LIKE ANY JEDI, Alain Bloch's first instinct is to reach for the custom silver and leather holster hanging from the belt of his purple jeans. But it's empty. Instead of being on his hip, Bloch's trusty lightsaber is three floors below at his sparse work station, resting in a stand between a potted plant and his computer screen. Stuck on the rooftop patio of his office in downtown San Francisco and forced to improvise, Bloch uses his iPhone and a half empty Bai bottle to demonstrate some of the fancy new fencing and longsword techniques that, in a few weeks, he will use to successfully defend his title as world champion of lightsaber fighting.
A software engineer by day, Bloch is seated on a large wicker lounge chair on his company's Google-chic rooftop patio a block south of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It's the middle of the afternoon on a picture-perfect summer day in the Bay and the deck is full of wincing millennials who keep temporarily blinding each other with the intense sunbeams reflected off each other's phone and laptop screens. This city is something of a Star Wars mecca, with Lucasfilms headquarters, the Skywalker Ranch and Industrial Light & Magic visual effects all based nearby.
So, remarkably, no one even bats an eye -- not even the guy wearing the salmon-colored sweatshirt that says 'ROMANCE' on the front -- when the slender and vampire-pale Bloch, 37, completely nerds out about his arm full of Star Wars Sith-language tattoos, the grapefruit-sized sparring bruise on his thigh, or how, before his dramatic, come-from-behind triumph at the 2017 World Championship of Saber Dueling in Minneapolis, he rode into the ring on an inflatable space-lizard Tauntaun to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero."
Bloch topped that performance just this past week when he became the galaxy's first two-time saber dueling world champion at CombatCon in Las Vegas. The annual tourney -- think: cosplay tag with actual judges in a carpeted banquet hall at the Flamingo hotel -- is put on by The Saber Legion, the world's largest saber-dueling organization. (The reason the sport is called 'saber combat' and not 'lightsaber, or Jedi, fighting' is because the only thing that scares these guys more than Darth Vader are Disney copyright lawyers.) Whatever the nomenclature, the sport Bloch now reigns over like LeBron James will be featured on ESPN2 Wednesday as part of the network's one-day transformation into The Ocho. (See a half-hour of Bloch brilliance here.)
"This all might seem rather silly on the surface, but for many it has a deep impact on their lives," says Bloch, who often spoke in movie-trailer narrator monologues just like this one when The Magazine tagged along for a day during his final preparations for CombatCon. "We're just an extension of the huge, weird, awesome Star Wars subculture. Some fans wear costumes to honor their heroes. Some fans do performances to indulge their childhood fantasies. We just found a way to combine it all into something that lets us kick the crap out of each other with lightsabers and make a lot of new friends as well as a lot of new bruises."
Or, what's known in the Jedi dueling universe as "Saber Hickies."
AFTER COLLECTING HIS LIGHTSABER and the rest of his gear, Bloch jumps into a dusty gray PT Cruiser and heads south on the 101 freeway all the way to Santa Clara for a sparring session. The car's AC is on the fritz, with a Glade air freshener and a tiny Ewok doll hanging from the rearview mirror. And even though Bloch has to yell over the wind and the traffic, before the Bay has even come into view on the hill above old Candlestick Park, it's already clear where he gets his flair for the dramatic.
During World War II, his Jewish grandfather was smuggled out of his German-occupied French hometown of Erstein by pretending to be a trumpet player in a jazz band forced to entertain injured German soldiers. Alain's father, Michel Bloch, a former Hidalgo-style endurance horse rider and professional photographer whose subjects included the Beatles, is also a restauranteur who owns La Crepe near UC Davis and claims to have introduced the French burrito to Northern California.
In 2003, Alain's lifelong obsession with Star Wars led him to a video game called "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" and the lead character Darth Revan, an OG-style Sith lord with a purple (clearly, Bloch's favorite color) lightsaber. That, in turn, led to a Revan Halloween costume that came with a toy lightsaber and a desire to wield it like a Jedi. Bloch took a few classes (made up mostly of kids) from an instructor in Los Altos and then, essentially, taught himself fencing and other assorted martial arts in the same way he once taught himself software programming during the six months between IT jobs. In 2011, he founded Golden Gate Knights, a social group offering instruction in saber choreography. And after several years, a handful of TV and radio appearances and some viral YouTube clips, when members of the Golden Gate Knights began "sparring" to improve their performances, Bloch realized he was rather good at it.
