The air reeks of sweat and sulfur; the groans and thuds of men in combat surround me. I stoop to pick up an axe and approach a stack of tires with white numbers stenciled on them, eyes leveled at a spot labeled “2.”
I slash and hack at the digit until it morphs into a battle-tested, steel helmet. I envision my foe reeling from the blows. He staggers backward but doesn’t fall. I gather the last of my strength (I had to transfer trains twice to get to this battlefield) and swing the axe again.
I am William Wallace. I am Maximus. I am The Hound.
“You’re not hitting it right,” says a man nearby, shattering my fantasy.
Indeed, I wasn’t. My wrists were turning too much at the end of my extension, and I was curving the axe inwards, almost striking the tire with the flat part of the blade. There’s technique involved in the lofting and heaving of medieval weapons and the warriors of the Armored Combat League take that technique very seriously.
With sweat sheeting off my forehead, and my smoker’s lungs feeling compressed, I pause to ask myself what I’m doing in a basement, on the edge of Harlem, holding an axe. And what about the other men? Why suit up in armor to do battle every week? How does this become someone’s consuming passion?
Metal of Honor
We have doctors, lawyers, military guys — people from all walks of life that are involved in this all over the nation. It’s big. It’s going to explode. I guarantee it’s going to explode. We’re exponentially growing. Every year we’re gaining people.
“I’ll tell you what’s really amazing: When the crowd is behind us,” Andre Sinou, one of the founders of the Armored Combat League, tells me before launching into a vivid yarn from a battle in Poland when he punched a German in the back of the head. As we exit his vehicle and walk into the parking lot of a Wawa, Sinou begins reenacting his movements on the battlefield, bounding left and right like a barrel-chested ballerina, smiling broadly. He even positions me on the field — or in this case the parking lot — as a stand-in for the German opponent.
“Stay right there,” he instructs.
He takes several back-steps into an empty parking spot, then trots forward, peppering in play-by-play all the while. Passing me, he throws a haymaker toward the Wawa’s brick facade — then describes how this sprinting blow brought the Polish crowd to their feet.
It’s an interesting thing to witness — this 50-year old Marine skipping around like a 10-year old boy. His excitement is infectious and wholly charming.
The primary objective in the Armored Combat League is to get three points of your opponent’s body touching the ground. Feet count as two points, so it’s just a matter of tipping your foe off balance so that they have to take a knee, or use a hand to brace themselves. Submissions also count, and once an entire squadron of enemies have been eliminated, the team left standing wins. In any given bout, you’ll see maces, swords, axes, and shields. Each weapon has its own variations too, some are longer and more elegant, while others are stubby for close range fighting.
Competition can consist of two 16-man brawls, 10-versus-10 combat, and the most prestigious, the five-versus-five battle. There are also one-on-one matches, but Sinou isn’t particularly interested in them.
“Single champions tend to be prima donnas,” he says. “Prima donnas to the max. Or, they go, ‘I don’t want to wear the national colors because the fans won’t be able to tell (who I am) in the crowd.’ When someone says they don’t want to do that… they’re a special snowflake; that’s what I call them. We’ve gone through our growing pains with some prima donnas, and they were pretty much told not to come back.”
If you think this is a niche sport for a few Game of Thrones obsessed men and women, think again. A recent championship event in Poland saw 30,000 people in attendance. The Armored Combat League (A.C.L.) is the American arm of the larger International Medieval Combat Federation (I.M.C.F.), which operates on a global scale, and includes teams from France, Germany, Poland, and Denmark, among others. (“The French attack in packs, like velociraptors,” Sinou says.)
Sinou serves as the captain of the U.S. national team, and his place in the hierarchy of the league has earned him the nickname “Captain America.” He even wears the Marvel Comics character’s emblematic shirt under his armor. When he’s not wearing a helmet, a baseball cap proudly pledges his affiliation to the Marines.
Sinou is more than just the captain of the American team and founder of the A.C.L. — he’s also an armorer, forging the steel that the fighters in his league wear. His brand of armor is called Ice Falcon, made inside a small garage in southern New Jersey.
