Some jousters have elaborate tattoos under their heavy armor. And one veteran compares the feeling of being struck by a lance to "getting hit by a Mack truck."
What the heck kind of knights are these?
They're the stars of "Full Metal Jousting," a 10-part competition series that premieres on the History channel this Sunday. Shot in Jackson, Miss., it begins with 16 heavily armored male contestants – including an ex-Marine stuntman, a professional polo player and a bull rider. Divided into two teams, Red and Black, they are trained, then sent into full-contact jousting battle. The ultimate winner gets $100,000.
The knights at Medieval Times, of course, perform their own jousting drama, but of a different (and safer) kind. "There's a story behind our show. It's like any kind of theater or play," says John Gonzalez, the assistant head knight at the attraction's Lyndhurst location. "We obviously choreograph it. Otherwise, we could get some bad injuries."
Gonzalez, a Ridgewood resident who has worked at Medieval Times for 18 years, has seen a trailer for "Full Metal Jousting" and says, "It's going to be kind of [a] NASCAR effect. [Viewers are] going to be looking for the accident rather than the actual race, looking for that moment of violence and carnage. And if something goes wrong, it's gonna go wrong really badly."
Indeed, coming attractions show a competitor on the ground, his face covered with blood.
The host of "Full Metal Jousting" is champion jouster Shane Adams, who wants to make history's most dangerous game into a mainstream sport. It's been his dream, he says, since he was growing up on a farm in Ontario, where he practiced by riding an Arabian horse while holding a broom handle as his lance.
"We've all seen dinner-theater jousting. This is not that," Adams says in the first episode, even though he did a stint on that circuit, as a knight in "tinsel."
"I wanted to bring together the grit and grime of the true sport," he says on the phone. "We use real lances, solid wood lances, real war horses. It's jousting for real. The sound of the wood hitting the armor, the guy somersaulting off the horse — that's something you can't do theatrically."
He acknowledges that injuries happen. "I've had many broken bones in my right hand. I fractured my scapula," says Adams, who entered his first international jousting tournament in 1997, defeated the reigning world champ and became the biggest name in an emerging sport. "In this [TV] competition, I don't think anybody broke any bones [but] there were some fractured ribs."
On the show, contestants get points for unhorsing the opponent, striking his "gridded grand guard" (a shield that's attached to the armor) or breaking one's own lance with the strike.
Ricardo Salazar, marketing and sales manager for Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, is skeptical about the appeal of seeing "a tournament of just people jousting back and forth."
"As a form of entertainment, there has to be more elements than just the jousting," says Salazar, noting that Medieval Times is introducing a fresh story line this week. "What we do is a dining experience and there's a story. It's almost like you come to see a play, a movie.
FULL METAL JOUSTING premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on the History Channel.