Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Big Five . . . of Freestyle Beards

Yes, it's yet another non-metal blog post, but after all, 'Beards' is in the title. Anyway, as I briefly noted already, the most recent biennial World Beard and Moustache Championship was just held in Germany, so this seems like a good time to look at some of the frequent top-end competitors.

There are many categories in competitive bearding, most of which vary from one event to the next. However, two specific categories tend to be the "main event" as it were. While the field may not be huge in the musketeer or Dali moustache groups, there are others which always provide plenty of size and excite the most interest and prestige. They are full beard natural and full beard freestyle. Of the two, I find freestyle the most interesting, and I'll tell you why that is. Growing a huge full beard is impressive (and totally metal) but it really comes down to genetics. Yes, maintenance and presentation matter to the judges, but in the end if John's beard grows bigger than Dave's, John is generally going to win and there's nothing Dave can really do to improve his chances or step up his game.

Not so in freestyle. For a good freestyle beard you need plenty of hair to work with, sure, but it's not all about what nature gave you. Here costume and presentation can play a bigger part, and most importantly skill and creativity in beard styling matter. If somebody gets beaten by an opponent with a bigger beard, they can work on their styling precision, they can come up with newer and more interesting designs, and they can legitimately step up their game to compete with their one-time freestyling superior. These factors make the freestyle categories the most legitimately competitive and interesting in my mind, and since styling a full beard is the biggest event for freestyle work, that category is my favorite (and I'm certainly not alone on this, either).

Which brings me to my topic: there seem to be five big names in the full beard freestyle category at the highest level, so I'm going to profile the "Big Five" of the sport for those of you who don't follow awesome competitions like I do.

Special note: The man pictured above is David Traver, who took home a somewhat controversial World Championship win in the freestyle category in 2009 (he was president of the host club, under which circumstances it is customary not to compete out of concern for biased judging). He has since cut off most of his beard.


Gerhard Knapp

A pioneer in the world of beard competitions, Knapp is generally credited with inventing freestyle as a category. Owing to his role in developing the category, he has been a powerhouse in the world of freestyle bearding right from the start, though it is very difficult to find records of event results from the '90s (the first WBMC events were in 1990, 1995, 1997, and 1999). Up until relatively recently, his rivalry with Elmar Weisser was a defining characteristic of the category at the top level, though it was that type of rivalry where the older man is quickly eclipsed but fights on in second place. In the past decade or more, as competitions have grown and new blood has been introduced, Knapp's techniques have been imitated and expanded upon by many other freestylers. This year the 77-year-old failed to make the podium at the World's, raising the question of how much longer he'll be able to stay near the top. Still, he's done well in other recent World Championships, taking 3rd in 2007, 2nd in 2009, and 3rd in 2011. Additionally, his stature within the community assures him a place amongst the elites.


Elmar Weisser

As I've already noted, Weisser was Knapp's main rival prior to the more recent upswing in bearding popularity, and after taking over the throne he remains the man to beat on the world stage. This year he took 2nd, but he claimed gold in the category in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2011. His rivalry with Knapp is at its root a philosophical one. Knapp has always styled his own beard, and he has adamantly maintained that elegant patterns of curves and curls are the appropriate way to style facial hair. Weisser, on the other hand, has his sister do his styling after he presents her with a concept (there are no rules against this) and his creations are always outlandish formations of objects like clocks or bridges. He's really the only person to take this very crowd-pleasing design approach, and as a result his photographs are the closest to "viral" of any competitive freestyle bearder.


Hans-Peter Weis

Weis came along once Weisser had established his freestyle dominance, and he has spent several years nipping at the heels of his more successful opponent. He has claimed national championships both in the USA and in Germany, though, and he is a perennial (technically biennial) contender at the world championship level. He reaches the podium in virtually every competition he enters, and in typical fashion he just took 3rd at the World's, following 2011's 2nd place finish and another 3rd in 2009. Unlike Knapp and Weisser, Weis has not made a habit of changing his styling much. While the others have continually tried to develop newer and better creations, Weis has quietly honed a specific look to near perfection. Additionally, Weis is the only top competitor who plays with coloration in his beard. Coloring is permitted in freestyle, so long as no "unnatural or garish color" is employed, so Weis has put this to use as a dramatic highlight for his now well-established look.


Hans Gassner

Gassner has not reached the podium in a WBMC since taking 2nd in 2007. His collective successes still place him high in the freestyle ranks, though. He has excelled in many competitions, including 1st at the Italian International Championships in 2003, the European Beard Olympics in 2005, the European Championships in 2010, and the World Championships in 2003. His styling, as this photo illustrates, has tended toward the wild end of the spectrum. Though he has been surpassed in WBMC events recently, a talented freestyle competitor can always make a big comeback even if he's been out of the spotlight for a while. Of the men not currently placing at the top, Gassner has easily the most impressive overall track record.


Aarne Bielefeldt

The first American citizen to win a world title in the category*, newly crowned 2013 World Champion Aarne Bielefeldt is German-born like all the other top freestyle competitors. Until just a couple years ago, Bielefeldt competed exclusively in full beard natural (where he won the American title in 2010), so when he made the jump to freestyle it came as quite a surprise. Even more surprising was his level of proficiency, as he exploded onto the scene winning nearly everything he entered on his way to a German Championship. He accomplished this feat during his time as the consensus favorite on the TV show Whisker Wars, so these successes catapulted Bielefeldt to a level of popularity previously unheard of in competitive bearding. He has not been in the game as long as these other men, but in the short time since he entered the category, Bielefeldt's signature "octo" beard has dominated the freestyle world.

*Technically Traver is the first American citizen to win freestyle, but as I've already noted, that victory is difficult to regard as being entirely legitimate.


So what happens moving forward? Does Weisser reclaim his throne? Does Bielefeldt's recent dominance spell the birth of a new freestyle king? Does Weis finally break through and claim a World Championship after years of playing second fiddle? Does the aging giant Knapp get one last hurrah? Or does the former champion Gassner make a dramatic comeback? There's always the possibility that another new face will find its way onto the podium in Austria in 2015, but these gentlemen are the gatekeepers. I've made it a serious personal goal to be there as a competitor myself so I'll (hopefully) get to see it all unfold firsthand. In any case, this is an interesting and exciting time to be a fan of competitive bearding.

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