"Some clowns juggle, but most jugglers are not clowns."
So says Jason Garfield, founder of the World Juggling Federation and impresario of the sport of "Combat Juggling," a combination of dodgeball, tag, juggling and blunt-force assault. Per Garfield — a Seattle resident and performer who's kind of a juggling professor-slash-standup comedian; see some of his entertaining riffs here — "Combat" games have been a part of the juggling community for years, and his launch of Major League Combat in 2010, after what he says was three years of planning and preparation, turned the pastime into a formal sport.
The basic goal of MLC is simple enough: try to prevent your opponent from juggling (by knocking down their clubs) while maintaining control of your own three-club juggle. In other words, the last juggler standing wins. There are several strategies used to accomplish this, but players typically toss one of their clubs high in the air to give themselves an opening for an attack.
A competitor is out when they stop juggling, when one of their clubs hits the floor, or when one or more of their clubs is stolen by another competitor. Light bumping and arm-to-arm altercations are permitted. This is COMBAT!
Major League Combat has held tournaments in Brooklyn, Las Vegas, and Quebec, among other places, and Garfield says he's aware of 50 or so regular players on ten different teams. (The highlights in this post come from the Vegas tournament, which ESPN shot for online streaming.) Each tournament can feature a few different varieties of combat games. Here are our favorites:
Competitors face off inside a 12-foot circle. Players try to use their body to push an opponent out; they must keep at least one foot inside the circle while maintaining control of their juggle.
The goal is to do more 360-degree spins than your opponent in the span of 60 seconds. The trick is to figure out when to spin and when to attack.
The goofy name belies some clever rules — there's potential for serious strategizing here. When a player loses a club in this game, he can remain in the game, but he is now frozen as a "zombie." There a few levels of zombiehood:
Zombie — A player that maintains control over two clubs. Zombies cannot move, but can use the clubs in his hands to attack any opponents who pass by. A zombie can be reactivated if one of his teammates throws him a club and the zombie begins a three-club juggle. This move turns a zombie into an active player and an active player into a zombie.
Paralyzed Zombies — A player that maintains control of only one club. Paralyzed zombies cannot move or attack. However, a paralyzed zombie can be upgraded into a zombie, if a teammate throws him a club.
Decapitated Zombie — A player that loses control of all three clubs. Decapitated zombies must exit the playing area and take their clubs.
A team loses when all of its members are paralyzed zombies or decapitated zombies. Knicks fans know what that's all about. So does this guy:
Watch out for that guy!
Garfield says that in addition to trying to win over skeptics who assume that the idea of athletic juggling is a joke, he also fights traditionalists within the juggling community who believe Combat undermines the nature of juggling by making it a competition. He thinks anyone who finds juggling uncompetitive is kidding themselves: "It's hard not to be competitive in juggling. You want to be recognized. The reason [jugglers] work so hard is they want to show off."
He is also skeptical of reporters (me) who tell him that they can juggle tennis balls and would like to sign up for the next Combat competition. "Some people think they can juggle because they have three balls going, but that's not juggling," he says."You need to hone your skills before you can combat."