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Bringing Medieval Mayhem Into Our New Millennium

In today’s armored combat arenas, teams of fighters face off with broadswords, axes, and hammers

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•• All photographs by C.S.Muncy ••

Simon Rorich’s match at the 2016 Armored Combat League Eastern Nationals, in Swedesboro, New Jersey, wasn’t going great. His teammates were down, lying on their backs in the sand at his feet, and a group of tall Canadian fighters had pinned him in place. The rules governing this medieval style of fighting have always been straightforward: Stay on your feet or you’re done. But when there’s a group of aggressive Canucks working you over with poleaxes, things have a way of going sideways. So far Rorich was still upright, but one of the opposing fighters had managed to get an arm around his neck and put him in a headlock, while another kept slamming away with the poleaxe from behind. He didn’t feel the first hit, which cut the leather strap holding his helmet in place, nor the second one that knocked it loose, but he felt the third one, which punched a hole in his skull, driving a piece of bone the size of a quarter into his brain.

Everything stopped, and the arena went silent. The ref immediately called a halt to the fight and all the combatants backed off—but the damage had been done. Knocked onto his back, an oily pool of blood began to form in the wet sand beneath Rorich’s head. “I felt a sharp pain,” he said later, “and then people started freaking out.”

At first glance, one might look at the armored fighters and think they’re LARPing (“Live Action Role Playing”), but this is not a description that goes over well with most participants. LARPing brings to mind teens in the woods fighting with foam swords or tossing tennis balls at each other while screaming “fireball!” Instead, it might be more accurate to think of today’s armored combat as a form of ultimate fighting; technically, it’s considered a Western/medieval form of martial arts. The armor is expensive and ridiculously heavy, averaging around 80 pounds of steel, leather, and chain mail, and the weapons run the gamut from axes to hammers to broadswords. The sharp edges have all been blunted and the rules preclude stabbing, but the wooden handles carry the weight and strength of a baseball bat, while the metal blades are as dense as an anvil. Even blunted, these are, as Rorich’s example shows, weapons still capable of causing serious damage. Injuries aren’t usually as serious as his was, but they’re not uncommon either.

The history of armored combat goes back hundreds of years, but the modern version really began in Russia, in the late 1990s. Colloquially called “steel fighting” or “buhurt” (derived from the Old French term for “wallop”),  it rapidly expanded during the early 2000s. Today, active teams, encompassing an impressive spectrum of races, genders, sexualities, political beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds, can be found in almost every corner of the globe. The matches can range from one-on-one to dogfights to far larger melees. Because this is still an emerging sport, melees in New York City tend to be smaller and more intimate: maybe four or six people at a time. In larger tournaments, though? That number can swell significantly. The Battle of the Nations, a yearly armored combat tournament first held in 2009, featured a massive, three-hundred-person melee at the Smederevo Fortress, in Serbia, in 2019.

It’s next to impossible to boil down the identity of a fighter into generalities. And in such a diverse group, sexual dynamics and pairings within the various leagues are nothing if not fluid. The image of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden in steel-plate armor certainly exists, but that type of fighter constitutes only a fraction of the wide-ranging buhurt demographic.

Crush injuries, concussions, and lacerations are the most common and obvious dangers fighters face, but they’re not always the most life-threatening. Some fighters, particularly those who are working at improving their endurance, will literally fight until they vomit. Getting to that point is a difficult feat in itself—fighting through more than three or four matches while wearing armor will burn hundreds of calories in a very short period of time. Retching while strapped inside a helmet can be incredibly dangerous, since it can cause suffocation, but removing the helmet in a hurry can be difficult for someone already disoriented. “The body wants to purge everything in the system to be faster and lighter,” says Dani Schorn, a fighter who works outside of the ring as a full-time certified EMT. “A lot of animals do it when they’re being chased by predators. It’s a danger from a [medical] perspective because it can cause aspiration and lower blood pressure quickly. If the fighter does not take their time, they can risk passing out, dehydration, and further injury.” Another major danger comes from a lack of armor maintenance. “Axe shots to the face are pretty common, [but] I’ve seen injuries such as broken hip plates, multiple broken fingers, panic episodes [which Schorn calls “helmet horrors”], and serious hemorrhages. Put your energy into your armor and you can mostly avoid this.”

Knowing when to call a halt or to take a knee—signaling an end of the fight to the opponents and referee—is just as important as knowing when to keep pushing forward, but for many fighters, satisfaction comes from trying to get past that point and keep swinging. “There have been plenty of times where I’ve been so gassed and gasping for air,” Danielle Sanders, one of the female combatants who make up roughly a quarter of buhurt enthusiasts, explains. “I thought I might just pass out from the stress alone. In those moments there’s a little voice in my head that says ‘I won’t quit until my body does.’ So no matter what, I’m going to give it what I got, and once I leave the list [arena], I can crumble to the ground.”

