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Knight Fight and the history of medieval MMA

With its roots tracing back to 648 BC, Mixed-Martial-Arts (MMA) is one of the oldest – and most popular – sports in the world. 

Adored in Ancient Greece, MMA played a pivotal role in the ancient Olympic Games as Pankration, a fighting art trained by the Greek Army, combined wrestling, boxing and street fighting to brutal, but entertaining effect. 

Warriors engaged in fierce fights with few rules, with only biting and eye gouging banned. Yep, you read that right! A punch in the balls? Absolutely fine. Kicks, takedowns and knees? All acceptable, but just don’t bite or go near the eyes.

Pankration dominated the Ancient Greek sporting landscape, and you can see why given the choice between watching some guy run barefoot for 50 miles or seeing two bruisers batter each other to a bloody pulp.

Even Plato was a fan, with the decorated philosopher occasionally swapping chin-stroking for martial arts.

Wrestling ‘ practised with a gallant spirit’ cultivated character according to Plato, whose muscular frame made him a successful athlete in his prime, which in turn allowed him to use his brain for other, more scholarly matters. 

As centuries and millennia progressed, fighting continued to entertain bloodthirsty masses in huge venues across the world. In the 20th century, boxing reigned supreme as the combat sport of choice, before a new era of MMA began to court popularity as the century reached its climax.

If you took every fighting style, what would be the best and most effective?

In 1993, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event took place, and though thousands of years had passed since the glory days of Pankration, the rules looked very similar. The tournament featured fights with no weight classes, time-outs, or judges, and in a homage to the glory days of 648BC, neither biting or eye gouging was allowed, with both enforced by a pretty paltry $1,500 fine.

This was fighting in its primal sense, and which set out to answer the question every combat sport fan has thought at least once.

If you took every fighting style, what would be the best and most effective? 

And thus, UFC was born, with the opening night featuring a human zoo of fighting talent. Seriously, it was like a Picasso painting, with sumo wrestlers, kickboxers, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialists, and a boxer who made the bizarre decision to fight wearing only one glove when entering the cage.

‘Wow’ thought the UFC. ‘If we can build personalities and characters and then have a fight which is actually real, we will be in the money!’

After a night of vicious entertainment which broke bones, teeth and the will of some queasy people, a surprise hero emerged. The unassuming Royce Gracie, the smallest man in the tournament, was crowned the overall winner. 

Gracie, a submission and grappling specialist, had proved that it wasn’t just fists and kicks that were effective in fights, but brainpower and guile too.

Wrestlers took great care in establishing memorable personalities and engaged in often bitter rivalries. Everything was written and scripted, but the authenticity for the crowd never wavered because they believed in the stars on screen.

‘Wow’ thought the UFC. ‘If we can build personalities and characters and then have a fight which is actually real, we will be in the money!’

It worked, as UFC took much from WWE, including a significant chunk of their audience. By giving credibility to fighters, it made people care more about the outcome, which in turn built up future intrigue and revenue. 

As the thrill of seeing people from different fighting disciplines grew stronger, in other parts of the world, the sport of MMA took on a completely new perspective.

While America settled for a more conventional approach, Japan decided to do things a little bit differently.

In stadiums which had a rock concert feel, ‘freak show’ bouts became mainstream, with tens of millions of television viewers tuning in to watch utterly bizarre fights. Giant men took on 30 stone blimps and professional wrestlers with no legitimate fighting experience were matched against veteran kickboxers.

It was chaos, it was amateurish, and you never knew what you were going to see, but sheer violence was always guaranteed.

So, America had the legitimacy, Japan had the gimmicks, but Russia took fighting one step further – or maybe backwards in time – with the introduction of SWORDS, SHIELDS AND HELMETS! That’s right, M1 Global, Russia’s biggest MMA company launched a Medieval fighting division in 2016. 

The bouts take place in a typical MMA cage or ring, with both fighters’ clad head to toe in metal, and their ambitions are simple – to batter each other with their (blunted) swords and shields until somebody loses.

Medieval fighting was inspired by Historical Medieval Battles, a sport created in Russia in the late 1990s. In HMB, battle re-enactments are taken to the next level. This wasn’t American dads holding fake muskets and pretending they were in the Civil War, but instead full contact warfare which has emerged from dusty fields to soldout arenas all across Russia.

Controversial? For some purists, yes, but the fighting itself is arguably less dangerous than a typical MMA fight while being a much more thrilling spectacle. Two dudes in shorts hitting each other might be fun, but add in metal, swagger and that glorious sound of steel-on-steel? There is no comparison.

In contrast to traditional MMA, Medieval fighting is held solely on the feet, with competitors instructed to block or answer the attacks of their opponent. Sword-stabbing is illegal, while the armour is 100% metal and can weigh up to 36kg.

While Knights once fought on horses during the Middle Ages, Knight Fight, HISTORY’s brand-new series takes Medieval fighting to a whole new level, stepping into the world of the Armored Combat League, the US-version of those original Russian medieval fighting divisions.

Seriously, this is epic. Six competitors come to battle in each episode, with only one Knight left standing by the end.

This is clangin’ and bangin’ metallic warfare, as two Knights, from hugely different backgrounds fight for honour. Regular people become royalty, with customised era-specific armour, garb and weaponry all adding to the appeal, with pinpoint historical accuracy, while adhering to the rules and guidelines established by the Armored Combat League.

Targeting a specific time period on each episode, Knight Fight pits two legendary armies together with accurate armour and weaponry, with featured episode themes including Vikings vs. Byzantine Knights, Barbarians vs. Roman Knights, Knights Templar, the 100 Years War and more.

Has fighting ever been more breathtaking, thrilling and goddamn violent? Find out Tuesday 19 February, only on HISTORY!

Watch Knight Fight Tuesday 19 February