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Twin Cities lightsaber group attracts thousands of members

Two Saber Legion fighters duel on August 4, 2018 at their national tournament in Las Vegas. Saber Legion is headquartered in Maple Grove and has grown from four members to 6,000 globally. Courtesy of Terry Birnbaum / Photographer: Amanda Jaczkowski

ST. PAUL — In the foothills of Tennessee's Appalachian mountains, a young Terry Birnbaum waved a stick back and forth, making distinct "womp" sounds to coincide with each wave. He couldn't have the "Star Wars" lightsaber he'd seen so many times in the movies, but he made do.

Birnbaum, 33, is now co-owner and president of the Saber Legion, a Minnesota organization that combines flashlights that resemble the iconic sci-fi weapons of pure energy with sword arts. To avoid the lawyers of the movie companies, they call the devices LED sabers.

"We're basically the (mixed martial arts) of custom LED sabers," Birnbaum said. "We're a fighting league."

Every Sunday evening at USA Karate in Maple Grove, dozens of Saber Legion members gather for sparring and socializing. A padded mat dominates the room; no shoes allowed.

On the mat, two members, clad in padding from head to toe, are engaged in battle. The "Star Wars" soundtrack plays in the background. Their footwork is elegant. Their sabers are bright.

It was about four years ago that Birnbaum and three friends began meeting in his Robbinsdale back yard to "mess around with lightsabers."

They were all diehard "Star Wars" fans. Birnbaum said the lightsaber — the Jedi's weapon of choice — was most of what made the movie franchise so awesome in his eyes as a child.

Part of the legion's appeal, Birnbaum said, is drawing people to the unconventional. He says embracing the nerd culture has been central to the group's identity from the start.

"Of course, we're always going to be the group people look at and laugh but, to be honest, wouldn't you?" he said.

Birnbaum, a meat-and-seafood team leader at Whole Foods Market, now lives in Brooklyn Park and has expanded the organization to more than 6,000 members globally.

Birnbaum said he plastered the group across Facebook to get the word out, eventually connecting with saber enthusiasts from around the country. Minnesota is the global headquarters, where the charter has more than 60 fully-geared fighters, 20 to 30 of whom are regulars, and more than 280 members in total. There are 42 charters across the globe, including operations in Canada and the United Kingdom.

How they fight

Co-founder Charley Cummings, 46, of Minneapolis is confident in the organization's pedigree.

"I frequently say we're not the first group to try this, but we're certainly the most successful," Cummings said. "No one has really done what we do the way that we do it."

And what they do is simple.

"Basically, any martial discipline or sport that either has a stick or a blade, all you have to do is substitute that with an expensive flashlight and you've got what we do," Cummings said.

Such disciplines include Japanese kendo, Filipino eskrima and European Renaissance practices. Most fighters have legitimate martial arts experience.

The rules are straightforward. Hits to the groin, throat and back of the head are outlawed, as are stabs to the stomach. Each strike to anywhere else on the body is worth a point; the winner is the first to get 10 points or whoever leads after five minutes.

The Saber Legion is not a school. It's an outlet to fight.

"We allow people the freedom to really fight without having to hold back," Birnbaum said.

Who plays

While the motivation for the legion has always been about dueling with lightsabers, Birnbaum and Cummings agreed that developing an inviting atmosphere was just as important.

"A lot of us grew up getting picked on, so we wanted to be sure this is an environment where there's no bullying," Cummings said.

That's why members are required to sign a code of conduct, which encourages people to check their egos at the door. That expectation gives way to a supportive environment, said Ryan Kappes, 26, of Mendota Heights.

"It's really a family here," Kappes said.

Kappes spends his days with sharks and jellyfish as an aquarist at the Mall of America's Sea Life Aquarium, but even he needed an extra hit of adrenaline. Birnbaum and Cummings both pointed to Kappes as one of the most talented duelers they have, calling him their "first TSL star."

Kappes was appreciative of their praise but said the camaraderie is what puts the biggest smile on his face.

Without 30-year-old Oakdale native Shameem Moshrefzadeh, the organization would be a much different place. Moshrefzadeh abstains from dueling, instead building and repairing sabers full time.

"It's basically a nerd's dream," he said.

Moshrefzadeh also has more than 23,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he posts commentary videos about custom sabers as well as videos featuring his own craftsmanship.

"It's mind-boggling because I'm just a guy in my basement," he said. "It's a strange thing."

Friday night lights?

Birnbaum would like to see saber fighting rise to a level where people can tune in on Friday nights to follow their favorite duelers, and he wants to give more kids the opportunity to pursue saber fighting.

"I think this is the coolest thing ever to see people fighting with this psychotic weapon," he said.

The sport hasn't reached that level yet, but it's moving in that direction. In early August, the legion drew more than 50 saber-wielders and a couple of hundred spectators to its national tournament in Las Vegas. Similar events are scheduled in Columbus, Ohio; Orlando; and Los Angeles. On Aug. 8, legion duelers were featured on ESPN for a day of special coverage.

Birnbaum remains confident in the organization's trajectory, despite critics' dismissal of the sport as nerdy.

"(To the) people who want to criticize what we're doing I say one thing: Come and try it," he said.