To find yourself in the helmet and armor of a true medieval knight for close-to-true, steel-on-steel combat is an unmatched sensation, say some of Colorado’s bravest and mightiest heroes.
You might get smashed in the head and smell sparks. You might also smell rust, the stench of sweat and iron. At first, you will struggle to see through the helmet, and so the charge of an adversary will be understandably terrifying.
You will feel heavy, the weight of 50-plus pounds strapped to you tight; hopefully you can breathe while defending yourself. Your sword or ax or weapon of choice will also feel heavy, and so you might struggle to block the blows of your opponent and strike back.
“It’s very hard to describe,” says Ian Webb, whose Colorado company has christened him the Mountain for his 6-foot-7 frame, fearsome on the occasion of group melees. (Picture “Braveheart,” those mass collisions on the field, and you’ve got the idea.)
“Like, you’re uncomfortable, but you’re comfy,” Webb goes on about the experience. “When I put the helmet on, I used to feel like I was in a coffin. Now it just feels comfy.”
Now, after five years of armored dueling, Shoshana Shellans feels the opposite of nervous. Now, she says, the attire feels like a safe “bubble,” like an “interesting kind of peace and meditation,” she says. “I’ve put it on enough now to where it just represents my time to shine and compete and do well.”
So Shellans will attempt to do next month, when this national champion with sword and shield joins the first-year Colorado Wardens for battle on the world stage.
The Wardens made themselves known at February’s Carolina Carnage, which brought together teams and individual fighters for tests of strength in the tradition of Buhurt (an Old French word for béhourd, meaning “wallop”). Now Shellans, Webb and a few other Wardens will take their flag — the Colorado state flag with a more stylized sun in the center — to the Buhurt League World Cup in Prague. Dozens of countries will represent at what has also been called the Battle of the Nations, slated for the weekend of April 27.
“It’s really exciting to be going overseas with people you’ve been sweating with and bleeding with for a while,” says the Wardens’ valiant captain, Greg Fisher.
The part about bleeding is not an exaggeration.
If you’re familiar with live action role-playing, better known as LARP, this is not that. “This is not play acting,” says Franklin Brodsky, another member of the Wardens.
As the History Channel billed “Knight Fight,” the show from 2019: “Welcome to the toughest, most violent armored combat competition in the world today.”
Rallying the team
Rest assured: No one will be getting killed in Prague. At least, Buhurt’s rules and regulations are aimed at preventing that.
The edges and points of blades are very specifically dulled and must be historically accurate, along with the armor over the body pads, in an attempt to create a safer, even playing field. Blows to the neck, groin and feet are prohibited. And a flag-wielding marshal could call a fight if a punch, kick or grapple appear aimed at breaking bones. Knights prevail by points earned in a certain time, or by being the last to stand in group clashes numbering up to 30 on 30.
Ideally no one gets killed in Prague. But undoubtedly competitors will get hurt in the ring, like they do in UFC cages. Buhurt might be the nerdier, fringe, iron-clad version of that mainstream martial art.
A newcomer to the Wardens, Garret Skovgard — whose bald head shows a scar dealt by Webb the Mountain — has friends engaged in that kind of fighting.
“They’re all like, ‘I thought what I did was insane,” Skovgard says, “’but you’re actually going out there with steel weapons!’”
Skovgard traveled from Cheyenne, Wyo., to practice this day with the Wardens at the forested property of a teammate north of Colorado Springs; it’s a proper base with a “dojo” and anvil for getting dents out of hard-hit armor. Others came from northern Colorado, including Captain Fisher. He’s to thank for rallying knights around southern Wyoming and the Front Range upon moving here a couple of years ago.
A school teacher and cross-country coach by day, Fisher has become fairly well-known in America’s small circle of Buhurt. Armored Combat Sports, the pastime’s de facto hub out of New Hampshire, recently called him Fighter of the Month in a web feature that chronicled his training under a former team, the Nashua Knightmares.
Fisher recalled the first fight he witnessed: A man known as the Mangler “blew open a massive scar on his hand and broke his nose that night.” Also in the feature, Fisher recalled his own first fight:
“I got the crap kicked out of me. ... The fighter who smashed me came and found me after the round. He said, ‘Hey man, you were the guy in the Griffon helm, right? I know you’re new, so lemme tell you how to get outta that situation next time.’ I found comradery after the chaos and loved it.”
Fisher wanted that from his new home in Colorado. He discovered a broken band of knights, scattered after the fall of the Denver Tempest and the closure of a medieval gym in Colorado Springs. Shellans was one molded by that gym, one who would form the strong core of the Wardens.
Shellans was drawn to the challenge. And also to the vision of warring knights from her childhood.
“Trying to imagine myself in those positions was always kind of scary and exciting,” she says. “When this sport came up, that reminded me of all those feelings, but in a context where I could try to tackle it. Where I didn’t necessarily have to worry about life and death, but where I could imagine the situation and see where I would end up.”
Finding their place
It’s imagination that has inspired enthusiasts since at least the 1990s.
Buhurt has been traced to European contests back then that saw reenactors with wood and foam take things to another level. Growth has been tracked from one contest in particular: the first Battle of the Nations at Ukraine’s Khotyn Fortress.
Compared with Europe, growth has been slower in the U.S. Fighters here dread the likes of the Knights of Dominus, with halls in Texas and Oregon, and the Iron Lions of Virginia, but Americans have no place in the world’s top-10 rankings posted at buhurtglobal.com.
The Wardens have long-term ambitions. In the short term, they say, the goal is to simply grow — to attract more people who never thought they could be like the knights in the movies. People like Emerson Moore.
“This group of people I’ve found just seem to be my people,” he says.
Some work in construction, like him, and others work in fancy, corporate offices. They are military veterans, teachers, garbage men, engineers, communication pros, medical experts and more.
“And we all for some reason come together and overlap in sword fighting,” Shellans says.
They are unified nerds, says Webb the Mountain. Misfits, he says. “The guys who got bullied in school, the ones who got in fights and whatnot.”
The adventurous ones, he says. The ones all grown up now but unwilling to let go of imagination. The ones who, in the end, want to say their lives were at least interesting.
“Like me,” Webb says. “Like, I kinda just want to coast into my 60s in a wheelchair, rolling up bruised and battered to hell, and just being like, ‘man, what a wild ride.’”
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