Going into the final round of the Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland, last year, Rob Messel felt confident about his chances but not certain. His closest competition, the Ginger Assassin, had just crushed his performance. If he was going to pull this out, he couldn't play it safe.

"There was a drum break. I did a somersault and jumped in the air and hit the chord," the 37-year-old recalls. "As the note rang through the PA, I knew I was good. Don't fall on my face, and I'll be fine."

He was right: Moments later, Messel, an Iowa native now living in Vancouver, Wash., was declared the best air guitarist in the world.

He'd come a long way. Messel first came across the art of competitive air guitar while serving in the Army. As something of a renaissance man—his résumé also includes commercial voice-over work and stints doing improv comedy—he was intrigued. He developed a character he dubbed the Marquis, a time-traveling aristocrat with a personal style best described as the Count of Monte Cristo meets Poison.

Still, it took him a while to get the nuances down—for the first few months, he played his imaginary axe as if it were an "air ukulele."

By the time he arrived in Finland last September, though, Messel, who produces air guitar shows at Dante's, had mastered the three criteria the form is judged on: technical merit, stage presence, and the more intangible "airness."

He'll return to defend his crown this year. If he does, he'll become only the third person to win back-to-back championships.

32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)
32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)