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Armored Combat League: Spectacle or Sport?

Modern Day Armored Combat. Anyone with a healthy addiction to youtube knows it exists in Eastern Europe, along with any other extreme combat sporting concept; lingerie fighting, arena combat and team MMA all having their time on our collective computer monitors. However, one may be surprised to learn the sport of Armored Combat exists among us right now in an organized form. This is a fact that would have been lost on me if not for John McAndrews, top ranked amateur fighter out of Nuri Shakir’s Gate City MMA, sending me an invite to an event in our mutual home of Greater Nashua, New Hampshire. While I’ve been involved in the MMA scene locally for awhile now, my true martial passion has always been self-defense, with that journey having taken me into various weapon disciplines over the years. By my estimation, I may be the only MMA analyst who has ever competed with a broadsword, and the whole idea of organized armored fighting seemed too good of an opportunity to pass up, and thus I found myself attending an event for Armored Combat League, or ACL.

The “venue” was a typical one for off-the-grid martial practice spaces; a mill building in Nashua with little signage, yet an A-frame outside the door left instructions for guests to what was dubbed Knight Fights 1, and away on the service elevator I went to a world of shrieking steel and barely-contained lethal-grade action. Upon arrival I met up with McAndrews who introduced me to the man making this happen in the United States, one Jaye Brooks Sr. An older gentleman who leads by example, he was scarred yet hale and fit, telling me his own roots from which the ACL had grown. An IT expert, Brooks had enjoyed the world of SCA in his free time, a more hardcore version of Live Action Roleplaying that has less characterization and more a lean towards combatives, but needed to find the next step beyond that world. The aforementioned youtube had come through for him in his quest for a more extreme form of combat, and given expertise and desire, Brooks had soon shed 65lbs of fat and exchanged it for 65lbs of plated armor. Brooks had competed across the globe in the Battle of Nations organization of Armored Combat, yet while gaining world championship status, he would catch glimpses of heavy corruption behind the scenes.

Stepping aside as full-time competitor, Brooks formed his own league with co-owner Andre Sinou, which he hopes can bring armored combat to the next level. He gave me a tour of his 4th floor establishment which had recently become a two floor enterprise and Brooks’ full-time occupation; tapping his own retirement fund to build the sport. It was a statement that bridged the constant gap within worlds like this between fantasy and reality, and spoke of his dedication to his sub-culture craft, but also put the event of the day on another level.

For those of us he grew up in worlds of high fantasy and martial arts, there is an ever-present divider between those who mentally live within those worlds, and those who physically make them reality. Within martial arts, there are people who enjoy the theory of fighting, yet never make the physical effort to test themselves, lest their illusions and ego be shattered by the reality of combat. Within combat, all truth is revealed, and there is a “lineage” from that fanciful student, to the point fighter, to the full contact fighter, to the MMA or Vale Tudo fighter. This same line can be drawn in the world of fantasy games and role playing with a nasty curve, from table top games, to LARPing, to SCA, and now to ACL. It made for some odd bedfellows in terms of the fan base and crew for the night, with people ranging from the rotund to the fitness magazine model; the tabletop warrior to the military combat veteran.

As we walked into the fighting area where cameras were being rigged to allow streaming across the world, the gravity of this endeavor became that much greater as people filed in for the event. While not built to hold events in this sense, the venue packed in roughly sixty people; a surprising number for something only advertised across social media and admittedly niche in the extreme. As the area outside the iron-barricaded ring; a roughly 26’x26’ fighting area with two support posts in the middle, became encircled with fans, the rules for ACL were demonstrated as follows:

Fighters compete in weight classes, complete with weigh-ins the day prior, and go from the lighter weight fighters up to Titanweight, designed for those over 260lbs.

Fighters compete with a variety of weapons, from multiple length blades, combinations of weapons and shields, up to various two handed weapons. These weapons have rounded edges and are used to attack in any manner, with the only prohibited strikes being thrusts, which are lethal even with full armor and blunted weapons, or striking the back of the knee, a classic weak point in armor that would result in a crippling injury to the competitors.

