In the era of the battle royale, it’s no wonder that renewed interest has arisen in deciphering once and for all who the toughest warriors of all time were, both in the general sense and in the specific. Ranking various historical armies and their members is all well and good, but the real excitement comes from matching up the most notable military figures from the annals of history and trying to figure out which of them would win in an all-out fight to the finish.
Back in the days before firepower became the deciding factor in warfare, military leaders could play a more direct role in combat, and some of history’s greatest men and women weren’t afraid to get their swords dirty right alongside their troops. It is these historical brawlers who make for the best hypothetical fight cards and for some truly combative debates.
Where and When: Gjergj Kastrioti, more often referred to as Skanderbeg, is one of the most important figures in Albanian history, but not so well-known outside that country. He’s notable for being raised as a hostage in the Ottoman Empire and becoming one of their greatest military commanders, only to turn on the Empire in 1443 and go right back to fighting against them as a proud Albanian. Along the way, he became a symbol in the ongoing conflict between Islam and Christianity. The Pope named him an "Athleta Christi" (Champion of Christ).
The Arsenal: Skanderbeg’s sword, a Damascan scimitar, still sits in a museum in Vienna. Having been brought up alongside the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, that would have only been one small part of his arsenal, but it was the one that made him legendary.
His Training: Training alongside the enslaved Janissaries infantry of the Ottoman Empire from a young age, Skanderbeg would have learned extreme discipline and fortitude. Ferocity and fearsomeness would become his trademarks, but his education made those things secondary to careful planning, preparation, and cohesiveness on the battlefield.
In The Duel: Skanderbeg was an absolute killing machine; he was said to have personally slain three thousand Turks over a couple of decades after defecting from the empire. While that may be apocryphal, it’s evident that he was not the sort to lead his troops from the back. Over time, he developed a unique style of guerilla warfare that made perfect use of Albania’s terrain. In other words, his opponents in an all-out fight to the finish might not actually see Skanderbeg on the battlefield until it’s too late.
- Age: Dec. at 62 (1405-1468)
- Birthplace: Dibër District, Albania
Where and When: Genghis Khan, born Temujin, is one of the most recognizable figures in all of history. He united the tribes of Mongolia in the 12th century and then turned them outward, soon conquering an empire that spanned much of the Asian continent. Along the way, Genghis Khan and his Mongolian horde took out tens of millions of people.
The Arsenal: Like most Mongols, Genghis Khan did much of his fighting on horseback, and that technological advantage was the primary reason for the rapid expansion of his empire. That meant he was most comfortable wielding a composite bow, a lance, or a battle-ax, though he could also make use of a short sword when more close-quarters combat was called for.
His Training: Much of Mongolian training under Genghis Khan was informal. Children grew up competing in various martial-themed athletics until they were proficient with all manner of weaponry. From there on out, most of their education came on the campaign trail where their ability to quickly overwhelm their opponents ensured that every Mongol got plenty of experience in the art of killing.
In The Duel: The keyword for Genghis Khan is brutality. He and his army rode into battle on horseback at a furious pace and set about making mincemeat of anyone they could get their hands on. He used drums and flag signals to organize his troops through the chaos, and that only added to their cold efficiency. In any sort of duel, Genghis Khan is going to come at his opponents fast and hard, and he’s not going to stop until somebody is dead.
- Birthplace: Delüün Boldog
Where and When: Miyamoto Musashi’s own book opens with a line that roughly translates to “My name is Miyamoto Musashi, I have killed over sixty men in fights and duels.” Equally renowned for his swordsmanship as for his artistic talents, Musashi took the life of his first man at age 13, went on to live as a ronin for the rest of his long life, and wrote an important book on warfare on his deathbed in 1645.
The Arsenal: Musashi wouldn’t be bringing just one sword to the fight - he’d be bringing two. That’s because he invented his own brand of dual-wielding fencing known as nitō ichi-ryū. Those two katana-style blades and some minimal armor would be all he needed.
His Training: As a young man, Musashi was trained in the art of sword-fighting by his father. But given that he won his first duel at the age of 13, it’s no surprise that he quickly transitioned into a self-taught battler. Not only did he eventually open up his own nitō ichi-ryū school of sword-art, he went on to train several individuals who would go on to be influential in Japanese history.
In The Duel: Right off the bat, Musashi will have one major advantage: the number of swords in his hands compared to his opponents. Even if he loses one of them, he has a perfect record in one-sword duels, too. Having beaten at least 60 opponents in one-on-one duels, and with a possibly apocryphal tale of taking down dozens of assailants at once in one incident, there’s not going to be anybody in this brawl with more experience.
- Age: Dec. at 61 (1584-1645)
- Birthplace: Eurasia, East Asia, Asia, Japan
Where and When: Spartacus was born in Thrace sometime around 100 BCE, but he didn’t stay there long, joining the Roman auxiliary as a young man before eventually deserting. This led to him being captured, enslaved, and sent to the gladiatorial pits. From there, Spartacus organized a slave revolt that eventually swelled to tens of thousands, defeating the Romans a handful of times before perishing in battle in 71 BCE.
The Arsenal: Spartacus himself and those other members of his rebellion to come from the gladiatorial pits would have had access to any number of weapons, including gladius swords, wooden shields, and leather armor. As a Thracian specifically, Spartacus would have used a parmula shield and a short sica sword, angled at the end.
His Training: Spartacus should have been an exceptionally well-trained individual. Not only did he grow up in the militaristic society of Thrace, but he was also trained as a member of the Roman auxiliary. Then after all that, he went to one of Rome’s famous “gladiator schools,” where he learned all manner of one-on-one combat.
In The Duel: Unlike most of the other great military leaders in history who typically only fought at the head of an army, Spartacus had plenty of experience facing solo opponents as a gladiator, which should serve him well in any hypothetical duel. His legendary ability to inspire others wouldn’t serve him well, but his craftiness and ability to adapt - as well as his willingness to fight dirty - would.
- Age: Dec. at 38 (108 BC-70 BC)
- Birthplace: Thrace