How the Star Wars fandom turned an iconic weapon into competitive sport
These athletes use lightsabers — only you can't call them that.
Charley Cummings’ LED lightsaber is not a collector’s item.
When he purchased the polycarbonate replica, there was no way the weapon was going to sit on a shelf. Instead, it became what he now calls his “gateway drug” to the sport of LED Saber Combat.
Cummings has always loved Star Wars and has a sports background, including some college lacrosse and martial arts. But owning a lightsaber — that was a brand new world. He found himself practicing in the privacy of his home. Finally, he decided to showcase his skills publicly.
In 2016, Cummings busted out his old lacrosse gear and headed to his first Star Wars-themed sporting meetup in Minnesota. It was a local meetup for The Saber Legion, a community of Star Wars fans who have created a sport based on lightsaber battles. (Disney owns the term “lightsaber,” so The Saber Legion settled with “LED saber combat.”)
Five years after his first meetup, Cummings is now the majority owner of The Saber Legion, which has chapters in 11 countries and 48 states. Many practice sessions and ibuprofen pills later (even a polycarbonate saber can leave a mark), he’s appeared at the highest level of LED saber combat. He even has a move, “the charley,” named after him.
Cummings tells Inverse the sport gives him something that messing around with a LED saber in his bedroom couldn’t.
If learning to wield a lightsaber is one of the most thrilling accomplishments in the Star Wars universe, learning to compete with an LED saber comes tantalizingly close. LED saber fighting lets players experience bruises, sweat, and tears — just like actual Star Wars characters. The result is a deeper connection to the fandom that can’t be achieved in a movie theater.
“Even though we have that sense of disbelief or imagination, it still takes hard work. It still takes conditioning to be able to do it,” says Cummings. “It ties us with a world or a universe that we love. It puts you in that next realm, and it allows you to play a little bit more.”
What makes LED saber combat a sport?
LED saber combat enthusiasts are quick to mention the sport is more athletic than it seems. Cardio serves as a fighter’s foundational skill, and newbies who get winded often find their technique won’t hold up against a prolonged attack.
Base fitness aside, LED saber combat is a hyper-specific blending of fantasy and sports. In Star Wars canon, there are seven basic forms of combat style, not to mention spinoffs and other techniques.
“All you’ve got to do is substitute in an expensive flashlight.”
LED saber combat draws some inspiration from the movies but is also influenced by kendo, a Japanese martial art designed to “mold the mind and body” through “correct and rigid training” and the European-centric discipline called Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). HEMA groups mine historical texts for evidence of ancient European fighting techniques and reconstruct those disciplines.
LED saber is intended to be “the MMA of saber sports,” says Cummings. It combines those two styles, as well as many different martial arts and combat sports, into something new.
“We’re basically just a platform,” Cummings explains. “People can take the knowledge they have from elsewhere. All you’ve got to do is substitute in an expensive flashlight.”
The result is a sport that unfolds in bursts. Fighters often circle one another, and attacks come so quick it’s hard to tell who is actually struck (that’s what judges are there for). The drama stops after each hit, allowing the judges to award points (the first to 10 wins the bout). These moments create especially intense fights, even if they don’t exactly look like the elegant flowing battle scenes seen in the movies.
Naturally, it’s impossible to actually mimic what a lightsaber battle in the movies looks like. That’s partially a materials problem. LED saber combat fighters settle for polycarbonate blades as opposed to plasma-based ones. And polycarbonate blades slip off of one another, making the push and pull tension of two warriors locked together impossible to achieve.
Still, The Saber Legion is trying to refine the style of their sport to be a better reflection of the drama of on-screen saber battles. To better mimic the style of on-screen battles, the group unveiled a new ruleset in 2019 in an effort to strike a different balance between sport and fantasy.
The Unity ruleset includes changes that, as Cummings puts it, “adds that theatrical flair.” Players are encouraged to bring the saber back above their heads after a hit, and unlike the traditional rules of saber combat, the match flows non-stop. Players are also allowed to fight with background music.
“The flow is totally different,” says Cummings. “It takes incredible cardio to continuously fight/strike/block without stopping for two to three rounds at two-plus minutes apiece.”
The Michael Jordan of LED saber combat
Alain Bloch has already been crowned the Lebron James of LED saber combat by ESPN for having the “lithe feet of a ballroom dancer, the killer instinct of a middle linebacker, and preternatural feel for the two keys in fencing, timing, and distance.”
It’s only fitting he earn the Michael Jordan title as well. Cummings also notes that Bloch is a paragon of the sport for his uncommon speed and skill. But he isn't unbeatable.
In 2019, he fell to newcomer Jimmy Sourile, a fighter who trained with the same group in Minnesota that sparked Cummings’ career.
Sourile was described by The Star Tribune as “Minnesota’s Luke Skywalker.” His battle with Bloch for the 2019 Championship is referred to as “legendary” by The Saber Legion’s Facebook page. (It also has a respectable 968,501 views as of this writing on YouTube.) Sourile landed multiple headshots on the reigning champion and forced the first round of fighting to sudden death overtime — giving him an advantage that helped him secure the crown.
What sets Bloch, Sourile, and other high-performing members of the championship circuit apart is that they train like real athletes. “They take the sport seriously,” Cummings says.
The spirit of LED saber combat
Sports inspired by fantasy worlds, like Harry Potter-inspired muggle quidditch or LED saber combat, certainly draw players closer to the fandom. A love for Star Wars, admittedly, is what might attract most people to LED Saber fighting. Still, Cummings is adamant that LED saber combat is “a sport first.”
To be fair, you don’t find yourself wielding an LED lightsaber unless you’ve got a certain flair for imagination. Some players dress as Star Wars characters, while others dress as characters from other fandoms. (Cummings’ wife has a Powerpuff Girls-inspired helmet.)
But some, including Cummings, don’t dress as characters at all. Sometimes, imagination is enough. The drama of the moment makes everything real.
In 2016, Cummings felt that spark ignite during his first competition in Kansas City. Instead of the Force, he felt a surge of competitive energy. He wasn’t playing with an LED lightsaber, he was competing with one.
“The freedom of being able to do that is so freeing and so amazingly gratifying.”
The rules of play-acting were gone, and in a safe, armored, and controlled fight, he was allowed to go after his opponent the same way a Jedi warrior might. “I became a hyper-serious fighter that I didn’t know I had in me,” he says.
The fantasy may be the force that drew Cummings and thousands of members of The Saber Legion in. But it’s the competition — and evolving discipline of the sport — that keeps people coming back.
“Everybody that's a fan of Star Wars has, at one time, picked up a paper towel tube or an empty wrapping paper tube and played like they were fighting with a lightsaber,” Cummings says. “The freedom of being able to actually do that with somebody knowing they are completely and safely armored is so freeing and so amazingly gratifying.”
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