Steel fighting in the United States really took off in 2011, after the Battle of the Nations. The original team consisted of 29 fighters and support staff, and, for a while, things were copacetic. This group evolved into the Armored Combat League; the international team was the USA Knights. In 2019, the leaders of the ACL divided into two groups—what started as a single community split, as organizers began to fight over ownership of the sport. The two most public-facing leaders within the community, Andre Sinou and Jaye Brooks, went to court to decide the issue. Following litigation, an agreement was reached to dissolve the ACL as a single entity, replacing it with Armored Combat Sports and Armored Combat Worldwide. For a while, this schism caused a noticeable division in the otherwise tight-knit community.

Sanders started as an ACL fighter before moving on to Armored Combat Sports, following the big schism. Today, she describes herself as a mercenary, or “merc.” When the league split into separate entities, some fighters felt they had to take sides. At the time this was a practical issue, both in terms of organizational structure and access to funding and training areas. However, as time has progressed and tempers calmed, this schism is not as polarizing as it once was. “As a merc, I can roam the earth fighting with whomever,” says Sanders. Schorn takes a similar view, mentioning that she will fight for any league that’s active. “[That is] pretty common in fighters,” she explains. “A lot of people don’t care for the drama because they want to fight … a few people stay loyal to their leagues, but for the most part fighters don’t care about who is hosting.” For many, it’s about the fight itself, not about the flag. “The fun part about being a merc is I can fight with both men and women,” Sanders adds. “I feel a sense of moxie when I’m in the list, co-ed style!”

“As a woman, I love the idea of being strong and fighting for myself,” says Schorn, who describes herself as an independent buhurt fighter. “It’s motivation to be healthy, to make new friends, to travel the world. I wouldn’t change this hobby for anything.” Sanders started as a spectator before joining in. “I overheard the steel fighting event planners saying we needed more female fighters, and I said, ‘Great, Sign me up!’ I have a dream of being one of the U.S. female fighters of color to represent our states overseas one day. That’s a beautiful dream.”

At this time there are a number of separate organizations in the United States. American Medieval Combat Organization and Armored Combat Worldwide are two of the largest, but here in New York, there’s another group: Gladiators NYC. The formation of Gladiators NYC wasn’t easy. Issues with the training location and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented fighters from training in groups—a necessity for this type of sport. Damion DiGrazia, the group’s founder, devised a solution. Instead of waiting for an indoor space to open up, he started bringing fighters to Central Park,  after getting his ducks in a row with the police, insurance for the fighters, and permission from the city. DiGrazia then began practicing with members of his team out in public; he says, “Central Park had us increase to a $3 million certificate of insurance to be able to do our activities” in the park. This action soon began to catch the attention of both locals and tourists, and what started as a small group of five or six fighters and a handful of bystanders quickly turned into a monthly event, with dozens of fans, photographers, and Internet personalities showing up for a piece of the action.

DiGrazia came to fighting from a rather incongruous background. An Air Force veteran, he made his name in the business world before turning his attention to buhurt. “For my career in finance, I started with internship and analyst roles in investment banking at boutique investment banks, along with other related roles at the United Nations and Bloomberg,” he explains. After receiving a master’s in finance at Harvard, he worked in various capacities at Morgan Stanley. DiGrazia is thin, almost slight compared to some of the juggernauts who fight with him, and he will often show up to the arena wearing his signature black business suit. The suit might be as much a part of the performance as the armor itself— it stands out among the mix of old-school rock-and-roll T-shirts and medieval tunics.

Getting Gladiators NYC off the ground has been a passion project for him. By bringing it out of the gyms and into the public sphere, DiGrazia says, “[I wanted to make] the sport accessible to all New Yorkers, by removing the price tag from the normally expensive classes, and then trying to let them use armor for free.” Additionally, DiGrazia makes an effort to help new fighters travel to tournaments for lowered prices, sometimes covering the cost completely. He describes this as a necessary part of helping New Yorkers recover from the pandemic, “to help raise their spirits after a rough couple of years,” adding, “Our events in the park are free because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and when everything kind of sucks we want to uplift the city.” Still, such public events are also recruiting tools—and typically, they’re effective. DiGrazia’s end goal is to make the NYC team the most competitive in the country, with plans to eventually take the organization national.

And despite the cracked skull, Rorich never really stopped fighting. When the ambulance finally arrived and the EMTs started cutting through the leather straps on his armor—which is expensive and time-consuming to repair—Rorich says he shook off the restraining hands and began removing the armor himself. In shaking, jerky motions, he stood and shucked it off like a lobster molting a shell before walking himself to the stretcher. In the end, 14 staples held the skin on his head together. As tough as he was, though, there was still a long-term recovery to deal with. “I flew home [to Phoenix, Arizona], but there were traumatic brain injury issues from the beginning.” He had trouble coordinating his movements with his intentions, and would sometimes trip over small objects. “I wasn’t prepared for the emotional fallback of a traumatic brain injury, and as a result of my ignorance I lost a very lucrative consulting job, because I lost control of my emotions during a stressful meeting.”

Thankfully, after a few months the difficulties began to clear up. Returning to the arena was never in question, though. “There has never been a point [since the head injury] where I have had to say ‘stop’ except for a torn ACL [in my] knee, and that was only because I couldn’t get my leg working properly. Otherwise, I’ve never stopped fighting.”   ❖

C.S. Muncy is a photojournalist and writer based out of New York City who has worked with a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and the Village Voice.

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