words and photos by Ted Lehr
Akron is a blue-collar town. Making its bones on the rubber industry in the early part of the 20th century, the city has always been working-class tough. The often backbreaking life of the union factory worker fostered in its citizens a taste for gritty entertainment. Generations of families turned to the smash-mouth sport of football as a means to release the pressures of daily life. The Cleveland Browns, perennial local underdogs, have come to represent the region with an unerring grassroots parallel.
But make no mistake, Akron does not subside on football alone. For instance, the city has a vibrant fencing scene. Though it’s far more dignified and subtle than the pigskin pastime, the sport is every bit as physically demanding and compelling.
Just ask Ernest Kiraly, the owner of Kiraly Fencing Academy.
Located at 304 N. Howard Street, KFA is the nerve center of the city’s fencing community.
Fencing is a form of martial arts that employs three styles of bladed weapons — the epee, foil and sabre — in an offensive and defensive manner, in which a practitioner attempts to score points on their opponent by making contact with them with the tip of their weapon.
“Fencing is like playing chess at 90 mph,” Kiraly says.
Kiraly became fascinated by martial arts after reading an article about Karate when he was in his 20s. He quickly became fully ensconced in his new passion. He earned black belts in Karate, Kendo and Iaido. When he studied fencing with the Hungarian master Maestro Menyard Kadar, Kiraly was intrigued by the grace and civility of the sport. He traveled to Europe and South America to further his education.
Kiraly began teaching fencing in 1977 at his own academy, as well as the University of Akron, Kent State University and Youngstown State University.
Kiraly’s current building, which has housed KFA for 13 years, has a distinct medieval vibe to it. The walls of the interior are adorned with dozens of swords, components of suits of armor, flags and paintings. There is a large fireplace and a bookshelf stuffed floor to ceiling with volumes about the martial arts. The main floor is an open space, with room for at least six pairs of students to spar during class.
The academy generally has 60 to 100 students on its roster at any one time. There are classes for 7-12 year olds, teens and adults.
The class I visit includes three females and four males, all teens. Fencing is often co-ed. Though the sport dates back to the 14th century, it is thoroughly modern in that gender and body type don’t particularly matter.
“The sport is dominated by skill, not strength,” the instructor says.
Age isn’t an issue either.
“As long as you are in good health, you can fence forever,” Kiraly says.
After the students put on their safety gear, Kiraly begins the lesson. He runs the students through 10 minutes of fundamentals, working on foot positions and various blade techniques.
Then the sparring begins.
The students pair off. The clashing blades produce a distinct “ting” as they thrust and parry back and forth. The interplay is intoxicating to watch. The action is lightning quick. The weapons flash and punch through the air with surprising intensity.
Kiraly stands back and oversees the activity in the room. After a few minutes, he suits up and begins sparring individually with each student. Upon the conclusion of the initial volley, Kiraly gives the trainee praise or gentle correction before they continue. He is firm but encouraging.
“You have to practice every day,” Kiraly tells the students. “You have to build that muscle memory.”
The students cycle in and out with the instructor, sparring with one other in the meantime. Each listens keenly and respectfully while he tutors them.
From a closer observation angle, the interplay feels profound. It’s stiff, visceral…REAL. At no time is anyone injured, but there is heat behind the interactions. The young students clearly tire as the session goes on. There is an aerobic vigor to each burst of activity. If one showed up frustrated by life’s stresses, they will have certainly exorcised it by the end of class.
Eventually, the session comes to a conclusion. The students chat amiably with one another as they pack their gear.
Kiraly smiles as his pupils shuffle out, enriched by the class and elegance of a bygone era.
Ted Lehr has been a freelance culture critic for The Devil Strip since 2016. As a boy, he fondly remembers watching Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone clash swords during late night viewings of “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”