Around this time, Bloch was contacted by Terry Birnbaum, a Star Wars aficionado and Whole Foods manager in Minneapolis. Birnbaum had just become the new owner and CEO of The Saber Legion, a group that had put together a standard set of rules and safety regulations, based largely on fencing, for their new self-proclaimed "Nerd Sport" of saber dueling. The formula was an immediate hit -- the TSL tournament doubled in size in three years -- providing legions of Jedi-wannabes with an athletic and competitive outlet for their Star Wars obsession.
But because the fantasy physics of lightsabers remains up for debate, TSL's rules are, like the galaxy, ever expanding. (For example, if you accidentally mention to this group that Qui-Gon Jinn's lightsaber had so much trouble with that steel door in "The Phantom Menace", just turn off your phone and cancel your plans for the rest of the day.) For the most part, though, lightsabers used in combat are typically 55 inches long, with polycarbonate blades and price tags anywhere from $60 to $6,000.
Championship-level matches are best of three rounds (five minutes each), first touch scores (double hits cancel each other out) and first to 10 points, or whomever is ahead when time expires, wins the round. There are up to three line judges and a center judge who has the final say.
The sabers won't break bones -- or chop any hands off -- but they leave some nasty welts. So full body protection is required, including a regulation fencing mask and gorget (neck guard) capable of withstanding at least 450 Newtons of force. Yes, even saber dueling's rules are kind of admittedly dweeby. "We use the terms 'nerd' and 'nerd sport' but definitely in a proud way," says Bloch. "We're geeks and nerds but not in the stereotypical way that we're not athletic or uncoordinated."
In 2015, as the West Coast's most accomplished Jedi dueler, Bloch was invited to form the NorCal charter of TSL, which now has thousands of Facebook members and hundreds of active fighters. Bloch then competed in TSL1 but flamed out -- he blames his poor performance on sleep deprivation caused by a hotel roommate who snored "like a bear."
Last year, after getting upset early, he fought through the consolation bracket with such honor and panache, Birnbaum awarded him a shot at Steve Mattsen, a regionally ranked long swordsman and the undefeated, reigning TSL world champ. Bloch lost the first round on time and won the second on points. By the third, all his years of choreography (and the scouting expertise of renowned Santa Clara swordsman Steaphen Fick) began to pay off when Bloch finally started to clue in on Mattsen's tells. On the attack, the former champ would overcommit, and, with all his weight on his front foot, Bloch could easily parry, pivot to the side and use a series of what's known in the sword arts as Meyer's Master Cuts to go full polycarbonate Vader on his ass. "That third round was beautiful to behold," says Bloch who speaks in the almost comically theatric but completely earnest tone of an actual Jedi Knight. "It was a Zen-like experience, something the Samurai call 'no mind.'"
As time expired, Mattsen ended with a furious flourish that brought the crowd to its feet and the challenger to his knees, but it was too late: Bloch was the new world champion. It was his first athletic accomplishment since winning the 113-pound weight class of the junior varsity wrestling tournament at Casa Robles High School, near Sacramento.
At this year's TSL tournament in Vegas, which just ended on Aug. 5, most of the drama came in the earlygoing. Mattsen suffered a quick upset loss, and in the third round, Bloch was pushed to sudden-death by a woman from Minnesota. Bloch then outlasted Charley Cummings for his second straight title, which he then dedicated to friend and original Golden Gate Knight, Michael Shannon. An amazing saber fighter and a beloved English professor at Contra Costa College, Shannon died in December after a 14-month battle with cancer before ever getting to experience the kind of fulfillment Bloch, and many others, have found fighting in the TSL.
"A lot of us were bullied in high school," says Bloch. "What The Saber Legion offers people is a unique opportunity to regain that sense of confidence in their physicality and ability to fight and defend themselves -- to compete and to take a hit and admire that bruise and cherish it as a mark of the courage they might have never known they had."
AFTER BATTLING 101 TRAFFIC for an hour, Bloch pulls the PT Cruiser behind a ramshackle business park off De La Cruz Avenue in Santa Clara that is home to DEMAS, the Davenriche European Martial Artes School. (Only, in the official logo all the 'ls' are cool swords.)
