A few years back, we started seeing outlandishly violent YouTube videos that showed Russians engaging in “medieval combat" while wearing armor and bashing each other mercilessly with broadswords. While an eye-catching curiosity, this martial pursuit seemed unlikely to ever catch on in the West.
That conclusion was a bit premature.
A series called Knight Fight has come to prime-time television courtesy of the History channel. Every week, it shows fighters wearing 70 pounds of period-authentic steel while engaging in wild melees that look part Renaissance faire and part prison riot.
This new development is not just a one-off gimmick made for television, either. Knight Fight competitors primarily come from the Armored Combat League, an organization with dozens of North American teams and overseas chapters. Its members stage matches on a weekly basis across the United States. There are even world-championship events with representatives from 30 countries and a big-time group of professional medieval fighters attached to the Russian M-1 mixed-martial arts promotion.
What does all this mean? Well, the sport of the future might actually come straight out of the Dark Ages.
Armored combat hasn't quite made it into the major arenas yet, at least not in America, so to see it in person, you have to trek to out-of-the way gyms like Sword Class NYC in Manhattan. There, on a recent Saturday evening, more than a dozen knight fighters, along with several dozen fans, congregated in a basement gymnasium to watch the armored mayhem unfold.
It soon became clear this was not LARP'ing-type fun or a staid historical re-creation. As soon as the three-vs.-three “team melees" began, competitors started hitting each other flush in the face with steel axes. To be sure, none of the weapons was sharp, but even a dull ax smashing into your head is no laughing matter. The armor protects the fighters — to a point. No serious injuries were evident, but that doesn't mean they didn't occur.
“I've seen bones broken clean through," said Damion DiGrazia, leader of the New York Sentinels team. “It's rare, but it does happen. Sometimes you'll get hit so hard the force of the blow goes right through the armor. But I think you probably have a better chance of getting seriously hurt skiing than doing this."
Still, in skiing, you don't have to worry about someone running up behind you and smashing a mace into the back of your skull. This is a frequent occurrence in the melee matches, where a number of fighters climb into the ring — often a lightly matted area surrounded by a wooden railing — and they all fight at the same time, either in teams or in an every-man-for-himself battle royal. The vision provided by the armored helmets is limited to begin with, and your only hope for not being blindsided by multiple opponents is to put your back to the railing and pray for the best.
There are safety precautions in place. Besides being required to use dull weapons, fighters are not allowed to use stabbing strikes or blows to the groin or the lightly protected back of the knee. A fighter is considered eliminated when he hits the ground or surrenders. Other than in the one-on-one professional-rules matches, done primarily in Eastern Europe, you aren't allowed to hit a grounded opponent.
When it comes to the Knight Fight TV show, however, the rules have been modified a bit to make the mayhem more telegenic.
“In standard matches, when it comes to the melee, if you're thrown to the ground, the fight is over for you," said Andre Sinou, one of the co-founders of the Armored Combat League. “But to keep the TV show more exciting, they decided when someone hits the ground, they can get up and keep fighting. But takedowns are still effective moves. Getting taken down in armor really sucks a lot of endurance out of you just from getting up each time."
Sinou helped create the Knight Fight show and serves as an on-air host. A former Marine, he's also captained the gold-medal team at the world championship. Like many of the original American participants in armored combat, he got his start with the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that enjoys historical re-creation fighting with lightweight rattan weapons.
“I have nothing bad to say about SCA, but by 2011, I'd won all their tournaments and gone as far as I could go in that type of fighting," Sinou said. “I was starting to get bored with it when I heard about people fighting with real steel weapons overseas. SCA was more like stick tag, where you hit someone once and the fight is over. In armored combat, you fight till someone is on the ground or yields. It's much more physical. When you hit someone with a piece of rattan, it can sting. But when you hit someone with a two-handed steel weapon, it produces a tremendous shock. The armor works well, though, and we keep the safety standards for both weapons and armor very high."
The high standards for armor are absolutely necessary to avoid crippling injuries. The Manhattan match between the New York Sentinels and the New Haven Highlanders ended when Logan Greer, a member of the Philadelphia squad on loan to the Sentinels, blindsided New Haven's Peter Dey, swinging his heavy ax into Dey's leg like a lumberjack felling an oak.
Dey emitted a guttural “Ungh!"" before toppling and giving New York its 11th melee win of the night, as well as the overall victory. He quickly popped back up, though, shrugging off the blow and insisting he was unharmed. “That's what this is for," Dey said as he knocked on his steel leggings.
Like a number of other competitors, Dey has a background in martial arts, having practiced shotokan karate for 20 years. The armored-combat fights are so wide open, employing such a range of techniques from weapons to punches, kicks, clinch work and throws that almost any martial art seems applicable.
Even a ground-fighting system like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which would appear to have little in common with a sport that doesn't allow fighting on the ground, has its uses. “I did jiu-jitsu before starting armored combat," said Zorikh Lequidre, the first American to compete in a professional-rules armored match. “Even in the pro fights, ground work doesn't really play a major part. But just the idea of constantly struggling with someone, of being underneath a larger opponent in jiu-jitsu and uncomfortable for several minutes, is very good training for fighting in armor."
If armored combatants can learn from various martial arts, martial artists can perhaps learn something from armored combat. Certain classical techniques that appear ineffective suddenly start to look more viable as things like armor, heavy weapons and multiple opponents enter the picture.
“I know someone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who's a curator in the arms and armor department," said DiGrazia, who has a background in capoeira and krav maga. “He said what we're doing is kind of on the frontier of what they call 'reverse archeology.' You can look at the old medieval fighting manuals and try to figure out the moves. But we're finding out how something works by actually doing it instead of just looking at it."
And, in case you're wondering, hitting someone with an ax works really well.
— Mark Jacobs