July 11, 2012, 10:30 p.m. ET
A Cut Above: In These Knife Fights, Only Pride Gets Wounded
Competitors Try to Best Each Other in Slicing Water Bottles, Tennis Balls; Bisecting a Grape
By TIMOTHY W. MARTIN
At this year's World Cutting Championships, a group of dedicated blade enthusiasts gathered to celebrate their sport -- slaying water bottles, tennis balls, and 2x4s -- in a contest for 2012's top "knifelete." WSJ'S Timothy Martin reports.
ATLANTA—Donavon Phillips windmilled his arms. He hopped a few times to get the blood flowing in his legs. A light sweat formed under his black-and-red jersey—just the right dew.
"You can't go into this cold, because it's an all-out sport," said Mr. Phillips, pulling his right arm across his chest.
He was warming up for a cutthroat event: the 10th annual World Championship Cutting Competition.
It takes razor-sharp focus to be a cutting champ, along with a blade that resembles a bulkier, sharper version of a kitchen meat cleaver. Mr. Phillips is one of a few who have helped make a sport out of demonstrating they can swiftly, flawlessly slice through a dozen water bottles or chop a rolling tennis ball in half.
Having won the national title in May, he is a favorite on the cutting circuit.
The bearish, 32-year-old auto technician from Morton, Miss., who played offensive line on his high-school football team, started cutting six years ago, right around the time Americans began buying expensive kitchen cutlery with brand names like Wüsthof and marveling as celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows made knife wizardry cool.
More recently, Mr. Phillips has dedicated himself to an hourlong training session each week using a shiny, rectangular 15-inch knife he made himself. He calls it "Edge of the Delta," in honor of his Mississippi roots. He spends hours scrutinizing videos of the greats, such as Dan Keffeler, famous for splitting a two-by-four in 1.4 seconds. He has a sponsorship from Spyderco Knives, a Golden, Colo., company that prides itself on "radical innovations to the knife culture" like a one-hand blade opening and ergonomic design.
"With basketball, everybody wanted to 'Be Like Mike,' " said Perry Reynolds, a vice president with International Housewares Association, an industry group, referencing the iconic Gatorade commercial featuring basketball great Michael Jordan. "Now we've got people wanting to be like some famous chef."
The skills exhibited by Mr. Phillips and others mirror the cutting feats seen on late-night TV ads that pitched Ginsu Knives, whose co-founder, Barry Becher, died last month.
Cutting events were once military-style affairs. Participants wore camouflage. Competitions were limited to custom knife makers and featured a series of challenges such as stabbing a soda can—a move meant to showcase how well the blades could jab, sever and stick. Winners would then sell their handmade blades, or replicas of them, for big bucks.
In 2006, a group of "cutters" formed BladeSports International Inc. and started to formalize the obscure sport. They banned camouflage and military boots and opened up the competition to all comers, who were allowed to use mass-produced blades.
To demonstrate the versatility of the knife as a tool, the group designed multistage courses featuring a dozen or more cutting challenges. They dictated dimensions: Knives had to be no longer than 15 inches overall, with no more than 10 inches of blade.
"We don't do anything threatening. We have no pointing. We don't stick. We don't do anything stabbing," said Warren Osborne, a founding member of BladeSports and a retired cutter. He thrusts his arm forward, to illustrate.
The group prescribed several "finesse" cuts like slicing a grape in half or dicing a cardboard paper towel roll into as many slivers as possible, the way a chef slices an onion. Cutters were to be judged on time and accuracy. A new wave of safety rules required eye gear and adding foot-fault penalties to ensure people would stand a safe distance away.
At the World Championship Cutting Competition, held last month in a suburban Atlanta parking lot, Gary Bond, a 48-year-old maintenance worker who named his knife "Bruiser," was among the strongest contenders to knock out Mr. Phillips.
Another was Ted Ott, a bespectacled, 59-year-old electrician from Elgin, Texas, and a former world champion cutter. Contenders came from the U.S., United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
Awaiting his turn, Mr. Ott carefully studied the footwork of other competitors, counting the number of steps required between each station. "It's three seconds a cut. That's what you need to average to win a world championship," said Mr. Ott, who makes and markets his own knives.
Potential points are allotted for each cut, based on the difficulty. Missing on a particular cut means the points aren't accrued. The final point total is then subtracted from a time score, and the lowest number wins.
After his turn through the 13-station course, Mr. Ott had the score to beat: 53.79 points, after breezing through in just under 47 seconds.
"Don't overthink it, Donavon," Mr. Phillips told himself. Mr. Phillips had been favored last year to win, but lost to Mr. Bond.
Unusually nimble for someone 6-feet-4, 370 pounds, Mr. Phillips entered the course, sporting a Spyderco T-shirt, and took a few practice swings, just like Derek Jeter might before heading to home plate. A hush passed over the crowd of 250 strong.
He unsheathed "Edge of the Delta" and raised his arm. One quick flash, and a thick cardboard tube was destroyed. The crowd, piled onto portable aluminum bleachers and leaning up against pickup trucks, let out a collective roar.
Mr. Phillips then sliced a line of 10 water bottles in half. Water gushed onto the pavement and halves of clear plastic bottles fell to the ground. He next bisected an inch-thick rope, then set his sights on three water bottles, stacked about 6 inches apart, which he had to cut vertically.
He split open the first bottle, exploding the white plastic top. But the force from the water and the knife knocked over the remaining two bottles. With that, his world-championship hopes were dashed.
Mr. Ott came in first. Mr. Phillips finished in second place with 61.34 points and Mr. Bond's 76.27 points were good enough for third.
Mr. Ott was gracious as he held the world title trophy: a shieldlike belt buckle intricately engraved with the words "BLADE Show."
"I stole this from him," he said, pointing toward Mr. Phillips.
Write to Timothy W. Martin at email@example.com