Housed in a space that looks a bit like a Renaissance Fair Jiffy Lube, the school is decorated with a hodgepodge of posters, books, flags, Puss in Boots dolls, Bloch's TSL title belt and every medieval type of weapon imaginable collected during Fick's 30 years of sword fighting across the globe. While Bloch changes, Fick serves his guests water in pewter goblets while leafing through a sword-fighting manual from the year 1409, excusing himself for a moment to show a student in the crowded longsword class the proper way to slit someone's throat on the battlefield.
A moment later, the barely 150-pound Bloch saunters up looking like Prince stuck between a medieval and outer-space phase: His Doc Martens boots have been replaced by black fencing shoes, custom shiny black plastic leg and hand armor, purple leather-studded gorget, puffy black padded gambeson and an Olympic-style fencing mask. His lightsaber blade doesn't materialize in a molten column like in the movies. He screws it into the handle with an Allen wrench.
Bloch's sparring partners are dressed the same way: simultaneously absurd and, well, kind of awesome. There's an elite TSL fighter who works at Apple wearing a kilt, a college professor in baseball catcher's equipment howling like a swashbuckling Errol Flynn, a homeschool mom wearing what looks like long, purple rose-pruning gloves and an ex-marine in a Five Finger Death Punch T-shirt sporting red lacrosse equipment and a boxer's bulky girdle and oversized cup.
When the action starts, though, something crazy happens -- the dueling is actually legit, especially Bloch's athletic bursts. He has the lithe feet of a ballroom dancer, the killer instinct of a middle linebacker and a preternatural feel for the two keys in fencing, timing and distance. Early on, a split-second after Death Punch guy telegraphs a big, low swing by dipping his front shoulder, Bloch jumps over his saber, taps him gently on the top of his mask, hovers there for a split second and then floats back to the painted concrete floor like a purple goose feather.
The group carries on like this for almost 90 minutes. They call their own fouls, help each other off the ground and, after the first 15 minutes, they're all sweaty, red-faced and gasping for air. To be honest, they don't look any different than a typical bunch of pear-shaped weekend warriors chopping it up on the pick-up hoops courts at the Y. The only disparity? The Jedis break when an offhanded comment about the proper uniform color of the Jedi guard sends the group down a wormhole on Star Wars canon that is so spectacularly detailed and dorky it seems to bend time.
"Ultimately, we're all geeks," says Fick, whose face is an intricate road map of sword scars. "Not just in here, everywhere. Just depends what you geek out on. Some people geek out on swords or Star Wars or basketball or fantasy football. We just take away the football and add more fantasy."
After a full sparring session and an impromptu lesson on the famous Obi-Wan versus Anakin lightsaber flourish from "Revenge of the Sith," it's well past 9 p.m. by the time Bloch, soaked in sweat, exits the Davenriche School. Inside, there are still 20 longsword students swinging wildly on the main floor. Out back, next to the Cruiser, under a darkening sky, a man who identifies himself as a fantasy author is waiting for his pirate-fighting class to start, sitting on a bleacher smoking a cig, lovingly stroking his giant, shiny cutlass sword.
HALFWAY BACK TO San Francisco, the gas light in the Cruiser goes off and Bloch pulls into a Chevron station for petrol and Muscle Milk. Between gulps he tries to imagine what could be next, or better, than a second TSL title. "To be a part of a Star Wars movie would be a dream, an amazing capstone to my Jedi career, if that's what you'd call what I'm doing," he says. "But that's not the real goal. The point is the camaraderie and the inspiration I've gotten from being able to indulge in my childhood fantasies as a way to help me become the kind of person I've always wanted to be. When I started with The Saber Legion I thought, it can't get any better than this. But it does and it just keeps getting bigger and better and more important to me."
A few minutes later, as the San Francisco skyline comes back into sight, everyone in the car takes a second to name their favorite Star Wars movie. Bloch begins his turn just after passing the Cesar Chavez Street exit. Nine minutes later, while barely pausing to breathe, he's still praising the iconic "I am your father" lightsaber duel scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" when the car screeches to a halt near the hopelessly jammed Union Square.
Trapped by red brake lights and a street saxophonist repeating the same eight opening bars to Wham's "Careless Whisper," Bloch's passenger offers to jump out and navigate the traffic on foot the rest of the way to his hotel. Without missing a beat, Bloch offers his hand, unlocks the car doors and says, sincerely, "May the force be with you."
And before the words have even left his mouth, the traffic magically parts, and Bloch disappears, far, far away into the darkness.