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'Game of Thrones'-Style Combat Class Teaches Fighting From the Dark Ages

 Dave Olsen jokes with Dustin Goodale at the end of the Armored Combat League National Qualifiers in Pitman, NJ. The photo is part of his ongoing series, Modern Knights.
Dave Olsen jokes with Dustin Goodale at the end of the Armored Combat League National Qualifiers in Pitman, NJ. The photo is part of his ongoing series, Modern Knights.
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Tadej Znidarcic

MIDTOWN — Six men paired off in a long, narrow Hell's Kitchen room, panting and drenched in sweat. Half held torso-sized fighting pads, the rest clutched swords and small shields.

Three of the weapon-wielders dizzied themselves by quickly spinning in circles before launching forward, attacking their counterparts with arcing roundhouse kicks.

"I want you to know what this feels like. This is concussion. This is exhaustion, dehydration. But when you're the last one on the field, what're you going to do?" said Damion DiGrazia, whose armored combat class at Hell's Kitchen's Sword Class NYC trains students on the basics of combat straight out of the HBO drama "Game of Thrones."

 A sword-fighting school offers armored combat classes.
New Yorkers Fight Like Knights
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The fighters' feet squeaked across the rubber floor covered in drops of sweat as, in a neighboring studio in the Eighth Avenue and 36th Street space, an opera singer practiced her scales.

"Now, switch!" DiGrazia shouted.

They switched roles. Two fighters launched forward, but the third fell to the ground. He rose and kicked furiously.

DiGrazia, the regional president of the Armored Combat League and the de facto head of the tri-state area's only team, the New York Sentinels, hopes to train students on the basics of armored combat fighting and prepare them to fight dressed in suits of steel armor like medieval knights and pummel each other with dulled Dark Ages weaponry.

He hopes to bring in people who have never tried the sport before, training them to be as good as some of the more seasoned New York fighters, like Sam Awry.

Awry, 35, a former death metal guitarist and undergraduate history student at Columbia University, first saw the style of fighting when he visited The Roxy in Orlando, Fl., in December 2012.

"We started ordering drinks then these guys came out in armor and started beating each other and my entire world changed," said Awry, who had been playing guitar with various bands for the past two decades.

"I was indignant. 'They're doing it without me!' I thought. I felt left out. I had no idea that it existed. 'This exists? and I'm not a part of it? That's not OK!'"

He met with the fighters later that weekend and tried his hand in combat, but fell and injured his neck.

Awry was undeterred. He had tired of the vagabond musician lifestyle and it wasn't long before he left his band, Mutant Supremacy, to devote himself to fighting and studying full-time.

He stepped into the ring again in 2013 and was dealt a quick lesson about how important both armor and practice are in armored combat.

"I started fighting Damion and it was about 45 seconds before my armor started flying off because it wasn't built well enough," Awry said.

Armor, like the gauntlets that guard fighters' hands, is vital. "There are people who have lost fingers or tips of fingers," he said.

Armored combat rules are fairly simple. In brawls between groups, opponents try to knock each other to the ground and keep them there until the round ends. Duels are decided by the greater number of hits one opponent delivers to the other.

Teams around the world compete regionally in various bouts, tournaments and occasionally in international competitions.

Fighters in New York haven't had a place to practice before the Sword Class NYC stepped forward. Their weapons and heavy armor are often destructive.

The school has already started hosting the un-armored classes and will eventually offer fighters room to practice pummeling each other in full steel suits when their East Harlem space at 1944 Madison Ave., near East 125th Street, opens in the coming months. 

"The nature of the business is that we make noise. We crash into things. We needed to find the right space for us before we really could offer everything we wanted to do," said the school's owner, Raab Rashi, 35. 

The school has offered other sword-fighting classes — such as longsword and Kendo — to a wide range of students since it opened in 2009.

"Some people come in because they saw 'Game of Thrones' or they saw 'Kill Bill.' Some people are coming from it from a very historical perspective. We have some pretty powerful executives from banking companies. The youngest student we have is 12 and the oldest is 84," Rashi said.

Rashi said that his classes try to maintain the thrill of dangerous combat, which draws people in and creates camaraderie, while maintaining a safe environment.

"There's a discipline that the students get from studying the sword," he said.

"You're learning how to kill someone with a weapon, but obviously that's not our goal here. That's bad for student retention."