“A good harness from us is about six grand,” he tells me, standing over his workbench. “A cheap harness, you can buy for about $2,500, but in a year you’ll have to replace it. My armor lasts forever; you’ll retire before you have to replace it. It’s cheaper in the long run if you have the money upfront to just get a good suit of armor.”
The garage has two flat countertops that stand in the center, and both are covered with an assortment of rubber and steel hammers, shiny helmets, squares of fabric, hinges, and rivets. Wooden beams are draped with half suits of armor. Buckets, bins, and shelves — brimming with armor or weapon-making components — fill up any open space. Up about a half-dozen steps is a small room that contains all the finished pieces. Rolls of chain-link, polished pieces of armor, and bladed weapons all sit on the metal shelving lining the walls, much of it carefully encased in bubblewrap.
“We’re the largest armory in the United States,” Sinou says as I inspect a war helmet. “This looks tiny, and it is tiny, but we’re the largest. Everyone asks me, ‘Can you make any money as an armorer?’ I always say, ‘Well, how many armorers do you know?’ There’s not that many people left that do what I do. I’ve been doing it now for almost 30 years. We started in someone’s cellar.”
The Rules Of War
Not even an activity as noble and niche as armored combat is immune to the controversies that tend to follow organized sports. The A.C.L. and the I.M.C.F. were built out of necessity when a previous governing body didn’t play by the book.
“Armored combat started in Eastern Europe,” Sinou explains (speaking of the evolution of the sport, not all armored combat). “It started with Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus — those were the first countries to get involved in it. The organization that we originally started with was pretty corrupt. There were some bad connections there, probably some Russian mafia-type thing. The owner said, ‘As long as I’m paying the bills, the Russians will win.’ The Russians were good, by the way. They didn’t have to cheat to beat us. They were better than us. They’d come out with weapons that were sharper than they should have been. They’d say no titanium armor, but the Russians would come out with titanium armor. Referees were all Russian — Russian judges would see someone get knocked over and turn their back for a second, and the guy would get back up and they’d turn back around.”
Many of the European teams approached Sinou and asked for help standing up against the Russian-owned organization [he refuses to name them on the record]. Captain America had a better idea.
“I said, ‘Listen. We don’t have to do this. We can form our own organization.’ They were like, ‘Really?’ Especially the young guys — they were scared. They were like, ‘We don’t have any money. We can’t do this.’ I go, ‘It’s not so hard.’ I said, ‘We can do it. We’ve run a lot of big events here. We can run our own organization.’ I contacted all the captains from all these countries; mostly Western European countries. I said, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ There was a big event in Bliburg, Germany. I said, ‘Let’s go to their event. We’ll go visit. And then we’ll sit down and form our own organization.’ And that’s what we did. We formed the I.M.C.F., which is the world organization.”
The formation of the A.C.L. soon followed. Sinou also created a women’s division — something that the Russian organization refused to do.
“We treat all the women just like the men,” he says, pointing across the workshop to a woman-sized breastplate. “If a man doesn’t cry on the field, I don’t want to see a woman cry on the field. Quit the crying. Let’s get out there and fight. And, again, that comes from my Marine Corps background because in the Marines, men and women are treated equally. We’re not going to (give) special treatment for anybody.”
Because armored combat is still relatively small, it’s easy to get involved. Anyone can start their own chapter of the A.C.L. (you only need three people); most major cities already have one. Nearby chapters fight in a “Chapter War,” pitting city vs. city. Regional commanders use these Chapter Wars to determine the best fighters from each region (there are currently 10 regions in the U.S.) to field an eight-man all-star team.
A “Regional Shootout” follows, and the all-star teams fight each other until champions are determined for the Eastern and Western Conference. This all culminates in the “National Championships” where the regional all-stars battle to determine the best in the country. The stars of nationals are chosen by Sinou to go overseas and fight the best in the world at the I.M.C.F. championships.
