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'It's kind of MMA with swords': The armored combat sports event you didn't know you needed

Medieval Knight Costume, Detail Of Helmets on top of chain mail, lying on a wooden table.
Participants from several New England-based armored combat teams will don suits of armor this weekend and compete in sporting events at the Champlain Valley Expo. Pictured, the Manchester Monarchs.

“Spangenhelm,” “grieves” and “sabatons" are  just some of the elements of a knight’s suit of armor. And this weekend, fighters from around New England will don metal garments, foist blunted weapons and descend on the Champlain Valley Expo Fairgrounds in Essex Junction for the Armored Combat Sports gathering.

Jeffrey Folb is general manager and owner of Vermont Gatherings, a group who produces events like The Renaissance Faire and The Vermont Steampunk Expo. He recently spoke with VPR's Mary Engisch about the event. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: So this event at the Expo this weekend is called an “armored combat sports gathering.” We can certainly all kind of picture a suit of armor. But what exactly are armored combat sports?

Jeff Folb: The armored combat sports league has been around for about eight to 10 years now, and just in the last couple of years has grown to over 40 teams around the country.

It's actually part of an international sport, which is fully armored combat. It's men's and women's teams — they don't compete against each other — fully armored, like knights of the Medieval times, battling with blunted weapons in an MMA-style event. Most team events are five-on-five. But there's individual duels, five-on-five and even 15-on-15 team events.

"Last person standing,” referees and rules. It's kind of MMA with swords, or as I like to say it's a NASCAR race where all they do is crash.

Now this is the first time that this has been held in Vermont?

It's the New England championships; they just had their nationals in Reno, NV and now they're doing their New England's. So it's the four top teams in New England. So they'll run their semifinals and finals. And in between the four matches, there will be individual men's and women's duels.

Head-to-toe encased in metal suits of armor?

Head-to-toe encased in gamesons, padding, steel armor, full helmets. You know, safety obviously is of paramount importance to this. Um, they are hitting each other full force with blunted weapons as well as themselves. So, obviously, they're not attempting to hurt each other. They're attempting to, ya know, knock each other on their — excuse my language — butts. Last person standing. And honestly, other than, you know, being a little battered and bruised. It's um, it's pretty safe.

Speaking of safety, is this among the most pandemic-safe activities that one could engage in?

Between the padding and you know, staying at sword range and all, yeah. They're pretty protected against almost anything.

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Who's your target audience for participants and then for spectators?

Obviously, with our background, my wife, Debbie and myself running the Renaissance faires and the sci-fi expos, definitely anybody who's into the genres and the fantasy and the history. But also anyone interested in extreme sports. So whether they're a boxing fan, an MMA fan, car racing.

It's something you're not gonna see anywhere else. It's something very visceral, when it's happening right in front of you. Very natural and real. It's not choreographed. It's not, you know, the fancy sword fighting you might see in movies. It is, you know, well, I can't say, "bare-knuckled," but "metal-knuckled" brawling.

Wow. Can anyone come watch the event?

It's open to all ages. Kids under six are free. Certainly open to anybody who's interested in any type of, you know, extreme sports.

One last question for you, Jeff. Where do you get a suit of armor these days?

There are cottage industries, both within the United States and a lot over in Eastern Europe. So there are still crafts people out there, making plate armor swords, all the accoutrements of armored combat.

They're hand-fitted to each individual. They also most of them will have multiple suits of armor. A lot of the novice fighters, as they get involved, start fighting in hand-me-down equipment. So it's very much that kind of apprentice-journeyman world, from, you know, an apprentice into a full-fledged team fighter.

Well, it sounds like a blast. I've loved learning more about this. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

No problem. Hope to see you there.

Vermont Gatherings hosts the Armored Combat Sports Northeastern Chapter Championship event Saturday, Nov. 13 at 3 p.m., at Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. Find tickets and information here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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