Fighters are armored from head-to-toe in a variety of plate and leather, with suits that range from sixty pounds and upwards. The style is heavily personalized and often hand-made; no two sets being alike. The most interesting style and function meeting were the helmets, with a rich history of styles and cultures represented, each with different shapes to deflect blows and configurations for breathing and seeing the action around oneself.

Fights were five, one minute rounds where score is kept as follows: Two points for an on-blade strike, one point for a non-blade hit, which could be anything from a pommel strike to a headbutt or knee, one point for a takedown where the attacker maintains dominant position, and four points for a throw where one person drops while the other remains upright. These scores are then boiled down to a simple 10 point must system as seen in boxing or MMA, with 10 points awarded to the winner and 9 to the loser.

Anyone winning three rounds in a row is granted something akin to a “tech fall” in wrestling or amateur boxing and the fight is called off. A fighter can also surrender at any time for a KO victory.

The evening included three fights, with three weapon options across three weight classes. A Lightweight bout using warbrands; a kind of short pole weapon that equates to a sword on a short staff, Titanweights with Dane Axes; large scale single-bit axes, and Middleweights using shields and falchions; a heavy curved sword built for chopping.

To say the action was intense at times would be an understatement, and the fight held the extreme gravity of heavyweight boxing; every blow being a potential fight-ender as axes and swords smashed home against helmets and body armor. As a spectator in a room not built for crowds, the audience was often tasked with protecting itself as swords swung past the protective rails, adding a major danger edge that didn’t register well with all audience members, yet added a definite excitement to the proceedings.

While the event was fantastic for someone such as myself who enjoys both combat sports, medieval concepts, and suffers from an adrenaline addiction, the question becomes what to make of this spectacle trying to be cast as a true sport?

Where it works:

Accessible: As stupid at this might sound on the surface, the sport’s greatest asset is that it’s instantly accessible. There isn’t a person alive in the modern era that doesn’t have an idea about armored combat from movies and television, and the idea of two people fighting it out needs zero explanation. While some sports remain niche because their rule sets are too complicated for casual viewers, such as rugby or freestyle wrestling, this carries the same no-nonsense structure as baseball; easy to digest but with complexity to keep it interesting the deeper one goes.

Variety: The idea that fights work across weight classes, armor is individualized, and weapons can be from a vast array of items, every fight has a different feel. This translates not only to the cursory level but into the tactical level, where lightweights using sword and shield will fight completely differently than heavyweights with the same weapons, and different weapons bring different tactics as well depending on swing speeds. While sword and shield bouts are fast and furious, axe matches have that heavy feeling that a single blow can send someone to the ground. Without being insulting in the least, it follows the pattern of a circus, where there is something for everyone and the changing dynamic keeps it fresh.

Pure Excitement: There are sports and pseudo-sports that exist just because they’re, at their core, extremely dangerous and crazy. Bull riding and demolition derby exists on this premise of sheer excitement, and ACL absolutely taps into that, even if the crowd doesn’t have to duck errant sword swings. The sound of an axe cleaving into a helmet makes the ears ring and the heart pound like nothing else you can experience in life, and for this fact alone, this sport could exist on the renaissance fair or county fair circuit for time immemorial if need be, and has some potential as a mainstream crossover sport suited for X-Games.

Tempo: Where combat sports like boxing and MMA fail to capture constant attention among the masses due to their occasionally slow pace, the short rounds and limitless offensive allowance make every second of the matches worth watching. Aside from the propensity of clinch fight more than one would expect from a weapon fight, there was always something to watch during the bouts. Very few sports can boast that something is constantly happening, but ACL is structured to be non-stop action, much like the World Combat League did for kickboxing.

Web Presence: Combining the factors above, we have a sport that is uniquely suited to the internet, and as the event I attended was streamed across the web, it would be easy to attract an audience on the other end of that stream. Short and fast-paced fights make for amazing click bait online, with everyone having a spare minute to watch a round of battle. While the prospects of stadiums full of fans may be a pipe dream, ACL has infinite potential in the world of IPPV or commercial and ad based free viewing.

Where it doesn’t work:

Scoring: Imagine basketball; scored as a dunk or inside shot counting for 2 points and a shot from far outside counting for 3. There is a balance within the sport of people trying to shoot inside for easier points and people shooting from outside for the chance at the extra point. Now change that structure where a dunk counts for 5, and imagine how the sport would change from one of balanced shooting to one of constant charges on the basket. Change it again to a dunk counting for 1 point and a shot from outside counting for 10, and the sport is now a game of protecting sharpshooters.

