Fight Club

The popularity of the Israeli martial arts technique known as Krav Maga is growing fast throughout the world. Adherents insist that its unrivaled effectiveness more than makes up for its lack of elegance.

London - "I was leaving a pub near Victoria Station in London. I was pretty drunk. All of a sudden I felt a blow to my head. I fell down onto the sidewalk and two people I never saw before started to beat me up. I couldn't do anything. I shielded my head with my hands and prayed for it to be over," Kevin Harrup recalls.

Harrup, 33, is a software engineer. He's 1.85 meters tall and doesn't look like the kind of person who gives up easily. After 10 years of training in four different martial arts methods, he never imagined that he would end up with such a humiliating meeting with the sidewalk, unable to protect himself.

"The two guys jumped me not because they wanted to rob me. They wanted to take their frustration out on someone, and I looked to them like an easy target. It bothered me a lot that I couldn't protect myself like I should have and I started to look for a method that would allow me to respond instinctively in an attack situation. Krav Maga was ideal for me," he says.

A month after Harrup started training, he was very satisfied with the Israeli method. "In this short time, I learned more self-defense techniques than in all the other methods put together," he says.

Harrup is one of six students who showed up on a humid summer day for a class with John Aldcroft, fitness trainer and martial arts instructor. Aldcroft, an expert in Brazilian and Thai martial arts, has cooked up a mix of fitness training, running, push-ups and exhausting warm-up exercises that he includes in every half hour. He does funny imitations, too, but his students work amazingly hard, doing leapfrogs and alligator-crawls. In between, he has his students practice responding to a number of threatening situations, from choke holds to throwing punches and doing some damage to sensitive body parts. By the time the class ends, the sweating and breathless students are stretched out on the floor completely worn out.

Over the past two years, the Israeli martial arts technique known as Krav Maga has gained greatly in popularity, especially in northern Europe and the U.S. Several factors, including September 11 and interest by Hollywood stars in the method, have led to the opening of hundreds of Krav Maga training classes throughout the world.

Dealing with a hijacker

Krav Maga was developed 50 years ago by Imi Lichtenfeld (Sde-Or), a Jewish athlete who grew up in Bratislava in the shadow of his father, who was a circus performer. The winner of several boxing and wrestling championships as a member of the Slovakian team, Lichtenfeld decided to leave the country in the face of rising Fascism and outbreaks of anti-Semitism. When he arrived in Israel he joined the Palmach and the Haganah, eventually becoming the Israel Defense Forces chief fitness and self-defense training officer.

During the 1960s, Lichtenfeld realized that a method should be developed to provide appropriate solutions to threatening situations. He turned his know-how into an entire method of self-defense based on techniques and components taken from a number of martial arts, including judo, wrestling, jujitsu and boxing, as well as methods he developed himself. In 1964, Lichtenfeld began to put together a system based on his rich experience.

"The main goal is to extricate oneself as fast as possible," Eyal Yanilov, head instructor of the International School of Krav Maga, explains. Yanilov was one of Lichtenfeld's top students and wrote a book with him called "Krav Maga: How to Protect Yourself Against Armed Assault" whose foreword was written by Shimon Peres. It has been translated into six languages.

According to Yanilov, Krav Maga brings together three principles: reflex action and instinctive body reactions; moving with maximum efficiency, without exaggerated or extraneous movements; and a variety of basic techniques that provide suitable responses, with slight variations for different situations, such as a plane hijacking, knife attack or choke hold. Krav Maga has impacted other martial arts, Yanilov says, especially karate and judo. "Imi used to say that in the end, everybody would come around to his way," he recalls.

The method was gradually adopted by the IDF in its elite units, and in 1970 the Education Ministry granted it official recognition as a martial art. A short time later, the Wingate Institute began to develop a training program for instructors in Krav Maga, and courses in the method are listed in the catalog of SIBAT, the Defense Ministry's export arm. To preserve the method and reach a wider audience, Lichtenfeld established the Israeli Krav Maga Association in 1978 and headed it until close to the time of his death in 1998. "The teaching of self-defense in the IDF and Imi Lichtenfeld are synonymous," prime minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote to Lichtenfeld in 1993 in a letter conveying his personal thanks for Lichtenfeld's contribution.

