“Do you want to see what it looks like from the inside?”
Sure. The helmet is ominously pockmarked and constructed out of steel in the Norman style. It looks like half a football sitting on a serving plate. The face is protected by bars that jut down from the brim, and an aventail, a ring of chain mail, encircles the head like a shower curtain of doom. It’s worn over a cloth balaclava that protects the scalp and face from the metal interior of the helmet and probably not much else. The whole thing weighs about 15 pounds, and limits its wearer’s vision to whatever is right in front of them.
I put it on and give my head a hard, is-anybody-home rap with a closed fist. It feels OK, I guess; the small crack from my bare knuckles rattles through the metal and is transmitted mutely to my skull. Then again no one is swinging an axe at my head.
The idea of the “martial arts” conjures images of white-gi-garbed novices ki-ya-ing their way through formalized sets of attacks and counters, under the watchful eye of a teacher. Or, perhaps, of kendo students clad in black kendogu, rehearsing the discipline’s balletically efficient footwork while practicing scoring touches on their opponent’s heads with wooden practice swords. Or of the various tributary systems that make up the modern spectacle of mixed-martial arts, with their almost-chess-like strike, riposte, and grapple systems.
That is not what the Armored Combat League is.
“We’re trying to do that,” said Damion DiGrazia, the New York City regional representative of the ACL,1 when I asked if, like other martial arts, there was a formal system of moves and countermoves underpinning the wild scenes of (mostly) dudes in plate steel battering away at each other with various types of medieval weaponry. “But, for what we do, we’re not interested in making it look beautiful. My main thing is — how useful is it for bringing someone down?”
In an endeavor bubbling over with the potential for injury, the acronym ACL is both ironic and providential.
DiGrazia — who, when not strapped into 80 pounds of custom-built armor is a management consultant — has the wiry build of a long-distance runner and the unbridled zeal of a religious convert. And, in a way, he is. DiGrazia, who already had experience with the Israeli Krav Maga system and capoeira, started competing in ACL events two and a half years ago, after attending an exhibition of medieval weapons and techniques. That event featured competitive sparring which used the points-per-touch scoring system of fencing. “They wore this plastic-y kind of armor, but there was no punching or kicking. One hit and you’re dead kind of thing. I thought, ehh, it’s OK. But I met one guy there who did [the ACL] and he started talking about it. I was like this exists?! And that was it.”
This exists!? It’s a reasonable reaction to the spectacle of two teams of steel-jacketed warriors wailing away on each other with maces, long swords, and poleaxes like it’s the 14th century. The above video is of the 16-on-16 melee event from the 2015 International Medieval Combat Federation (IMCF) World Championships from Poland. DiGrazia is visible, briefly, on the American left flank, holding in reserve as the action unfolds on the right. He’s carrying his preferred mace, and his shield has a white arrow drawn on it. His favored tactic is to use his mobility to circle around the flanks, using the bulk builds of many competitors (especially the Eastern Europeans) to his advantage, and taking an engaged enemy by surprise. “There’s no weight classes, and some of these guys are monsters, 7-feet, 400 pounds. So I try to run around, kick their legs out. They can’t catch up to me. I’m quick; I’m all over the place.”
IMCF melee rules are quite simple: When a knight goes down, which is defined as either being flat-laid-the-hell-out or having any three body parts touching the ground, he is done. A team wins by putting down all the members of the other team. Somewhat ironically considering the intended historical verisimilitude, stabbing thrusts are out of bounds, as are strikes to the knees, genitals, and throat. Beyond that, it’s essentially a free-fire zone. To ensure no one gets decapitated or otherwise unduly separated from a limb, weapons are subject to certain limitations on sharpness, length, and weight.2 Armor must also be built to regulation thickness and constructed of steel.
For example: “For all axes and polearms the striking edge must have a minimum curve matching the outline of a circle with a radius of 50mm (5cm) or more up to a straight edge. All non-striking edges or rounding must have a minimum curve of the outline of a circle with a radius of 15mm (1.5 cm) or more up to a straight edge in the event of a striking edge.”
But, when full-grown adults are heaving away, full force, with steel weaponry, shit, inevitably, happens.