In a neophyte sport, the structure of scoring is paramount, and I think this incarnation of the rules fails in some areas. The reality of competitive athletics is that people want to win, and will take the fastest and easiest route to victory. What I witnessed with the rule set is that the sport often became less about landing a weapon blow (2 points) and more about clinch fighting to land punches and knees (1 point each). For a sport to play out the way one wants it to to be visually appealing, the scoring must be augmented to force action in those worlds. If a weapon strike became worth 5 points for instance, the stalemates witnessed in the clinch would largely disappear, defense would take on more importance, and the sport would “play out” far more along the lines of a “knight fight” a spectator would imagine that what happened at the event itself; bouts that were largely clinch-based fighting.

Judging: An aspect of scoring that bled over into the official aspect of the event came to the judging, where two men from a weapons fighting background were charged with trying to score the bouts; each keeping track of weapon strikes, punches, throws and point deductions for fouls for both competitors. In short, it was a mess that becomes inexcusable when considering a sport for even the fringe mainstream. The current judging system was too complex the way it was set up, though switching to the style of competitive fencing: a judge monitoring a single fighter, would help to help keep the fights straight.

Fighters: Much like with other combat sports, ACL will always suffer from a lack of talent pool, and may find itself on the extreme end of that spectrum due to the cost of armor being in the $3,000 range. Where BJJ can often convince people to buy a $150 gi and pay a $120 monthly fee to try their sport out, the price tag on the front end may be too costly for all but the most dedicated individuals. A grass-roots sport needs grass-roots fans, who largely come from the support system of the athletes themselves.

Insanity Factor: While completely unavoidable by nature, one of the major hurdles in front of ACL becoming a true sport for the masses is the constant danger factor of swinging steel at another human being. While helmets and masks have a way of obscuring the reality of human lives in danger, the reality is that you’d be hard-pressed to sell this to the majority of females, or have parents allow children to watch something easily emulated sans training and proper protection.

Fans: While perhaps a cruel irony to the sport itself, it may actually be the fans themselves that keep the ACL from ever making its way to anything outside a mill building or park. A sport born from the world of fantasy and role playing, the main fan base for armored combat is what the world at large deems “nerds” for lack of a better term, who have created this world as a sub-culture, refuge, and brotherhood. Those ostracized from society have a tendency to be exclusionary with the activities they consider “theirs” and as an outsider coming into this event, I was met with that defensive edge of arrogant isolationism in many of my interactions. While someone attending a baseball game with limited knowledge of the sport would find themselves embraced by well-meaning fans who wanted to include people into their cherished past time, my “welcome” was limited and immediately off-putting by those who didn’t know who I was or why I was there. It’s another hurdle that may be impossible to breach for those who “live” the lifestyle of fantasy, while others of us simply visit from time to time, yet the largest sport in the world, soccer, sees itself on that pedestal due to the tremendous unity of its fans, where the ACL may see itself forever obscure by internal design.

The Verdict: While I was an instant fan of the heart-pounding action, I’m also hardly the main stream sport fan, and I feel this sport has a mountain of obstacles to climb before it will see any acceptance. The idea of it ever being main stream it shot simply for the violence factor that keeps MMA and boxing just outside acceptance, and the ability to generate “star power” is greatly hindered by the limited athletic crossover that put the aforementioned sports where they are today. Operating as a sport itself, it can survive indefinitely within its own sub-cultural venues and will be the best part of any renaissance fair for even the casual attendee.

Somewhat ironically, ACL’s greatest potential lies in the world of technology and the ability to broadcast their sport onto phones, tablets, and computers the world over. As a largely internet only sport, with the proper support, this could be a niche sport that hits millions of people worldwide and avoids some of the pitfalls mentioned above, to see Mr. Brooks dreams come to a reality in his lifetime. For myself, I look forward to attending many and more events and continue to support combat sports of all kinds, the ACL being barbaric and bombastic in all the best ways possible.

For more information, check out www.theknightshall.com as well as www.usaknights.org and learn about this fledgling sport.

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