The intifada and the declining image of Israel in Europe in recent years has barely affected the marketing of Krav Maga, although recently some difficulties have arisen. Aldcroft says he is in touch with a private company that trains civilians that had received complaints about its teaching of Krav Maga. Aldcroft says the complainants, who refused to identify themselves, told the British company they did not understand why they had to study an "anti-Arab method based on breaking up Palestinian demonstrations." The school head told Aldcroft "we don't need some Arab client coming into our class and complaining that we're teaching him an Israeli self-defense method." In any case, in Aldcroft's classes there have been no problems with the method's Israeli origins.

Not very aesthetic

Aldcroft says he got into Krav Maga by chance, after some clients asked his advice about self-defense. "I checked around and found out that Krav Maga provides the best answer."

The combination of a strenuous fitness program and modern self-defense techniques got him hooked. "This may not be the most aesthetic martial art, but it provides good, quick responses with minimal effort," he says.

"Krav Maga is more aggressive than judo or karate. There are no ranks or ceremonies; there isn't even a special uniform. A t-shirt and gym shoes are fine. The point is to extricate yourself from danger by taking advantage of your opponent's weak points, using kicks to the groin, a poke in the eyes, anything that can save you. That's why it's very practical. The student learns protection from a knife attack in the first lesson. In other martial arts, you get to this only much later," he says.

Aldcroft went for the Israeli self-defense method from the moment he realized how efficiently it could overcome an adversary. "Krav Maga provides answers to many of the the kinds of things I was involved in when I was young. For example, to deal with someone stronger or more violent than I am - Krav Maga provides the tools and the determination to overcome him."

He came across such a situation eight months ago. "I was on a ski trip in Montana with Richard Wright [a former Pink Floyd percussionist whose personal trainer Alcroft is]. One night I went to a bar with his chef, an Italian in his 50s, who lives in New York, " Alcroft recalls. "When we went in, we knew right away it was a mistake." One of the locals, it turned out, didn't like the `invasion' of his beloved bar, and decided to teach the strangers a lesson.

"He had about 50 kilos on me, a real mountain of a man," Aldcroft recalls. "He waited for us outside on the steps. He was very nervous. He took a swing at me, but I was able to block his punch. We fell on the steps and continued to fight, but after a few minutes he got tired, and saw that he couldn't beat me, so he stopped and people pulled us apart. We got out of it more or less okay, I had a black eye and he had a bloody nose and a split lip, but for me it could have ended up much worse."

Aldcroft has never been to Israel, but he did train in Britain and is an authorized Krav Maga instructor in London, where he runs courses in 11 places with other instructors. Every few months he organizes a comprehensive training campaign with senior instructors from Israel. He is surprised at the demand. "This is a new martial art, and people come even though we haven't had an advertising campaign or anything like that. It's just a matter of time until Krav Maga catches on in Britain. I expect demand to be very big, because people are tired of training in fitness rooms. It bores them and they're looking for something interesting."

The difference between Krav Maga and other martial arts can also be seen in the kind of people who join Aldcroft's courses. "Kick-boxing and boxing attract people from relatively lower classes, while jujitsu and kung fu interest people from a higher class. Krav Maga, as far as I see, attracts professionals. Criminal lawyers, for example, or doctors who are afraid of violence in hospitals. People like that don't have time for karate or to develop instinctive skills over 15 or 20 years. They need immediate training that works with the body's natural reflexes."

With the right marketing, he says, Krav Maga can become the next big thing in the martial arts in Great Britain. "Look what happened to judo. Six years ago there were hardly 200 students, and now there are a few thousand. It's enough that a few celebrities and experts in other martial arts start training to pull others in." This may well happen, as The Sunday Times recently hailed Krav Maga as the "the most effective form of self-defense and fitness program available in the U.K."

Some 200-400 people are studying Krav Maga in Britain, Aldcroft says. Together with 10 other instructors, he trains about 70 to 100 students and he estimates that in a few years the number will grow to a few thousand.

Krav Maga is catching on in other countries as well. In the U.S. alone there are about 200 centers. The military, security services, police and federal agencies in the U.S. - including the FBI, federal air marshals and U.S. Secret Service - have all undergone training and are authorized to operate internal courses. The demand for civilian courses has risen significantly since September 11 together with the interest since then evinced by the military and special units.

Yanilov says he and his staff have trained dozens of organizations throughout the world. "We did training courses for the Swedish army, the special forces in Finland, Poland, Norway, Australia and Singapore. In fact, there's hardly an army or security organization in the world that hasn't heard of or had experience with Krav Maga."

