"Why are cowboys cooler than knights?" Gary Kuchan asks himself, cradling the plastic pint of beer he's just picked up at a Honda Center concession stand. "Knights got their fair share of tail, don't get me wrong, but not like a cowboy."
Over ten thousand spectators clad in Wranglers and Stetsons like Kuchan found themselves at the Professional Bull Riders' (PBR) Anaheim Invitational last Saturday night pondering the difference, if there is one, between growing up wanting to be King Arthur and growing up wanting to be John Wayne. When the succession of scrappy men clinging to bucking bulls broke for intermission, two mounted knights in 85-pound suits of armor trotted out to demonstrate what some tout as the Next Big Thing in extreme sports: full-contact jousting.
"You wanna see two Canadians beat the living snot out of each other for your entertainment pleasure?" snarls former World Championship Jousting Association president Shane Adams, the burly, pony-tailed host of History's new reality show, Full Metal Jousting, which premieres Feb. 12. His friend Tim Tobey (aka Sir Timothy of Shrewsbury) and Tobey's 20-year-old son Aaron (aka Sir Lawrence of Essex) ease into position on their steeds, raise their 11-foot wooden lances and prepare to charge each other at 25 mph.
"Everybody wants to see someone get injured," PBR Arena crew member Seth Skurja says.
Adams accompanied PBR on the first two stops of their 2012 tour, in New York and L.A., in the hopes that people who like seeing a man thrown from a bull will also enjoy seeing a man thrown from a horse. Kuchan, for one, tentatively agreed to check out the new show, but "people gotta get blown on their ass," he said, for it to be worthwhile.
Adams got his start in performance jousting, the staged events popular at Renaissance Fairs and medieval festivals, but soon lost interest in the artifice and began organizing competitive tournaments, urged on by like-minded enthusiasts who connected over Internet forums and together plotted to convert jousting from nostalgic fantasy into grisly reality.
"Most people choose that cowboy route, [but] I am not the only weirdo out there that had that childhood dream of growing up and wanting to be a knight, to be that true mounted warrior on horseback," Adams says.
For fifteen years a small but devoted crew of fewer than a hundred North American jousters tinkered with the modern sport to better emulate its medieval predecessor. Ever the eager guinea pig, Adams once jousted with a bone sticking out of his thumb because the lances they originally designed didn't have proper van plates to brace the hand from the full impact of a hit. Contestants on Full Metal Jousting will have a considerable safety advantage over jousters of both the near and distant pasts, however, fortified beneath modernized steel armor with closed cell foam, tensor bandages, mouthpieces, compression vests and flak jackets.
Adams' childhood dream caught its big break when Dashka Slater published "Is Jousting the Next Extreme Sport?" in the New York Times Magazine on Jul. 8, 2010, featuring Adams and fellow jousting champion Chris Andrews as the passionate harbingers of the struggling but potentially lucrative love-child of Medieval Times and Ultimate Fighting Championship. As a result, over 50 production companies came a 'calling.
To maximize their television exposure, Adams and Andrews star in separate shows. Andrews landed a five-part National Geographic special that debuted last November, documenting his jousting troupe, Knights of Mayhem.
Instead of focusing on the activities of his own troupe, Knights of Valour, Adams' show Full Metal Jousting trains 16 aspiring amateur jousters, most of whom are experienced equestrians or have performed on the Renaissance Fair circuit, to compete against each other. The last man standing will take home $100,000, a much larger purse than Adams or Andrews ever managed at the tournaments they helped popularize.
Despite the inherent theatrics of two men in $10,000 metal costumes knocking each other off horseback like it's 1299, Adams now scorns phony dinner shows and insists he is an athlete, "not a Renaissance Fair actor."
Adams and Andrews envision pay-per-view contests, national tours and high school jousting leagues within the next decade and are using these reality shows to legitimize their chosen sport with audiences across America, which is a little funny considering widespread cynicism about the genre's murky relationship with authenticity. Indeed, it was difficult for many of the boots-wearing, beer-swilling, bull-riding fans to accept that the jousting demonstration between Tim and Aaron Tobey was, in fact, a competition and not a performance.
On the first three passes, as each attempt to approach and unhorse your opponent is called, father and son jabbed at the gridded grand guard on each other's chest plates and splintered a lance, accruing minor points but leaving the crowd's bloodlust unsatisfied.
On the final pass, Aaron Tobey struck his father squarely in the chest, causing Tim to jolt back a bit on his horse and lose his balance. He remained upright for a few seconds after the hit but then slumped slowly to the right, hanging off the horse at a 30 degree angle for a full second before gingerly crashing to the ground, shoulders first.
"They were basically kowtowing or appeasing the crowd at that point," says audience member Doug Douthit of Seal Beach, CA. "It was the last round; somebody had to fall. Our belief is it was WWF," he said, referring to the notoriously fake wrestling league.
Matt Rubino, 26, a spectator from Norco, agreed the jousting was "a little too dramatic," and asserted that bull-riding (cowboys) is ten times cooler than jousting (knights), as did numerous other fans at the Honda Center. Somehow, only violence can give viewers the satisfaction of having seen something real, but that sense of verisimilitude can evaporate with even a whiff of staging.
Douthit and his friend, Reggie Abbott say the trailer for Full Metal Jousting, shown just before the abbreviated bout, looked exciting, but neither could shake the overwhelming impression that Tobey had fallen for the crowd's benefit, that full-contact jousting is merely an elaborate historical reenactment meant for gamers who like to dress-up and pretend we never left the Dark Ages, not real-man cowboys like themselves.
"There was no truth in the end," Douthit muses. "It's a battle. It's a battle! And this was a show."
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