By Karim Zidan
When casual MMA fans picture knight fighting, their minds immediately wander to HBO's hit drama series "Game of Thrones," which stretches the boundaries of historical fantasy with its depictions of stomach-turning cruelty performed by glisteningly armored knights. The vivid imagery inspired by similar medieval dystopics may kindle the curiosity of some potential knight-fighting spectators while deterring other, gentler folk. Or maybe they just picture Medieval Times.) However, as I realized soon after watching my first live knight fight, the sport is likely to be misunderstood by Western audiences.
Instead of two feeble-minded brutes hacking at each other with imaginative instruments and rusty, ineffective armor, fans were treated to two well-trained swashbucklers dueling each other with blunted but gleaming swords and colorfully emblemized shields. They looked nimble under the terrible weight of the armor and exchanged blows with technical precision, blocked so consistently that it looked as though they had choreographed the fight scene. The two swordsmen were reserved, patient and calculating -- to them, this was competitive point-fighting taking place in the same cage-ring as other combat sports.
This was the legacy that "M-1 Medieval" -- the knight-fighting organization incorporated into Russia's top MMA promotion, M-1 Global -- quickly carved into an unprecedented niche: impressive swordplay and legitimate entertainment presented in a slightly barbaric manner.
In fact, even the barbarism is heavily debatable, as sword fighting is one of many combative styles culturally significant in Russia, the North Caucasus and former Soviet Union bloc nations, even if it was not necessarily for competitive sports.
"The people of the former Soviet Union come from nations of warriors," Artemy Gershvald, founder of M-1 Medieval told Sports on Earth through translator Adel Gelt. "It is not unusual for our men to have steel weapons. Fencing and sword fighting are strong points for us."
If some are still concerned about safety in a sport reflecting the Dark Ages, fear not: the M-1 Medieval hybrid version uses blunt swords incapable of separating limbs. They are, however, used masterfully with a variety of strikes to accumulate points that determine the victor. The sport is also structured on its combative cousin, mixed martial arts. A fight consists of a trio of three-minute rounds that are judged by a group of five judges. Sword strikes to the armor are worth a single point, while takedowns -- yes, there are takedowns -- are worth three points. Submission holds are prohibited, as are strikes to the spine, neck and ankles. A "finish" or "stoppage" can be achieved when a knight is knocked off his feet and finished using only three precisely placed strikes, generally to the midsection or the helmet.
"I think it is similar to MMA," M-1 Global founder Vadim Finkelchtein once told MMAFighting.com. "The rules are similar: You can punch, strike and wrestle. The fighters have swords and shields, wear special clothing and all that looks really impressive and exciting."
Six knight fights have been hosted over the past year, three of which took place deep in the mountainous terrains of Ingushetia in the North Caucasus. These have been one-off events, with little to add in terms of championships, rankings or divisions. This will change heading into 2016, as M-1 plans to add weight divisions and create titles for eventual champions, thus adding to the organizational aspect of this knightly sport.
Apart from the entertainment aspect, knight fighting and other forms of swordsmanship are starting to seep into Russian society's fitness regimens. Alexander Nevsky School, one of the top MMA gyms in St. Petersburg, will begin to hold fencing seminars and sessions for their professional athletes. Much like the effect of ballet on a hulking football player, fencing imparts the refined aspects of athleticism for MMA fighters, such as grace, style and finesse. Even CrossFit gyms around Moscow have begun to incorporate fencing into their routines. It is a way to ensure that those who attempt the full-contact sport have the necessary stamina and muscular frame to carry the heavy armor.
"We have seven CrossFit gyms in Moscow, and we used them to integrate fencing into the exercise," Gershvald explained. "We were the only ones in Russia who attempted this."
While men swinging weaponry at each other for competitive sport can be traced back to the early 1990s in Russia before gaining popularity in places like Belarus, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, its latest incarnation in MMA has caught attention from mainstream media around the world, including the Washington Post, Huffington Post and other outlets that were equally astonished by the flourishing sport.
Whether you have an insatiable urge for anything marginally related to the Middle Ages or simply enjoy watching two armored professionals joust in front of boisterous Russian crowds, this unlikely sport may carve its way into your heart.
"I expected this significant reaction from fans," Gershvald said of M-1 Medieval's popularity. "It is a new sport and rather cruel, which is appealing. It is also beautiful, and no MMA promotion has attempted this before."
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Karim Zidan was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. After immigrating to Canada to complete his education, Karim started his own Mixed Martial Arts website [The Flying Knee MMA], which he operated for three years. He now works as an associate editor for BloodyElbow.com, a contributor to SBNation.com and Sports on Earth, and the lead writer for SteveGtennis.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZidanSports.