The Smoking Dragons prepare to slay national competition

The Phoenix chapter of the Armored Combat League, The Smoking Dragons, will compete in the national championships April 12-13 in Salt Lake City. (Submitted photos)

Knights in shining armor still exist in this century as local men prepare for combat at a national dueling competition.

The Phoenix chapter of the Armored Combat League — The Smoking Dragons — will compete in the national championships at Fitcon April 12-13 in Salt Lake City as members duel teams from around the world while donning historically accurate armor and steel weapons during matches.

Founded in 2012, The Armored Combat League, is a full-speed, full-force, martial sport replicating the duel from the Middle Ages. Armor and weapons are documented either by surviving artifacts, represented in period art or in academic documentation; no fantasy armor or weaponry is allowed.

For safety, weapons are blunted, but the hits and competition are real. Participants are not expected to assume personas or play characters during competitions that consist of fights: 16 vs. 16, 10 vs. 10, 5 vs. 5 and single duels.

The competitions

Bill Woodbury sports card

Local fighters recently displayed their Medieval Mixed Martial Arts skills for a nationally televised show, “Knight Fight.” Bill Woodbury won in the season’s second episode. The five-time world champion gold medalist even has his own sports card.

Fellow members Balin Mallavia, Dale Saran and Simon Rohrich were also featured in the show and are used to competing nationally. There are about 700 participants in the league nationwide, including 15 local members.

“I was the tournament champion for the season,” said Mr. Woodbury whose workout regimen to prepare for world championships consists of cardio, running, weight lifting and some fighting.

He described the toughest fights being the 5 vs. 5 where each team has people in different positions, trained to perform specific tasks.

“Much like football plays, you form up to get direction from the team captain. Depending on how the other team forms up, and who they field, our plan will adjust. We move forward with our plan in mind but at any moment it all can change. You fight and swing, striking your opponent; but then you are slammed from the side in to list field rails,” he said.

“At that moment, you are glad you moved closer to the rails. The opponent you just hit is no longer stunned, but now in your face trying to throw you to the ground. A quick shield punch to the face stuns him and a front leg sweep helps him topple over. Then, you move to the next guy.”

Bill Woodbury

Although no tangible prize, aside from a trophy or medal, and dominating opponents on the battle field, the engineer said he enjoys re-creating the 600-year-old medieval combat sport.

Other teammates like Daniel Safsten, 37, also noted the personal gratification of competing.

“In the league, it’s mainly just the glory of the fight and the win. Trophies and medals are just good reminders, but I wouldn’t shun a more significant prize for competitions in the future,” he said.

The knights

While most people are impressed with his involvement in the sport, others question his sanity, Mr. Woodbury noted.

“It’s important because I don’t know what I would do without it. The majority of my life has been doing armored combat. After a hard match, I find a tranquility in myself,” he said.

He also found his wife Heather, who he married in a castle in Spain while competing in the world championships. They have four daughters and a standard poodle.

“The sport is growing worldwide. And, it needs to grow here, as well, if we are going to keep up. Plus, everything is better with friends,” he said.

Likewise, Simon Rohrich may enjoy spending time with his cat, but he also enjoys spending time with the group. He has “been busting heads” since 1994 when he was in another less demanding re-enactment group, he said.

Simon Rohrich

The technology consultant and inventor called the organization therapeutic as it allows him and others to release and vent energy. He said military veterans in the sport benefit because it helps them work through trauma.

“I am a gentle, cuddly person outside of armor because I have this hobby. It provides ‘exposure therapy’ to battlefield conditions/mentality in a controlled environment, allowing them to better deal with the adrenaline spikes and PTSD episodes they contend with in the normal world,” Mr. Rohrich said.

“It is more important in a larger sense because combat sports like ours provide a way to focus the natural aggression many feel, while being educational, encouraging arts and crafts and comradery.”

He likened the sport to playing rugby while in a baseball bat fight; breathing through a snorkel while wearing an 80-pound vest.

“Some are in awe, some think I am crazy; some know this was what I was meant for, most are a combination of those three,” he said.

“Keyboard warriors and other idiots think we are merely nerds. We are nerds that can kick the crap out of any three normal people at once.”

In addition to the glory, he has won various purses and prizes during the years including traveling the world.

Meanwhile, Mr. Safsten joined the group because of his interest in European military history and his heritage. His interest was first in competitive jousting but as he trained, he was attracted to “unscripted fighting in full armor,” which he discovered on YouTube.

“How many people can say they lived through multiple axe strikes to the head that would otherwise cleave you in two. As a fighter, it is exhausting and you are running on adrenaline throughout the fight. As you take the field, you’re trying to control your nerves and breathing so you can conserve energy. Then, the first contact sounds like a car wreck,” he said.

“Metal clashing, thudding weapon strikes, and the sound of your breathing is all you can hear. Once the initial weapon strike that should have killed you, but doesn’t, connects with you, you are able to calm down and just enjoy the fight.”

Serious injuries rarely occur, other than bruises and small pressure cuts since fighters are protected by good armor, he said. Women in the league wear the same gear and weaponry as the men’s teams and their team matches are changing to be equal.

“You just need to fight to win and not give up,” said Mr. Safsten, a domestic violence detective, who is married with children.

Reactions vary for him too when he shares his passion of Medieval fighting. While explaining that he is not part of a Renaissance fair or a reenactor, he describes what he wears such as heavy helmets that deplete oxygen and the fights as a legitimate sport.

“In general, they are stunned that there are people who will fight in full armor with steel weapons. But when they see it in person, they are always entertained and impressed by the sport,” he said.

“I usually spend time on my heavy bag, as well as swinging a sledge hammer on a tractor tire — that sort of thing. I will also spend time doing things in my helmet to acclimate my body to wearing it as part of the mental game to withstand the fights.”

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