Out how the men getting hands-on with history prepare for their gruelling contests
weights, then swinging an axe around – while you’ve got an oxygen-restricting mask strapped to your face.
Smaller competitors will rarely stay still, hitting and running and constantly trying to blindside the opposition. At 80kg, John Quayle is one of these ‘rushers’. ‘If two guys are busy grappling and I’m on the other side of the lists, I’ll run towards them with my weapon drawn and ram the rival guy across the side or back of his head, giving him whiplash,’ says Quayle, known as one of the UK’s toughest competitors. ‘I actually knocked someone unconscious doing that.’
The World at War
HMB already has a sizeable following in eastern Europe, where sponsored tournaments have existed for more than a decade. But since the creation in 2009 of the Battle Of The Nations – HMB’s ‘World Cup’ – competitors from the rest of the world have been suiting up and taking part. There are now HMB fighters from countries as disparate as Israel and Argentina, and last year’s Battle Of The Nations saw combatants from 28 different nations descend on the Croatian town of Trogir in June 2014. This year’s showpiece, taking place in Prague, Czech Repub- lic in May, is expecting representation from more than 30 countries, including anticipated newcomers China, Chile and Brazil. Team UK will be present for its third consecutive year, and promises not just fitter and wiser fighters, but a greater number of them. There were 18 recruits in Croatia. This year, the national ranks have swollen to 30 battleeager warriors.
‘HMB has taken off since last year in Croatia,’ says Annable, who is credited with bringing the sport to the UK’s attention after finding some Russian HMB videos on YouTube. ‘But competing in Trogir was an
eye-opener for our newbies. You get hurt the first time you compete. You go out there thinking you’ve trained hard enough, then you discover you haven’t. We’re taking it a lot more seriously now, with diet, cardio and strength training all taken on board.’
The nation that’s setting the standards at the moment is Russia, followed by neighbours Belarus, Ukraine and Poland. In Croatia, the undefeated Russians annihi- lated everyone. But given how seriously the motherland treats the sport back home, the Russian team’s dominance is hardly surprising. ‘The Russian fighters train ferociously all year round,’ says Austrian HMB fighter and commentator Mathias Kainz. ‘Some are MMA fighters, which helps with their balance and grappling, and all of them have been picked for their national side through merit.’ It shows, too – watching the Russians in competition is like witnessing a freight train ram through a rusty old banger that’s stalled on a level crossing.
Under Annable’s leadership, the UK already has aspirations for the sport to become professional on home turf. There are currently eight local clubs, or chapters, in the UK, and more have been mooted. The
nation’s growing ranks of fighters also meet once a month for national training. But the most significant development was the UK’s first National One vs One Federation championship, held in Waltham Abbey last September, which was won by Quayle, a 30-year-old former infantry soldier who served two tours of Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Quayle took up the sport just three months before competing in Croatia, but his competitive boxing background, quick feet and sheer aggression have already made him a powerhouse on the circuit.
‘I’m a technical fighter and I’ll pick on an opponent’s point and keep working it,’ the Isle of Wight resident says. ‘Striking the legs, working the head, smashing down on the collarbone. You hit opponents properly in the armour gaps and they’ll eventually go down. The footwork is very similar to boxing and Muay Thai, and I’ve brought that skillset into HMB.’
Professional victories are often accomplished as much through knockout and injury as by winning points. ‘I won my first championship fight by striking a heavier opponent with hard, repeated sword strikes above and below his knee, which forced him to retire from the competition – a technical KO,’ says Quayle. ‘I won my second fight by cracking the other fighter’s helmet.’
Now looking forward to testing his prowess on a bigger stage, Quayle adheres to a strict, five-day-a-week training regime inspired by British Army methods. ‘HMB is all about fighting in short bursts while wearing heavy armour, so I do high-intensity interval training, working with a minimum rest period, which mimics the fighting conditions of moving from one fight to another,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I wear an M3 gas mask, especially for hill sprints, to replicate the act of breathing recycled air inside your helmet. I occasionally exercise in full armour, but not too often because it can cause injury. Fitness is everything in this sport. Boxers fight
three-minute rounds wearing 10oz gloves – HMB lads wear 35kg of armour.’
