two water bottles, a stationary golf ball, a broomstick, two more chunks of thick rope, and another 2x4.
Above: The very start of Phillips run. All gifs and photos provided by Donovan Phillips.
All in all, it took him just over a minute. At the end of it the crowd went wild for Phillips. And, for the first time in over a decade, our man was declared Bladesports World Champion and given the honourary belt buckle.
Now, unless you’re really into knives, odds are the prior sentence was the first time you’ve ever heard about Bladesports—but you may have seen it before. Every now and then the videos, unsurprisingly, go lowkey viral. The virality is understandable as it’s typically big burly men going to town on a relatively goofy obstacle course with a giant knife as fans cheer them on. This spectacle, paired with the booming success of Forged in Fire means Bladesports is growing, with over 80 competitors this year. Hell, they're having so fun this year's national champion was even invited on Jimmy Kimmel to do some choppin'.
Bladesports has a ranking system, events at blade shows across the country, and hotly contested national/world competitions. It’s even starting to grow international with an (unsanctioned) competition being held in Vietnam not too long ago. Bladesports is, for lack of a better term, a real sport.
Phillips, a competitor in Bladesports since 2006 and also the executive director of the league, says the sport has roots in the lengthy history of bladesmithing and takes its cues from how forgers would test their blades. In 1976, the American Bladesmith Society (ABS) was founded and this group implicated a ranking system for their forgers. In order to receive the master ranking, the smith had to go through a test.
“It was starting from their tournaments at the master-smith test,” Phillips said. “In those tests, you have to cut through a 2x4 and rope real quick. Of course, you had guys saying, 'my knife can cut through a 2x4 faster than yours' and others saying 'prove it.'"
So they did try to prove it and the ABS decided to make a competition out of it. This went on for 20 years or so, said Phillips, and eventually made their way to blade shows which is where they were first shown to audiences. People would travel from all over to compete. However, in 2006 tragedy struck, and the ABS decided it didn’t want these competitions anymore.
Not wanting to see this wondrous thing die, a group of knife fans stepped in under the name Bladesports Inc. to carry it on. They made rules such as blade length and rid the previous competition of its previous ragtag nature. Over time they’ve added their own spin on things, the rolling tennis balls, for example, but the heart and soul of the initial master tests are still there.
They’ve also introduced a woman's division. Nicole Warden, the current Bladesports World Women's Champion, said that she and her husband, who is also a competitor, built a Bladesports simulator in their backyard so they can train.
“We have these tables in our backyard that I can practice on. I can attach like a 2x4 or 1x4 and cut through that, and [an area] I can practice cutting the rope,” Warden said. “It even has, the little things with the golf and tennis balls that will come out and a flat area for some water bottles so I can practice cutting through those.”
Warden, who won alongside Phillips this year, said that everyone who takes part are friends but they’re there to win. Warden said before the match she walks around listening to the Hamilton soundtrack to pump herself up.
Knives are, obviously, of the utmost importance to a Bladesports competitor. A lot of the athletes make their own knives or have sponsors do it for them. Some of these sponsors are knife companies who sell the product, meaning, similar to hockey sticks, fans can buy a particular type of knife used by their favourite competitor. And if you don’t have a knife and want to compete, don’t stress, they’ll happily lend one to you.
For both Warden and Phillips though, competing in Bladesports isn’t about the championships or beating the ever-loving hell out of chunks of wood, but the friends they make. Both said some of their best friends are involved in Bladesports and seeing them at the events before choppin’ some shit is wonderful. As Warden puts it, the “friends that you make throwing down the blade” are unlike any others.
All that said, they’re choppin’ for a reason. They’re choppin’ to win.
At the end of the day, it’s a competition. Whether you’re Warden, training in your backyard and listening to Hamilton to pump yourself up, or Phillips, spending twelve years being ever so close to the world title, it’s all about that belt buckle.
“When my name was called as 2019 World Champion, I was overwhelmed with relief,” Phillips said. “This seemingly unattainable thing was now mine.”
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