LOOKING somewhat like a stormtrooper from “Star Wars”, Martin “The Wolf” Söderström, a Swedish devotee of kung fu, raps a heavy fighting stick down onto the arm of his opponent, who is clad in similar attire. At the other side of the room a computer quickly determines if the blow would have caused a bruise or a fracture if his adversary had not been so protected. Welcome to a new world of violent martial arts brought to you by advances in materials and microelectronics.
Ordinarily, Mr Söderström would not be able to fight like this. His punches would have to be pulled to avoid causing serious or even fatal injuries. Chunky body protectors and helmets offer fighters more defence from harm, but such gear also slows and restricts their movements. Nor does it make scoring any easier. Would whacking that stick over his opponent’s head, for instance, have broken his skull, or delivered but a glancing blow?
The armoured body suit which Mr Söderström and his opponent are wearing is called the Lorica. It has been developed by Chiron Global, an Australian firm. At just 19 kilos, it is neither too heavy nor cumbersome to prevent even aerial cartwheels, but it is tough enough to render painless a powerful sword strike to the head or the chest, says Mr Söderström.
That protection comes from Kevlar, a tough synthetic material invented almost 50 years ago by DuPont and now extensively employed in protective clothing. In a Lorica, however, it is reinforced with carbon-fibre composites, a lightweight material that is stronger than steel and widely used in aerospace. On top of that are various polymers and other materials, which Chiron is keeping secret.
Some of the areas around the body’s joints are protected only by a dense foam without a rigid shell. This allows mobility for moves like kicks, but it also means that strikes to certain areas of the body are banned and that the edges of weapons must be blunted. The company says its helmet can protect against the concussive injuries that now worry many in contact sports, but that remains to be seen.
It can get hot inside the suits, so fighters use a Lorica for 90-second bouts and then rest while they are cooled by compressed air blasted into a network of silicone tubes contained in the suit. The air passes out through thousands of tiny holes held against the skin by an undergarment.
Scoring is done by 52 sensors, which 10,000 times a second measure various forces, including blows, accelerations and vibrations, generated by the impact of hands, feet and weapons. The data are wirelessly transmitted to a computer to calculate the fractures, tissue damage and other injuries which are likely to have been sustained had the fighters been unprotected. Because there is little published information on wounds inflicted by blows from certain edged weapons on different body parts, Chiron’s researchers plan to carry out their own experiments, attacking pig cadavers with weapons such as flails, arrows and ninja stars.
What this all adds up to, reckons Justin Forsell, one of Chiron’s co-founders, is a telegenic new sport. A series of test fights using the system was staged in Wellington, New Zealand, in March. The first official fights, which are being branded as the Unified Weapons Master, will begin later this year in Australia, with competitions expanding to America in 2017.
Nationalistic fervour will be part of the entertainment mix. Martial arts from different cultures, such as Japanese swordsmanship and Chinese staff fighting, will be pitted against each other. Shen “War Demon” Meng, a Beijing fighter who used a particularly ruthless form of kung fu known as “eagle claw” in the Wellington trials, believes the system lends an air of superhero to the martial arts. He also liked the fact there was less need for a referee to have to step in and stop the fight to prevent injury, and that reviewing the detailed fight data afterwards was good for improving his technique.
Less than 24 hours after the first video of the test fight appeared online, an official at America’s Special Operations Command phoned Chiron to ask about obtaining some suits. Four more armies have since made similar requests. The army, it seems, thinks the suits can be used to teach close-quarter combat. The bright lights of television may beckon, but this somewhat brutal Aussie invention seems already to have found another market.