The former soldier has also collaborated with other chapter heads in the UK to implement the British Army’s Fitness Test (BFT) into the monthly national training meets. BFT requires participants to complete a series of timed challenges and high-intensity bleep tests, as well as a set number of pressups and sit-ups. Targets vary based on age and gender, as HMB has started to encourage female combatants (Battle Of The Nations held its first female solo tournament last year, which was won, predictably, by a Russian CrossFit trainer).
‘I’ve been out in Iraq and I’ve never been as hot I was inside my armour in the 35°C Croatian sun,’ says Quayle. ‘BFT is to safeguard our fighters against injury, dehydration and tiredness and to help them enjoy HMB. The Russians treat HMB as a sport and that’s why they’re world champions. We’re now doing the same.’
At Battle Of The Nations, the five vs five bohurts are currently the main attraction for spectators. By the third day of the four-day tournament in Croatia, many wounded warriors were hobbling around the crowded festival grounds with bandaged legs, arms in slings and bruises so unsightly they looked
as if an alien creature might be festering inside them and waiting to burst free. But bohurts aren’t all about being tougher bastards than the enemy – teamwork is an essential part of the equation too. ‘Tactics are a massive part of it,’ says James Farrar, Team UK’s 1.85m colossus. ‘The Russians know exactly what they’re going to do before they go out on the lists. But we’re sharpening our play all the time.’
Farrar, a former historical battle re-enactor, is the man charged with educating his team-mates in how to wield a weapon, borrowing skills from a wide range of historical periods. He puts his own confidence with handling a blade to use on the battlefield too. ‘I’m a big lad so I’ll engage two or three people at once,’ he explains. ‘Then someone fit and fast, like John, will run down the flank and take them out from the side. In bohurts, plans only work inside the first 15 seconds. After that you have to think on your feet, which isn’t always easy because you’re so full of adrenaline.’
Although the sport is thoroughly marshalled, scrapes and bumps are par for the course. Quayle says he won the national crown while still recovering from a dislocated shoulder, which he’d sustained while grappling a heavier, MMA-trained opponent only six weeks earlier. But overall, his career has been relatively injury-free. Annable has been less lucky. After being thrown during one recent brawl, the burly captain twisted his knee, causing it to pop. He now faces anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
At 44 years of age, Annable admits that his body is more vulnerable than it was. ‘I reckon I’ve got one year left of fighting internationally if I’m lucky,’ he concedes. ‘All the new talent are kicking us old guys out, but we’ll go out screaming. You can still accomplish a lot aged 45 but once you’re facing
25-year-olds who are doing the same training as you, they’ll knock you out.’
Quayle doesn’t entirely agree. With HMB still in its relative infancy and combatants still learning and adjusting to its ferocious demands, he believes people of all ages can still compete effectively – in the bohurts at least. ‘Boxing and kickboxing are an under30s game, which is how the Russians are portraying HMB,’ he says, observing the fact that the Russian national side selects relatively youthful fighters. ‘But I think it’s still a bit too early in the sport’s development for it to be that way. Maybe the Pro and Tournament fighting will become an under-30s thing in ten years’ time.’
Lord and master
Before his own joints start creaking, Quayle hopes to fulfil two dreams: to bludgeon his way to the top of the sport and to see HMB grow and attract widespread respect. ‘I’d love HMB to become mainstream,’ he says. ‘Some see it as geeky and Lord Of The Ringsesque, but when they see it in the flesh it’s not what they expected. It’s one of the last extreme sports you can test yourself at.’
Annable wants to keep opening more HMB chapters until the domestic sport is structured like football, with a weekly national league competition for regional clubs. ‘ I’m not sure if that’s just a pipe dream or not, but if the sport carries on growing at this exponential rate, I’d expect us to have 1,000 members within the next three years, which is massive,’ he says. ‘Everyone loves watching us fight. So we’re just looking at ways to get HMB where we want it to be.’ Want to sign up? For more info on Team UK, visit facebook.com/ Battle Of The Nations UK Federation. For more info on Battle Of The Nations visit battleofthenations.ua
MMA training is an advantage in the grapple-heavy bohurts
From left: the fitness test begins; testing weapons; fixing armour
Annable looks on approvingly as a contestant throws a headbutt
Former soldier John Quayle is one of Britain’s best
Helmet styles vary – the important thing is to make them swordproof