By Kenneth LaFave
He rises on a workday morning and dons his armor—all 100 pounds of it. Then it’s off to ride, pounding the turf from the back of a half-draft steed 16 and a half hands high. Warmed up, he proceeds to the core of his job: unseating mounted opponents in a joust.
Face it: You may be cool, but you’ll never be as cool as a 50-year-old man who makes his living as a jousting knight.
“It’s the best job in the world,” said Matthew Mansour, also known as Sir Maxximilian, the Jousting Earl of Braden.
Hard to argue.
Mansour and other jousters will provide the entertainment three times daily at the Arizona Renaissance Festival. The festival, a celebration of all things 15th and 16th century, will take place Saturdays and Sundays Feb. 11 to April 2, plus Presidents Day, Feb. 20, at its usual site, a sprawling desert space located on U.S. Highway 60, east of Kings Ranch Road in Gold Canyon.
The jousts take place throughout the day, while elsewhere in the festival jugglers are juggling, acrobats are acrobating, and throngs of people are paying to shoot arrows, throw axes, gawk at a gallery of ancient torture devices and find their way through a maze.
Welcome to life circa 1500, as reimagined circa 1963. That was the year the first public “Renaissance faire” of record was held in Laurel Canyon, California. Since then, the production of festivals commemorating the arts and lifestyles of Renaissance-era Europe have proliferated into a high-profile business, with virtually every state in the union sponsoring one.
Mansour got into the business via his love for horses, though he hails from just about the last place you’d imagine would be home to a future knight-in-armor: Manhattan, specifically midtown between Ninth and 10th avenues, or what used to be called “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Horses and New York City?
“There are actually about 500 horses in Manhattan,” Mansour said, “including police horses and Central Park carriages.”
One day when he was 12, young Matthew was walking down Ninth Avenue when he encountered a life-changing sight.
“A horse was pulling a stagecoach, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” Mansour recalls.
The stagecoach was a promotion for a Western-style restaurant. Matthew walked right up to the driver and asked if he could work for him. He got his first job:
“I would wash the horses while the drivers sat in the bar waiting for the next ride.”
It turned out Mansour was a natural rider and he grew into a horseman. When a driver mentioned he was starting a jousting show at the New York Renaissance Faire, Mansour tagged along and signed up for the gig. But it wasn’t so easy. It took about a year to learn to joust, training first with the lance on the ground, without armor, then adding the armor and finally practicing from on horseback. Add to that the skills of an actor maintaining the character and behavior of a knight.
“This is what I do. I am a professional jouster,” he said. He’s also a professional businessman who owns the company providing jousting entertainment for the Arizona festival and three other fairs.
Where is home?
“I live where the fair is,” he said, expressing a true wanderlust. That means Mansour will live east of Phoenix through early April, then go to Los Angeles, followed by fairs in the Chicago/Milwaukee area and finally, Charlotte, North Carolina. Each commitment lasts about two and a half months.
“I am totally mobile,” he said, happily.
Mansour is also training his two sons, aged 14, to grow up to be jousters.
Over the years, Mansour has experienced a broken arm and “a few concussions” from his time on horseback with a lance. The sport—if that’s what it is—is for real, not staged. The winner is not pre-established. And the jousters really do try to hit as hard as they can to knock their opponent off his horse. That’s why they need real armor, which can cost between $4,000 and $10,000.
As “Sir Maxximilian” (the two Xs are there, he said, because his character is “a little bit dirty”), Mansour dresses in black and owns the persona of a “bad guy.” But sometimes the “bad guy” will win. For those among us with daydreams of an era gone by, anyone on horseback in armor is always a winner.
Arizona Renaissance Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Feb. 11 to April 16, and Presidents Day Feb. 20. The grounds are located at 12601 E. U.S. Highway 60, Gold Canyon. Ticket prices vary; for more information, visit renfestinfo.com or call 520.463.2600.