One is such a natural, he even looks the part, like the long-haired-and-bearded Brawny guy come to life. One is a former military brat with the decidedly uncool nickname “Perplebunny,” who compensates with the coolest job title ever: Axe Master.
And one is a middle-aged small businessman who dealt with the emotional breakup of his long-term relationship by picking up sharp, dangerous weapons and flinging them at a wall. Repeatedly.
It changed his life.
“There’s comfort in letting [the emotion] out, sure. At least to me,” said David Lewis, who began throwing axes competitively in February, and by November found himself ranked fifth nationally in the intimidating “big axe” discipline. “I needed something. But I never dreamed where it would lead.”
This weekend, it will lead him and his two fellow Twin Cities residents — Austin Luecke the lumberjack model, and Dustin Kerr the hatchet honcho — to Atlanta, where they will compete Friday through Sunday for the nationally televised championship of … the entire world?
“Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” laughed Kerr. “It’s the axe-throwing world, anyway.”
That planet is growing more inhabited by the day.
“Urban axe throwing,” as it’s called by the organizations trying to promote the niche sport, began in Toronto almost a decade ago, but has caught on in this country over the past four years, fueled by the proliferation of new throwing venues. More than 6,000 participants have taken part in weekly leagues in the United States since then, with venues like Bad Axe in Minneapolis and MNAxe in Eagan and Monticello heavily booked several nights a week, at least before the pandemic.
“The numbers were just starting to get huge, before COVID. This is like Year 3 of bowling [as a sport], that’s how I look at it,” said Mario Zelaya, founder of the Toronto-based World Axe Throwing League, which runs hundreds of local leagues around the globe and is organizing this weekend’s championships. “It’s in the very early stages as a sport, as an activity, and people are still discovering it. As awareness spreads, we are seeing the numbers grow, and people becoming passionate about it.”
There’s something vaguely fraught, fundamentally outdoorsy and maybe a little thrilling about tossing around razor-sharp tools, particularly ones with the heft of a customized and elaborately decorated axe, competitors say, and the appeal just mushrooms as you improve at it.
“It’s a fun activity for a small group. You don’t have to be good to have fun,” said Lewis, who specializes in big axe and now owns a dozen or more. “It’s like golf — you can play 18 holes, and if you have one or two really good shots, it’s enough to keep you coming back. The first time you get a bull’s-eye, people run up to the board, take pictures, text them to friends. It’s exciting.”
Unique activity gets its rules
What began as an unusual drawing card for bars and taverns, basically a giant game of darts, has inevitably evolved into an actual sport with standardized rules, equipment, and governing bodies. Hoping to increase the allure to noncompeting spectators — and TV viewers, given their contract with ESPN, which will stream this weekend’s competition live and air the finals on ESPN2 on Dec. 13 — WATL has expanded the sport into three disciplines: Standard, which are hatchets limited to three pounds and 19-inch handles thrown from 12 feet away; two-man hatchet teams known as duals, who throw simultaneously; and big axe, with handles from 23 to 30 inches, thrown from 17 feet, commonly with two hands.
As the sport grows, the level of competition improves, so much so that WATL next year will cut the size of their bull’s-eye in half, to just 1½ inches in diameter, “because some guys never miss,” Zelaya said. The three Minnesotans are typical for their skill level: Each nails the middle of the board about 95 percent of their throws, making most matches a battle of nerves as well as blades.
Yet for all the regulation, the sport still retains its bar-league roots: Legend has it the “killshot” target, a second, smaller bull’s-eye used for tiebreaking, was originally drawn on the board by tracing the bottom of a beer bottle.
“It’s a good story, but we’ve always had a killshot,” Zelaya said. “It’s true that it’s pretty close to beer-bottle size, though.”
Each of the three Minnesotans has won a tournament before, but this one is different. For one thing, there’s a $50,000 purse, with $25,000 of it going to the first-place finisher in standard (hatchet), out of the 128 entrants. Duals and big axe champions, who survive a field of 64 qualifiers, will earn $6,500, big money for a sport mostly made up of hobbyists.
It’s not the first time Lewis has competed with highly skilled athletes, though. He was a member of one of the most notorious college football teams ever, the 1986 Miami Hurricanes of Jimmy Johnson and Vinny Testaverde and Benny Blades and Jerome Brown, unbeaten until the Fiesta Bowl. But he was a punter, a redshirt behind future NFL All-Pro Jeff Feagles, and he didn’t get to play before leaving after one season for Division III Stony Brook when his scholarship was cut in half.
Still, “I learned so much about work ethic and maximizing your talent from those guys,” Lewis said, traits he believes have already carried him to the top of a sport he’s barely just discovered.
Lewis’ girlfriend, looking for something different to do on a night out, happened to notice an axe venue late last year, and they gave it a try. After a few nights of tossing hatchets, they were hooked. By Christmas, Lewis had his own throwing hatchet, and six weeks later, he had been invited to join a league.
But the couple broke up in early March, and COVID-19 shut the country down just days later. Feeling lonely and bored, the 54-year-old Lewis, who owns a technology staffing consultancy, threw himself into throwing. Forced to work from home, he erected a target board in his Maple Grove garage and practiced between video calls with clients, then for three hours or more at night.
“It started out as something just cathartic, to take my mind off of things. But I put in so much time, things progressed very quickly,” Lewis said. When virus restrictions were eased, Lewis dominated his league in the big-axe discipline, going 26-2. He also paired up for the duals competition with Kerr, a 39-year-old technical project manager who also was just picking up the sport.
Gravitating to the sport
Kerr got so hooked, he took a part-time job as axe master at MN Axe, supervising and coaching competitors, just to maximize his practice time. The team of newcomers quickly became champions, too, winding up ranked 21st in the nation and qualifying for worlds.
“It’s rare to get that good that fast, but it can happen for people who have natural and raw talent. Some people honestly just get it, or they are smart enough to refine their throw,” Zelaya said. “It’s comparable to making foul throws in basketball — you have to perfect so many little factors that make a big difference.”
That’s why throwers videotape their practices and matches, examining them for the tiniest flaw, all in hopes of earning an oversized championship medal.
“When I tell people [about axe-throwing], they’re not surprised. They say, well, of course, you look like a lumberjack,” said Luecke, who is actually a 25-year-old developer of medical devices. “But it takes work, experience. I’ve been throwing axes since I was a kid.”
Luecke, whose best event is the standard hatchet, has qualified for worlds once before, in Chicago in 2018. But his chances were ruined about two weeks before the competition, when an axe ricocheted off a dense pine board — most venues have since switched to cottonwood, a softer wood that requires less force and holds the axe more reliably — and sliced his pinkie, requiring 12 stitches.
“It was too bad, but it was still a great experience,” said Luecke, who finished the season 27-1 in matches and ranked 25th in the most popular discipline. Acknowledged by his two fellow Minnesotans as probably the most talented of the three, Luecke now would like to achieve what he missed out on two years ago.
“Winning this week would be phenomenal. That would be awesome,” Luecke said. “And it would be a tribute to [Lewis and Kerr], too, because these guys got me to where I am.”