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‘Josh Fight’ began online a year ago. Last weekend, a crowd of people named Josh showed up to duel with pool noodles.

What started as a pandemic joke became a real event on April 24 in Lincoln, Neb., where people named Josh battled with pool noodles. The winner was to be declared the rightful owner of the name Josh. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star/AP)
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In the peak of pandemic boredom, an absurd idea popped into Josh Swain’s head.

The 22-year-old University of Arizona student was in the midst of a Zoom lecture last April, “staring into the abyss,” he said, when he spontaneously decided to start a Facebook group with a bunch of strangers who share the same name.

“You’re probably wondering why I’ve gathered you all here today,” he wrote to nine fellow Josh Swains. One person promptly responded by stating the obvious: “Because we all share the same names?”

Swain replied with an unusual request: “Precisely, 4/24/2021, josh, meet at these coordinates (40.82223286, -96.7982002),” he wrote. “We fight, whoever wins gets to keep the name, everyone else has to change their name, you have a year to prepare, good luck.”

The Facebook message was purely intended as a joke, Swain said, but to his astonishment, his name twins — and thousands of others on the Internet — didn’t think he was just joshing. They actually took his request somewhat seriously.

Indeed, one year after he sent the original message, on the exact date specified, hundreds of people gathered at a field in Lincoln, Neb., near the random coordinates Swain picked out, both to spectate and participate in what later became known as “Josh Fight.”

“When I first made the post, I thought zero people would actually show up,” Swain said. He was mistaken.

He originally shared screenshots of his Facebook message on Twitter a year ago, with the caption, “there can only be one.” It went viral, garnering thousands of shares and likes across multiple social media platforms. Some strangers took things a step further, starting a number of Josh Swain Reddit pages, which feature countless memes.

“It was so weird when it blew up,” Swain said. Eventually, though, the buzz died down, and he assumed that was the end of the “Josh Fight.”

But the name battle, he soon learned, had yet to truly begin.

Two months ago, out of nowhere, “people started to remember,” Swain said. Panic set in after he spotted a post online of someone outlining plans to drive across the country for the event.

Swain’s reaction: “Sorry, what?!”

Not only did his original post suddenly resurface, but the mock event somehow evolved from only being intended for Josh Swains, to an all-out Josh battle — sans surnames.

According to data from the U.S. Social Security Administration, the name Joshua is the 21st-most-popular name for men. Naturally, Joshes from every part of the country who saw Swain’s original message got amped up for the battle.

“I never intended to follow through with the fight,” said Swain, who studies civil engineering and is graduating in May.

Things got serious when someone created a dedicated website with a countdown. Swain decided he had no choice but to book a flight from Phoenix to Lincoln for the event.

A hiker was lost and desperate. A stranger with an unusual hobby saved him.

It got to a point where he knew “people were going to show up, regardless of whether I was there or not,” he said. Given that he inadvertently started the viral, unplanned event, he felt compelled to help control it.

So he took the reins, and in the week leading up to April 24, he hashed out some details.

Swain started by contacting the Lincoln Police Department to notify them of the event, and enlisted local help to scout out an appropriate location, because it turned out the original coordinates are actually on someone’s private property.

He also decided to use the occasion to collect money for a good cause, he said. Swain started a fundraiser — which has raised nearly $12,000 — for the Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Foundation in Omaha.

“I thought it would be a good way to give back, and I think everybody can get behind children’s health care,” said Swain, who also encouraged attendees to bring nonperishable food for the Lincoln Food Bank.

Finally, he laid out some ground rules in a Reddit post, under the username “ACTUAL JOSH.”

Mainly he emphasized that “there will be no physical violence,” writing: “Joshs, I am calling on you to uphold the honor that the name possesses and to be good stewards of this event.” He went on to outline the rules for what he called a “Pool Noodle Battle Royale,” which only people with the first name Josh would be permitted to participate in. He also urged everyone to wear masks.

After much anticipation, it was finally time for Josh Fight — also known as the Josh Battle Royale and Josh vs. Josh vs. Josh.

After taking a flight the previous day (he actually met a fellow Josh in the plane, who was also traveling for the event), Swain showed up at the designated battleground — a large public field — donning a shirt with his name on it. He got there two hours early to get organized, he said, and already a crowd was beginning to form.

“This is going to be crazy,” Swain recalled thinking to himself.

Little did he know, though, that by noon, the field would be flooded with hundreds of Joshes and their supporters.

“There was upward of 1,000 people,” Swain estimated, adding that attendees ranged in age from 4 to about 40, and some arrived from Washington state, Florida, New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas and elsewhere across the country.

Josh Redwine, 35, a local Lincoln photographer who heard about the event on Facebook, decided to check it out.

“I was surprised to see how big it was,” he said.

Their romance was new when covid hit. Both in their 90s, they snuck around ‘like teenagers.’

“It was really weird. Everybody there was really happy; it was like a bunch of kids on a playground, just having a good time,” Redwine said. “I hadn’t seen that kind of positivity in a while. It was really cool.”

After Swain made opening remarks, he and another Josh Swain went head-to-head in a heated game of rock-paper-scissors. Arizona Josh Swain ultimately beat Omaha Josh Swain.

Then it was time for the main event.

A sea of people named Josh wielding colorful foam pool noodles dueled for more than 10 minutes, until finally there was only one Josh standing: 4-year-old Joshua Vinson Jr., from Lincoln.

Once it was clear that he was the victor, “I ran over with the megaphone, and I was like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your champion,’ ” Swain said. “It was this incredible moment.”

The crowd cheered as the boy — whom everyone called Little Josh — was hoisted into the air wearing an oversize Burger King crown and clutching his weapon, a red pool noodle.

“I beat everyone!” said Little Josh in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

His father, Joshua Vinson Sr., said it was something his son will never forget.

“We had a blast. Little Josh came out victorious,” Vinson Sr., who stumbled upon the event on Facebook, said. “He got hit a couple times, but he didn’t go down.”

Beyond Little Josh’s unanticipated win, he said, the fundraiser was especially significant for the father-son Josh duo, because Joshua Jr. was treated by the children’s hospital for sudden seizures when he was 18 months old.

“It really did feel meaningful that the money was donated to the hospital,” Vinson Sr. said. “The story came full circle with Little Josh.”

For Swain, the fundraising aspect of the Josh Fight was also the most important: “So many different types of people came to the event, but everybody had the same mind-set and goal: to have fun, be safe, and raise money,” he said.

People also brought more than 100 pounds of food for the Lincoln Food Bank.

“There were four carloads full of food,” said Betsy Walker, 20, a volunteer who helped coordinate the food drive. “It was super uplifting to be a part of.”

Overall — to Swain’s shock and relief — Josh Fight was a tremendous success.

“People loved it. Everything went off without a hitch,” he said, adding that he stuck around for three hours after the event to pose for pictures with people — many of whom had signs and were decked out in fun costumes.

“It’s been a hard year, and I think everybody needed something like this. It was such a wholesome event, there’s nothing negative about it,” Swain said. “That’s what made it so spectacular.”

“We’ll see what happens,” he continued. “We might have to make it an annual thing.”

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