Bringing Nerdy Back: Intergalactic Warfare at UCI

Gloves on. Lightsaber ready. It’s time to duel.

It’s like a scene straight from the movies: Nearly two dozen students gather in front of UC Irvine’s Langson Library, locked in battle. It’s almost 10 p.m. and curious passers-by stop to watch. Red lightsabers clash with white, blue with green. Just a couple of hours earlier, weary students crossed the area heading to their night classes; now the space belongs to young Padawan and Jedi-in-training. A one-on-one battle near the flagpoles turns into a four-person fight. “2v2!” one of the fighters cries, indicating a two-versus-two battle. The four circle around each other, looking for an opening to strike. What seems like an endless stare-down ends with a quick lunge and whack! A saber falls to the ground. Nearby, two people engage in an elaborate exchange full of twirls and hits. Another pair is in the middle of a lesson on blocking.

Among the organized chaos of the night, Jason Weber observes in silence. As the instigator for Lightsaber Training at UCI, he is in high demand as an opponent and instructor and is an active member of the club even though he no longer leads it.

“This is actually quite a large turnout,” Weber muses, looking around. He examines a new cut on his left index finger from his latest fight.

Two UCI students began an epic duel that would start an inter-campus phenomenon not too long ago, in a galaxy not so far away. Weber, a third-year English major, and his friend Kenton Wong began meeting at the flagpoles to fight in February 2008, two months after Weber got his first lightsaber. Their extravagant dueling style attracted the attention of several interested students and by May, a group of 12 began gathering regularly to train with a set of lightsabers ordered from UltraSabers.com.

An August outing to the Irvine Spectrum Center for the midnight showing of “Star Wars: Clone Wars” recruited new members from other college campuses.

As the membership grew, Jason and Kenton created lesson plans to introduce and teach the different forms and techniques from George Lucas’s fictional saga, setting the group apart from other campus swordplay.

“Whether it be from the books or the movies, the forms that we use are completely based off of the Star Wars universe,” Jason said. “We did an extensive amount of research and then adapted all of that for real-life play.”

The club attracts a variety of people, some with martial arts training and some without. But regardless of experience or the number of times you’ve seen the films, none of it guarantees you’ll win every battle. In fact, not all members of the club are Star Wars enthusiasts.

“To tell you the truth, I never really was a Star Wars fan. I’ve always been a Star Trek person,” said Kelly Mayfield, a second-year studio art student and member of the club’s new leadership council. “How scandalous, I know.”

In Nick Jamilla’s “Sword Fighting in the Star Wars Universe: Historical Origins, Style and Philosophy,” he addresses the symbolism of the lightsaber, concluding that Lucas’ creation of the weapon represents “the way men and women looked at life and death, peace and war.” Lightsaber fighting is more than just a series of aggressive attacks; it is a style of art that does not limit itself only to Star Wars fans.

Groups including the New York Jedi and L.A. Jedi hold weekly meetings in public parks at night to battle, though their fights are more choreographed than the UCI groups. Similar to the campus club, however, is the emphasis on technique and fighting as an art, rather than a focus on the films themselves. Onlookers have often mistaken members to be part of a Star Wars Club, but it’s not what any of the groups are about.

Both New York Jedi and L.A. Jedi plan demonstrations and shows and make appearances at various conventions to perform, but the UCI group does not choreograph fights and has no plans to do so. “We focus much more on technique than on flashiness,” Weber acknowledges. Lightsaber Training at UCI is more about engaging in combat, not about copying moves straight from the films.

“I’d rather two people had a close, fun match than a cool-looking, poorly fought one,” Weber said.

Weber also recognizes that their club, which is an informal and unofficial campus club, is essentially a group of friends meeting together to have fun.

“We’re really easygoing,” Kelly agrees. “Plus, you get to play with glowing sticks, man. What isn’t awesome about that?”

Lightsaber Training meets twice a week, every Wednesday and Saturday nights at 9:15 p.m., and allows members to request free, private training sessions. As the organization grew, formal rules were constructed as a way of minimizing injuries. Points are scored when your opponent’s lightsaber hits anywhere on your body, with the exception of hands, wrists and feet. The club has no required safety gear, and it is up to members to choose how to protect themselves. Gloves are common and some fight with eye protection, but mandatory gear is an often-debated subject.

The goal of lightsabers is not about rushing in and trying to score points.

“You need to really think about what you’re doing or you’re just going to get beat,” Weber said.

Nearly a year of dueling and the accompanying injuries have forced him to learn from his mistakes and to constantly work at getting better. He shows off various bruises and scars, some of which are permanent, and looks forward to the day he can tell his kids the stories behind each injury.

The club’s safety waivers are fair warning enough and members show up to meetings aware of the risks, adding to the group’s already unique dynamic. Although injuries are unavoidable in the type of play the group engages in, it is important for each member to fight with respect.

Injury stories range from small cuts and bruises to larger ones requiring stitches and even a missing tooth, albeit from a first-time visitor.

Not all injuries result in unfortunate circumstances and some members speak fondly of incidences. An epic two-versus-one battle one Wednesday night against Kelly and another student remains a favorite memory for Joon Hur, a member from Orange Coast College, and one he describes with pride as “a cocky moment that will go down in saber history.”

After taking down the other member, Joon decided his best course of action would be to tag Kelly from behind.

“I didn’t realize that the flagpole was right next to me,” Joon admits. “In a moment of awesome stupidity I ran, leapt into the air and slammed my knee and chest into the pole.” He fell to the ground, striking his other knee against the cement.

But one moment doesn’t stop Joon from returning every week. “It could’ve been worse. I don’t know how,” he smiles, “but it could.”

A rainy night draws less than a dozen members. Behind them, Jason slides back and forth on the cobblestone, green lightsaber in hand. When asked if the rain makes the activity more fun or more dangerous, he laughs with a hint of mischief in his eyes. “Are the two mutually exclusive? Because it—”

“Hey Jason!”

It’s another invitation to fight.