"The Krav Maga system has been used in our regiment for five years and turned out to be very effective," Lieutenant Colonel Bogdan Koltunski, a special forces commander in the Polish army, wrote Yanilov. "Krav Maga is the most complete system of self-defense for police and military that I have ever seen," wrote Peter Lindskog, a weapons and self-defense instructor in the Goteborg, Sweden police department. Jeremy D. Margolis, the director of the Illinois State Police, decided to make Krav Maga part of the basic and in-service training "because we believe it to be the finest such training that exists." Praise for the method also came from the Finnish army's paratroop school, FBI agents and elsewhere.

Thanks to Jennifer Lopez

Hollywood has discovered Krav Maga lately. A long line of stars, among the Patrick Swayze ("Dirty Dancing"), Kristanna Loken ("Terminator 3"), Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie and James Gandolfino ("The Sopranos") have trained in Krav Maga in preparation for film and television series parts.

Despite this impressive list, Krav Maga was almost unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago. The big breakthrough came two years ago, when Jennifer Lopez played the leading role of Slim, a battered woman who learned to protect herself with Krav Maga, in the movie "Enough." Lopez, who insisted in doing all the stunts in the film herself and trained for three months in Krav Maga, had the highest praise for the method. "Krav Maga is about finding the power within yourself and that's what really transforms Slim," Lopez said in interviews ahead of the film's premiere, raising the interest in Krav Maga to four times what it had been. Although the movie was a box office bust (Krav Maga experts weren't enthusiastic, to say the least, about Lopez's performance either), the PR campaign was a dream come true for Krav Maga promoters the world over.

As its success increases, so do the numbers of those claiming to be heirs to Lichtenfeld's crown. A number of organizations and federations operating in Israel and around the world claim that the method's founder "bequeathed" it to them before he died, and most show off pictures of themselves with Lichtenfeld and certificates signed by him.

Behind all these organizations are activists and senior instructors who have split off from the founding association. "The success of the original association led to the establishment of competitors," says Ohad Gideon, a senior instructor and the son of Haim Gideon, president of the Israeli association. "A struggle for control has begun over who will decide the fate of Krav Maga, with everyone pulling in his own direction." The main dispute is over the extent to which the method has remained true to the founder's principles.

The result is a mixture of specialties and sub-styles included under the umbrella concept of Krav Maga. Since there is no single orthodox system, every organization or senior instructor develops his own variation. Aldcroft, for example, includes in his classes components borrowed from Brazilian jujitsu and Thai boxing, two martial arts in which he is an expert. "I studied the basic components of Krav Maga but I don't want to base myself only on one method of attack or defense," he explains. Aldcroft has trained police officers from various units who are training in dispersing violent brawls and who need simulations including real punches.

There are three main organizations: the Israeli Krav Maga Association, headed by Haim Gideon; the International Krav Maga Federation (IKMF), headed by Yanilov; and the Krav Maga Association of America, which is run through Krav Maga Worldwide Enterprises. The latter group was founded by Darren Levine, who was also one of Lichtenfeld's proteges and serves as the method's chief instructor in the U.S., as well as deputy district attorney of Los Angeles.

The battle for the title

Although supposedly promoting the same method, the organizations marketing Krav Maga operate totally independently of one another. Krav Maga Worldwide Enterprises specializes in the American market and operates autonomously; its members give certificates as they see fit. The International Krav Maga Federation operates in 30 countries other than the U.S., while the association focuses on Israel but also operates in a few other countries, among them the U.S. and Western Europe. Relations between the organizations are minimal and have soured due to financial, professional or personal disputes.

If there is one concern that unites the whole profession, it is about charlatans that pretend to be experts in Krav Maga. Yanilov: "There are a few Israelis with some background in the marital arts like karate who pose as Krav Maga instructors, when in fact they know next to nothing. This is, of course, an entirely different problem than that of the multiple organizations and instructors who learned Krav Maga from its founder, but about whose professional level there are disagreements."

Yanilov says that "the fakes and the impersonators give us a bad name mainly because of their low level and lack of understanding about the method; in any case, they are not teaching Krav Maga. We call them surfers, because they catch a ride on the wave we created in the world. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I thought every Japanese or Chinese person was a karate or kung fu expert. Today some people in the martial arts world think that every Israeli is a Krav Maga expert."n