It’s a quiet morning in Westbrook’s Riverbank Park, a warm and idyllic Saturday over Memorial Day Weekend.
In other words, the perfect day for a melee. On this particular Saturday, half a dozen men from around Maine are putting on suits of armor and fighting each other with medieval-style weapons, like swords, axes and maces.
Known as the Portland Reavers, this group practices what is known as armored combat fighting, or occasionally steel fighting. (The weapons are of course blunted.) On Saturday, the team was gearing up for a public demonstration at the Scottish Festival in Old Orchard Beach. There, many members of the Portland Reavers would compete in their first actual fights.
“Our sport is a mix of mixed martial arts and football, but in armor,” said Raul Felix, one of the most seasoned members of the team and a field captain. “We fight hard. It’s a tough sport, man.”
Armored combat sports are still a relatively new fad, and can best be described as a niche activity. The Reavers are Maine’s only armored combat club, though several other groups exist in New Hampshire or Canada.
A common activity for a full team is a five-on-five fight. The goal is to knock down all the opposing team’s members. This is also known as a melee. Other fights range in size depending on how large the club is, though there are a number of one-on-one fights. In those instances, a fighter is awarded points for striking their opponent with their weapon, punching or kicking them, and grappling with them.
Co-captain Patrick Hurd describes these as tournament-style fights, similar to what people in thirteenth-century Europe would see for sport in jousting tournaments.
Kayla Scarponi, one of the group’s founders who now lives and trains in Dallas, started the Reavers in 2019 after training with another team in New Hampshire. They had three members, the bare minimum for a team.
For Scarponi, who describes herself as “super athletic” and “nerdy,” the draw was simple.
“I want to hit people with axes,” she said. “It’s a really unique thing. Not a lot of people do it.”
The brutality of the sport can be a big draw. Scarponi guessed that’s what draws a number of veterans into steel fighting. They need a place to “channel their energy.”
“There are not a lot of instances in life where you can be this brutal against someone, hitting them with weapons, punching them full force in the face,” Scarponi said. “There are not a lot of outlets that allow you to do that in a relatively controlled environment.”
Scarponi saw another dimension too.
“For me, seeing other women fight was really cool,” Scarponi said. “I’m a six-foot, 220-pound lady, and I thought this might be a sport I can dominate in and use my size advantage in.”
Cosplaying, a kind of performance art where participants dress up as characters from movies, television, video games, anime or in other costumes, is certainly not a new phenomenon. Thousands of costume-wearing fans gather at conventions across the U.S. PortConMaine brings anime, cosplay and furry enthusiasts to Portland the weekend of June 22nd, and the Maine Cosplay Extravaganza will take place at Thompson’s Point July 8th and 9th.
Medieval cosplay and other types of historical re-enactment are growing fascinations, as renaissance fairs have become regular events throughout the country. Typically working with some blend of history and fantasy, groups re-stage events from American history, like Civil War battles like Gettysburg.
It should be noted that there has been a troubling connection in parts of the U.S. between medieval re-enactment and far-right propagandists. Especially in recent years, white extremists have used medieval symbols to try and legitimize their actions or claims. The Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol highlighted the “Q Shaman,” a man decked out in a Norse viking costume. Medieval symbols were also prominently displayed at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where medieval symbols were displayed.
A recent piece in Politico Magazine, penned by Wellesley College professor Cord Whitaker, outlined a connection between medievalism and white supremacy, referencing plantation owners in the antebellum south and the Ku Klux Klan referring to themselves as knights.
But certainly not all of those interested in medievalism or alternative combat styles are part of that world. In fact, the Reavers champion diversity and inclusivity, saying that it’s a core part of their involvement in the armored combat sport.
“[Combat sport promotion company] Buhurt and the Portland Reavers are very inclusive of all types of people,” Nate Roy told the Phoenix, adding that one of the first rules he learned was that “this sport is for everyone and to respect everyone no matter what.”
The Portland Reavers have around a dozen members, though only about seven or eight “core members,” according to Hurd. After a hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reavers began practicing again, though most current members are still relatively new to the sport.
Originally into live action role playing, colloquially known as “LARPing,” Hurd found armored combat through a friend. After watching from afar for a while, he joined in fall 2021. Felix discovered it on YouTube while watching a documentary on medieval life. He joined a few months before Hurd did.
“I’ve always liked doing stuff like this,” Felix said.
On Saturday, as others suited up in their armor, Nate Roy was fully dressed and ready for combat. A chef and strength coach from Biddeford, Roy got into armored combat after competing in strength sports and strongman competitions. Like Felix, he stumbled across armored combat on YouTube and knew he wanted to give it a try.
“I’ve wanted to dress up as a knight and hit shit with an ax since the day I was born,” Roy said, eliciting a few chuckles from his cohort.
Like others, Roy got started in other physical sports before stumbling upon armored combat. He’s a power lifter who has participated in strongman competitions, where athletes are tested on pure strength. He has an interest in medieval history, so he parlayed both passions into one event.
“If you like Dungeons & Dragons and hitting things, you’ll love this sport,” Roy said.
One barrier the sport has was just how expensive it is to put together a full suit. The best armor makers are in Europe, Hurd said, and specifically in Ukraine. Because of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the production pipeline for quality armor is much slower. Hurd’s full kit cost around $4,000. Brothers Steven and Samuel Kostusyk each spent around $3,500 on their suits, and probably another $1,000 on weapons.
“My helmet was made by torch and candlelight in the Ukraine because (the manufacturer) was being shelled,” Hurd said.
The Kostusyk brothers got their armor mostly out of Mexico, from a manufacturer called Red Snake.
Most practices don’t involve suits of armor, and instead use pads. At events, fellow fighters often lend others armor if needed.
“We focus on getting your strength and endurance up first,” Felix said.
Steven and Samuel Kostusyk, brothers who live outside of Bangor, were excited to learn the Reavers alternate practices between the Maine Warrior Gym in South Portland and another in Pittsfield. The thrill of swinging swords and axes at an opponent, or trying to knock them down in a melee, can’t compare to other semi-combat sports like paintball and airsoft.
“We thought, ‘That is what we want,’” Steven Kostusyk said. “This is everything we want. The rules are few. You can punch, you can kick, and you can fight.”
Each member of the Reavers noted the camaraderie that comes from a sport like armored combat as a big draw. Despite how violent it might seem with swords and shields swinging, steel fighting is “not a grudge match,” Hurd said. After a match, no matter the outcome, the two fighters usually end up “talking it out,” often complimenting each other on a move or helping another fighter figure out areas of improvement.
To the participants of armored combat, the circle it inscribes can become its own universe. Hurd describes the practice as a social effort.
“My goal is to grow a community,” Hurd said. “We are open to everyone. You don’t have much without a community.”
Steven Kostusyk recalled going down to the most recent Carolina Carnage event as a volunteer and spectator, and witnessed all the fighters who were willing to help each other out, even if they were about to square off. People shared armor and weapons, he recalled, and everyone was excited to put on armor and swing swords at each other.
“The more people who want to fight, the more people who do this, the better it is,” he said. “Which we’re all for.”
According to Samuel Kostusyk, fighters will get bruised and battered and occasionally draw a little blood, but significant injuries are uncommon. Rules dictate there are areas you can’t hit an opponent with your weapon, and takedowns or tackles are also regulated to maintain safety. For example, holds with direct pressure on the neck are prohibited.
That being said, the sport isn’t for the faint of heart.
“You’ll be in a lot of pain,” Samuel said, jokingly.