“The I.M.C.F. world championship is the Olympics of what we do,” he says. “There are 30 countries right now that are participating in it. There’s countries all over that want to go. You’d be surprised — Japan’s involved, South Africa’s involved, Argentina… the Argentinian group is becoming big.”
In true Marine fashion, Sinou used to run his team like a para-military group — until his business partner told him that he had to ease off and allow members to have more control over their positions.
“When we ‘backed off,’ all the prima donnas stepped forward,” Sinou says with plenty of distain. “‘Well, I don’t like this uniform,’ and, ‘I don’t like the fact that Andre tells me where I have to fight. I want to fight with my friends.’ You know? It’s not about me. It’s not about my group. It’s not about your group. It’s about the national team. We tightened up structure again, everyone’s happy again, we got rid of the prima donnas. Do people still grumble every now and then? Absolutely. But the general consensus is everyone’s happy.”
Like other pro sports, drugs and corruption are also concerns.
“Forming our own organization did not make the Russians happy,” Sinou says. “They were very happy to have an American team there, especially an American team they could beat. Their fighters were all taking crystal meth. ‘The Met,’ they called it. It was a very dangerous place for me as a leader to bring my people. I wanted to mitigate that danger, and that’s why we created the I.M.C.F. They tried to bribe me, personally: ‘Bring your guys back and I’ll make you president of the organization.’ They offered me cash money. If anyone in the mafia sends you cash money, they own you. They said, ‘Andre, we’ll give you this money. We’ll give you prostitutes, and feed you, and we’ll give you a really fancy place to stay.’ I said, ‘What’s my team get?’ I said, ‘I tell you what. I’ll talk to my team about coming back if you take care of their hotel rooms and airfare.’ They said, ‘No, no, no — just you.’ Even if I was a bad leader and took the money, I’d be owned by them.”
As my tour of Sinou’s armory winds down, he lets me know that he’s far from done. At 50, you’d think that he’d be getting ready to retire from a sport that seems built for youth.
“I’m 50 years old — I’m not going to do this much longer,” he says. “The younger generation has to step forward and take my place. I foresee no more than another 10 or 15 years and then I’ll have to drop down to the “B” team. I’m in the best shape of my life. I don’t even think about quitting. It doesn’t cross my mind. If I could do this until I’m 65, I would do it.”
I leave the workshop with the mechanics of the league and some of its history down pat. What I don’t have an answer to is why? Why would grown men and women subject themselves to this kind of punishment, and risk injury just to strike someone with a large, metallic object?
The answers were awaiting me in Harlem.
Everyone is going to get hurt. No way you can do this sport without getting hurt eventually.
On the train ride to the Harlem headquarters of the New York chapter of the Armored Combat League, I wonder what it is, exactly, that I’m going to see. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard about the physicality involved — grown men engaging in weaponized battle. But it’s still hard to know what to expect. As the breaks of the train scream to announce my stop, a story from Sinou replays in my head:
“(A team member) got hit in such a way that his breastplate got driven up into his neck,” he told me. “So, he was done. He got taken out into a stretcher, and he was done.”
It’s hard, considering that, to not feel a touch nervous.
The Harlem training facility is bigger and cleaner than I envisioned — black matting lines the concrete floors, rows of swords collect against the walls, three car tires hang from a rope, and wooden beams encase the floorspace to act as a barrier. In the far corner of the open space is a sort of locker room, complete with a changing area, a bench press, and wooden shelves that hold various pieces of armor and equipment. Next to the changing area is a lounge with a plush sofa and a TV hooked up to an Xbox. Among the video game titles: Assassin’s Creed and Skyrim — two games that someone dressing in medieval armor might appreciate.
After my round with the row of tires, it’s time for the professionals to go to work. Orlando, a new recruit, squares off against a more seasoned fighter. Armored combat isn’t poetic: when the two men clash, Orlando flails his limbs and weapon, trying desperately to down his foe. Orlando expends his energy, then he’s taken down by the shoulders and a single leg-trip. The action is simple, but it’s looks brutal. When a few rounds of this are over, Orlando removes his helmet, gasping for air. He tells me that he feels like he could throw up from the exhaustion. I make him aware that my camera is ready for such an event. In between gasps and rivulets of sweat beading down his forehead, he tells me why he wants to do this.
