Competing in the Axe-Wielding, Bone-Crushing Sport of Medieval Combat

Men and women dressed in real suits of armor fight for medieval glory.

August 7, 2014, 3:03 PM

— -- Men and for the first time, women, dressed in full suits of armor, welding medieval axes, swords and shields, took to a battlefield in Spain to fight for world-dominating glory.

This was not a scene being shot for an upcoming episode of “Game of Thrones,” but a real-life tournament for the bone-crushing sport of full-armored medieval combat.

Teams from all over the world gathered for the International Medieval Combat competition at the castle of Belmonte in Belmonte, Spain, in May, to fight in tournaments in the style of 14th century Europe – complete with armor and authentic weaponry.

“All the edges on weapons have to be 2-millimeter wide,” said USA Knights team captain Andre Sinou. “We’ll go over the blades… so that there are no sharp edges that could puncture. Don’t have to puncture.”

The USA Knights, the American national team made up of fighters from across the U.S., prepared for months for these world championships, which hosted 10,000 spectators and many more watching on Spanish television.

“We’ve got guys from all walks of life,” said Sinou, who is a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. “We’ve got lawyers, doctors, college students, guys that work at gas stations. It doesn’t really matter. ... This is truly a United States team.”

The steel armor the knights wear can cost up to $10,000 and weigh 80 pounds, but when competing in hand-to-hand combat with swords and shields, knights want all the protection they can get.

“I’ve seen individuals with their helmet caved in, along with their head,” said USA Knights team member Brad Schaive. “I’ve seen double compound fractures… I’ve seen fingers cut off. I’ve seen guys take helmets off and there’s no teeth left, their nose is broke, their heads gashed open, they’re bleeding all over.”

To gain a spot on the national team, knights first competed in smaller combat events held at the Illinois state fairground a few months prior to the international event.

Over 70 people tried out for the USA Knights team, and Amy Graham, 47, was one of just six women who signed up. Like many of her male counterparts, she wears a real suit of armor and carries steel weapons designed to kill.

“It’s a big ball of adrenaline and blood lust that most women never get to experience,” Graham said. “Better than chocolate, sex and candy.”

For Graham, the tournament was just the latest challenge on a personal odyssey for her. Seven years ago, Graham weighed more than 450 pounds and decided to have gastric bypass surgery.

“I can only eat two ounces at a time, which is hard for this sport. I run out of fuel much quicker than any man here,” she said.

When International Medieval Combat officials announced last year that women would be allowed to compete for the first time ever, Graham was inspired to keep going and the sport has continued to help her lose weight.

“I started training two hours a night, every night,” she said.

Damion DiGrazia is another unlikely combatant. A Columbia University and Harvard grad, DiGrazia survived a broken back during training with the U.S. Air Force.

“I was a mess for a year on pain pills and walking with a cane waiting for my life to get back, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to walk right,” he said.

After a lengthy stint in rehab, DiGrazia now has a career in finance ahead of him, but like his teammates, he is inexplicably drawn to the camaraderie and carnage.

“I’m like, I have to do this,” he said.

At the Illinois tournament, knights participate in an exhausting group battle called “melee.” It’s a best of three-lung burning rounds, where the winner is the team with the last person standing.

DiGrazzia’s team, the First Swords, marched through the competition and made it to the final, where they faced off against a team stacked with the best fighters, the Eagles.

The First Swords lost round one and in the second, DiGrazia was cornered, but his gritty fighting display won him a spot on the national team.

“If I wasn’t wearing armor my bones would have been cut in half,” he said. “My flesh might have held me together but bones would have been no more and my helmet smashed, yeah, good stuff.”

At the last tournament, Graham suffered a bruised hip and a concussion fighting Lisa Galli, her most experienced rival. The two faced off again to fight for a spot on the national team, and Graham struggled to hold off Galli. But even though she lost, national team captain Andre Sinou named Graham the captain of the American female melee team that went to Spain.

“It was an absolute total shock, I couldn’t believe it,” Graham said. “It’s just amazing and I’ve never been so proud of anything in my life.”

In the end, the USA Knights had a strong showing at the international tournament, taking home seven gold medals they all battled to capture.

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