“I keep telling people, wear a mouthguard,” DiGrazia says. “This guy, right after he came off the field, he pulled his helmet off and spit out a bunch of teeth. In Spain last year, this guy cut another guy’s finger off with a two-handed sword. The guy reaches down, picks up his finger, puts it in a ziplock bag, and gives it to the other guy as a present.”
The IMCF was formed two years ago as a response to the alleged impropriety of the clunkily titled Historical Medieval Battle International Association (HMBIA). Primarily based in Russia, the HMBIA was the originator of organized international medieval competitions, which it had been holding since 2009. Mirroring real-life geopolitics, western nations had become dissatisfied with what they felt was a decided lack of Glasnost in regard to the rules governing the contests, not to mention the basic fairness of the events themselves.
Things came to a head when, during a melee, a bystander apparently of Ukrainian origin reached through the timber stockade separating the battlefield from the stands and propped up a member of Team Russia, to prevent him from falling down. Russia would go on to win the event. That this incident took place is not disputed by either side. The arguments from those in the HMBIA camp, though, seem to hinge on the perceived incongruity of a person of Ukrainian extraction helping a team of Russians.
According to DiGrazia, “[The HMBIA] was very unresponsive to suggestions from other nations. Like, maybe it would be safer if it was this? Or maybe we should do this more realistically? Or, even, can we have referees that aren’t Russian? They were, like, ‘No.’ There was nothing you could do about it. A lot of other nations didn’t like that. So we formed this U.N. of armored combat which is the IMCF.”
There’s something thematically perfect about an international organization of medieval warfare aficionados splintering along the same East-West fault lines that have defined the real world for most of the past 100 years. It speaks to how differences between individuals become political, and how politics becomes war. Even if it’s just pretend war.
Fandom is an especially fascinating phenomenon when it transcends geography and cultural borders. The story of why someone from East Texas would be a high school football fan is much less interesting than, say, the story of a Greenland Eskimo who religiously follows the exploits of the Plano East Panthers. Once upon a time, the subset of Americans who are drawn to the ren-faire-style wizards, wenches, and knights trappings of medieval Europe were looked upon by their countrymen with collective fascination, if at all. Such behavior existed under the general umbrella of Nerd Shit. But now, after the one-two punch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones becoming a global phenomenon, a not-insignificant portion of Americans have a cursory knowledge of heraldry and feudalism.
For all its courtly affectations, Europe’s medieval period was essentially a religiously fractious, war-torn dystopia.3 This was the result of the collapse of the unifying powers of the Roman Empire (due to factors not limited to the debasement of their currency, wars, and the sudden migrations of foreigners) and numerous lethal pandemics of nearly biblical proportions.
The following passage from historian Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror describes the exploits of Enguerrand I, Lord of Coucy: “Untamed he pursued a career of enmity and brigandage, directed in varying combinations against Church, town, and King. He seized manors from convents, tortured prisoners (reportedly hanging men up by their testicles until these tore off from the weight of the body), personally cut the throats of thirty rebellious bourgeois, transformed his castles into “a nest of dragons and a cave of thieves,” and was excommunicated by the Church, which ungirdled him — in absentia — of the knightly belt and ordered the anathema to be read against him every Sunday in every parish in Picardy.”
Which is to say, its appeal has never seemed more obvious.
The financial barriers to events such as those run by the ACL and the IMCF are, as you might guess, steep. Suits of custom-built armor run several thousand dollars, depending on quality, and the weapons aren’t exactly cheap, either. Sponsorship, thus far, is basically nonexistent (outside a couple of GoFundMe campaigns), and competitors largely go out of pocket on airfare, lodging, and day-to-day expenses. To even be eligible for overseas events like the IMCF World Championships, a fighter has to compete, and acquit himself well, in a certain number of domestic and regional tournaments per year.
When I asked DiGrazia how much money he’s spent over the past two years on his taste for medieval warfare, he sighed, shook his head and, after a long couple of seconds said, “I don’t know, 20?”
As in $20,000.
But, perhaps, this too is part of the sport’s appeal. It’s a sport that, when considered through the lens of the history it depicts, reflects a desire to return to a certain kind of Eurocentric monoculture. No matter how horrible it actually was.