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Medieval armored combatants duke it out in flagship Bellingham duels

'Barbarians' host throwback West Coast fighters for ritual club fest

From left, Jason Gill, Johny Porter, Cord Goss and Jason McClelland of the Vagabonds — a Seattle-based armored combat team — warm up to fight other knights at the Bellingham Barbarians' first event. More than a dozen fighters duked it out to a sold-out crowd of more than a hundred locals. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

Swords clanged and maces bounced off helmets to a backdrop of cheers, jeers and gasps from an animated, and slightly buzzed, crowd. Punches from metal-clad hands were thrown as competitors fought to breathe in their suits of authentic, medieval armor. Knights wrestled, rolling on the floor, simply working to best the other by almost any means necessary.

The scene was not from a movie, nor was it the result of a time machine, transporting everyone back into medieval Europe. It was a sold-out event — complete with rules, a referee and a time limit — on Saturday, Feb. 24 on a property just outside of Bellingham. 

Gallery: Competitors battle in armored combat event

“You’re holding the weapon. You’re hearing the sights, sounds and little bit of smells of what some people did back in the day,” said Gage Nelson, the chapter captain of the Bellingham Barbarians. “That part is very fun.” 

“This is not LARPing, this is not role play. People go out there and put their lives on the line,” co-captain Manuel York said. “They’re out there to not only compete to be the best, but also to be recognized as a warrior.”

The event was one of many Armored Combat brawls hosted around the world each year. Armored Combat — also known as Buhurt — is a sport structured similarly to mixed martial arts, except the fighters wear full suits of authentic armor and wail on each other with dulled weapons.  

Manuel York, left, of the Bellingham Barbarians struts away from his downed opponent Lucas “Dragon of the West” Mendes from the Vancouver Island Company of the Blue Dragons. York wears an authentic Mongolian kit and fought to a metal version of the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from “Mulan.” (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

“It has to be historically used, proven it was used down to the rivets and the movement of the plates,” Nelson said. “If you can prove it was used historically, and it’s within the weight requirements for safety, you can take it all right.”

Knights can compete in one-on-one competitions with long swords, swords and shields, or pole weapons, according to the International Medieval Combat Federation. Some events host melees where teams of anywhere from three to 30 duke it out in the “list” (arena).

What began in the 1960s in Eastern Europe (or in the 14th century, depending on who is asked) has spread to the West the last quarter of a century, with more than 100 registered chapters across the U.S. and Canada in most major cities.  

Saturday’s event was the first to be hosted in Whatcom County and the first, it is hoped, of more to come, Nelson said.  

So, how does one reach the point of donning a steel or titanium suit of armor and wailing on another person in front of a roaring crowd? Nelson thanks YouTube for piquing his own interest.  

“Just having a YouTube algorithm of stuff like medieval history, D&D, other things like Warhammer, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones — it eventually just spat out a video one day of armored combat,” he said.  

Shortly after, Nelson connected with a team in Snohomish and got hooked. After roping in York — a Marine veteran with extensive martial arts background — the pair started the Barbarians about a year and a half ago, alongside coach Tyler Reed (who is currently out with an injury). They lead around a dozen members in weekly practices to prepare for events.

Attendees react to hard hits during a melee. Nearly 250 people attended the sold-out event. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Committing to the sport is not simple, as it comes at high costs and a level of danger higher than in other sports.  

To begin, travel is required because teams are few and far between. Fighters drove to Bellingham from Portland, Seattle and Canada for a few hours of competition. Nelson and York have traveled up and down the West Coast, and to Salt Lake City for the national competition last year.  

“You should see the looks TSA gives us,” Nelson said.  

Additionally, the suits of armor cost upward of $3,000 and must be custom-ordered from smiths in places like India or Ukraine. (Bonus: the proceeds currently go to support their fight against Russia, Nelson said.)  

Extensive, consistent training is also required to be able to wear, much less fight in the 50-to-70-pound suits. They spar every Sunday, and Nelson and York said they work out six to seven times a week to maintain the level of fitness necessary for the sport.  

Manuel York, left, helps Gage Nelson get ready before the first duel of the night. The armor weighs between 50 and 70 pounds and restricts breathing and movement. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

“It is like nothing people have ever done before, where you’re wearing 50 pounds of armor trying to hit somebody with it, or you’re trying to wrestle them,” Nelson said. “So many people come to the sport, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so in shape. I’m so good.’ Then they put the gear on.”  

York said the first time putting on the armor is extremely “claustrophobic.”  

“You need to learn how to breathe differently,” he said. “I’ve done martial arts for so long. I know how to breathe when I strike, but now have to learn how to breathe through, like, a thin straw and make sure that I can last long enough to defend myself.”  

Despite the heavy armor as protection, broken bones, torn muscles and other injuries do happen, like in any other combat sport.  

“We are going to hit each other, and it’s going to hurt,” Nelson said. “But hey, we all spent $3,000 on this. We realize we’re big nerds. Like, whatever, right?” 

Like with many niche sports and hobbies, a supportive community has blossomed amid the battles, brawls and general chaos.

“The camaraderie, friendship and community is fantastic,” York said. “I’ve never been in a community that easily welcomes you within moments that you meet each other.”  

“The most heartwarming thing is these big guys and gals with mean-looking weapons, at the very end of that fight, no matter how hard it was, they hug it out,” Nelson added.

Gage Nelson, left, of the Bellingham Barbarians hugs Cord Goss of the Seattle Vagabonds after Nelson won a polearm fight. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Saturday’s event ended similarly. After 10 one-on-one fights and two intense melees, a positive adrenaline ran through the competitors as they laughed, unsuited and basked in the cheers of a crowd — one that had been thoroughly entertained.

York and Nelson encourage anyone interested in the sport to come to a practice to try out fighting in a foam kit (before dropping thousands on a suit), and those who don’t want to fight are welcome to support the team and sport in other ways.

“Just try it out and embrace that nerdy stuff. It’s not only extremely fun, but it’s a fantastic exercise,” York said.

“It will humble you. Trying to move in armor will humble you,” Nelson added.

Hailey Hoffman is a CDN visual journalist; reach her at; 360-922-3090 ext. 103.

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