“I used to go to Medieval Times, and renaissance fairs,” he says. “I watched these people. I thought that’s so cool. I went to a medieval fair and I saw a 16 on 16 match. I didn’t even know my instructor at the time (Damion), but I was watching him and I was blown away by the moves he was doing. The way he jumped in the air with armor, and put an axe around someone’s head and took them down. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was the hypest person there. I was like, ‘Sign me up.’ ”
That instructor, Damion DiGrazia, is known as “La Flecha” — The Arrow. It’s a nickname given to him during a competition in Spain. When he takes the field for a four-on-four battle, it’s easy to see why. Even in the heavy, 14th-century armor that he wears, Damion — a Harvard and Columbia graduate — weaves in and out of pockets of brawls on the field, smooth, picking his spots like a metallic ninja. One of the more brutal exchanges I witness involves Damion sneaking up behind a competitor and leveling him with a forearm shiver to the back of the head; the blow is so fierce, the man topples over immediately, grabbing his helmet as if a grenade exploded inside of it. It’s clear that The Arrow takes the sport very seriously.
“They (Spain) came over and gave me an arrowhead and they said, ‘We want to name you La Flecha.’ So, I have to live up to that,” he tells me. “People think I’m made of magic… So, I have to train constantly.”
It’s easy to see how people could get hurt doing this, and I’m told a fair share of horror stories. In one tale, a man’s hand armor came undone and a sword blow cut off several of his fingers. In a suitably Game of Thrones response, the victim of the grisly incident handed his sword-wielding foe the fingers as a gift. Damion, himself, has had to make a few ER visits: staples in the head, dislocated shoulders, bones bruises, lacerations, bruised ribs. He’s seen guys spit out teeth, guys leave the field with broken arms, and in another horrifying instance, a warrior’s faceplate shifted and he was axed in the head twice. Luckily, he only ended up with “flesh wounds”… but again it makes you wonder why anyone would chose to be a part of this. How could the risk possibly be worth the reward?
Eventually, I learn that the A.C.L. has made adjustments to ensure that injuries are as rare as possible. In the early stages, the minimum armor for the sport was 14-gauge mild steel. Captain America spoke up about that, saying that someone was going to get hurt (“I can crush 14 gauge with my hands,” Sinou told me). Sure enough, someone did get hurt — a member of the league received a double-concussion and it was touch-and-go as to whether he would survive the trauma. Now, the league has a minimum of 13-gauge stainless steel, or 12-gauge mild steel. Since the changes, there hasn’t been a single traumatic head injury.
Maria Dedvukaj is the girlfriend of an A.C.L. star and supports the team in the states and overseas. For her, it’s about patriotism and brotherhood.
“When you go overseas, it’s a different animal. It’s your country,” she says. “We get such a wonderful response from everyone and other countries. What I really enjoy: No matter what country we’re fighting, at the end, everyone’s hugging one another. This is not a grudge match. This is about being the best you can be on the fighting field, and I love that. It’s not about just winning — it’s the energy of being together.”
For Zorikh Lequidre, it’s all about chasing glory. Lequidre is a pro wrestler and actor and hopes to get famous through his exploits (not unlike The Hound or The Mountain from Game of Thrones).
“I feel like a superhero when I’m wearing armor,” he says. “I feel like I’m putting on a secret identity, and going out and fighting the forces of evil. It pushes me to a level of physical exertion that nothing else has. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is really close to it, except you’re not also wearing this armor. As much as I hate work, and hate challenges, I love saying that I did them. I absolutely hate every single thing that it takes to do well in this sport, but I love saying that I did it. This is a spectator sport — I am a starving actor. I am an exhibitionist. I want people to look at me.”
Another scrimmage blasts onto the training area, and I step outside. As I smoke a cigarette, leaning against the dungeon’s double doors, I can hear the clash of armor, shields, and blades reverberating out onto the Harlem streets. When I reenter, one of the combatants is bleeding from his eyebrow, the victim of a vicious shot that smashed his own helmet into his head. He flashes a smile at me, proud of his wound.
What It Takes To Be A Knight
“The biggest thing is willpower,” Sinou told me a week prior. “It’s going to hurt. Your lungs are going to burn. Your heart’s going to feel like it’s going to explode in your chest. But, if you’re still in the fight, you’re going to stay in. It’s very easy to give up and take a knee. The average person will do that.”
New recruit, Orlando — who works in the shipping department of a fashion company — is spent. He’s sucking up oxygen on the floor, trying his best not to give me the vomiting shot I’m so hoping for. Finally, he throws his hands in the air, saying he’s done for the day. He fought valiantly.
“For me, I always felt like I was born in the wrong century,” Orlando says in between deep breaths. “I just always had a different mindset. Don’t get me wrong: people think knights are cool, but no one thought they were as cool as me. Realistically, it’s a stress relief that makes (me) happy. It’s something that you can do after a sh*tty day of work. You can meet a great group of guys and just let it all out in the arena. I’m an eccentric person. I do, like, fire-eating and fire-dancing. At the end of the day, this is what’s making me smile. That’s what it’s about. This is my outlet. I’m bleeding and I’m sweating, and I can’t wait to do this next week.”
For Morgan Neyland, a social worker, this sport is more about opening a valve of aggressive energy.
“I’ve been into metal and hardcore since I was in high school and I was used to things that were aggressive outlets,” he says. “This is something that meshes with the physical part of that, but also my love of history, my love of fantasy movies. It makes you really craft-oriented too, because you have to put stuff together… I’m into contact sports, but, with those, it’s kind of about trying to simulate this. Trying to simulate battle. It’s a sport where you can head butt, elbow… you can go all out as if it were an actual fight.”
As I speak to the fighters, it becomes clear that for them, armored combat is about a lot more than just hitting people with old-fashioned weapons. Over and over, I hear about patriotism, pageantry, and working through aggression. In the end, the conversations all circle around to an even bigger theme: camaraderie. There is a real respect between combatants. Each warrior needs an opponent.
“The draw is testing yourself — testing your mind, testing your body,” Sinou tells me over the phone. “It’s about willpower. It’s also about strategy. Wearing red, white, and blue, representing your nation on foreign soil. And, being a part of a family; a lot of people want that. We try and build the A.C.L. like a giant family. The difference between the Armored Combat League and other sports is: We are building a culture.”
“It’s a journey of personal discovery,” Lequidre adds. “Part of it is, ‘Hey, I get to represent the United States in international competition!’ Part of it is because it’s just awesome to be medieval knight. Part of it is also because I want people to look at me. I want them to say to themselves, ‘Oh my God. If this guy can work that hard and put up with that kind of suffering to do that, what am I not doing to achieve what I want?’ What can I do to inspire that person to work as hard or harder than me to do what they want to do as much as I want to do this?”
As these behemoths of battle peel off their layers of armor, piece by piece, I sit amazed at not only the ferocity of what I’ve witnessed, but the sheer joy plastered across the faces of each participant. It’s hard not to be moved by a room swelling with giddy happiness. I half expect mead to get tossed around and women to come barreling in, jumping on the laps of these brave warriors. Instead, they pat heavy, warm hands on each other, hug, and thank one another for engaging in their gritty pastime of choice. Battle brings them closer to the human experience and that’s what draws these men to participate. The wounds, the scars, the bruises — they’re merely badges of a fellowship forged in steel.
“I love it. I feel like… I like to think of us as gentlemen of combat,” Damion says. “We stay respectful. I think, at first, people come for the amazing sport that it is. They come for glory and honor and fighting and steel — it’s amazing. But, then you stay for the brotherhood. You stay because you’re concerned for your teammates going on the field without you. In the end, I think for a lot of us, you get to represent the U.S. and your city. You get to do something that has not been done that much. It’s a very unique sport. It changes people. It gives a special sparkle in your eye. It’s magic in here.”