Krav Maga – From Mean Street Self Defense to Strip Mall Martial Art

In the beginning most martial arts styles start out of necessity of as a form of self defense that is simple and effective. However, over time things change and the original idea is becomes corrupted. Krav Maga started off as a rough and tumble form of street fighting, but like most arts; it has become “civilized”. Like with other martial arts Krav Maga’s own commercialization and popularity has become its downfall.

They say necessity is the mother of invention and there is no better example of this than in the world of self defense. Krav Maga was no different, it was born out of a need to keep the peace and survive the brutal streets of Bratislava, Krav Maga’s founder, Imi Lichtenfield grew up on theses streets during harsh times. He knew what all street fighters know; combat sports aren’t self defense. Trained to be a boxer, he learned that if you want to survive a fight, you have to go all out and take down your enemy hard and fast.

Imi Lichtenfield was born in 1910 in Hungry, but grew up in the city of Bratislava, Slovakia. He was a skilled athlete who excelled in gymnastics, boxing, and wrestling. He received his first self defense training from his father Samuel, a 30 year veteran of the local police force who had a reputation as tough, but fair man. Through his career, Samuel took down some of the city’s toughest criminals. He taught other officers what he learned at his gym “Hercules.” At the gym officers learned both how to fight and more importantly, how and when to apply force.

Though the world in 1930’s Hungary things looked bleak. The prosperity after World War I gave way to global economic crisis and political upheaval. The banners of communism and fascism were flying around Europe and governments were powerless to stop armies of thugs from imposing their will on their communities. While most people know about the battles of World War II, the fighting really started in the streets. Before the Nazis over took the country, their militia groups and gangs began terrorizing Jews and anyone else they saw as an enemy.

To protect his community in Bratislava, Imi began fighting the thugs in the streets. He quickly became aware that combat sports like boxing were inefficient and almost useless in a street fight. In the boxing ring you never have to deal with more than one fighter or worry about someone picking up a broken bottle, but in a street fight that happens all the time. Imi learned fast and these real street fights would help him develop the principals of Krav Maga. As the street fights turned into full fledged war, Imi decided to escape to the Middle East, only to have a new fight on his hands.

Imi left Nazi occupied Slovenia in 1940 and in 1942 he arrived in Palestine where Jews were fighting to make Israel an independent state. The fighting was all about close combat and guerrilla warfare. Imi shared what he knew with local paramilitary groups. At this time he was exposed to the British hand-to-hand combat system developed by police officer William Fairbairn and others. Fairbairn’s system was a collection of simple techniques that could be used by both police officers and soldiers. Once again Imi learned well and when Israel became a nation he would spend the next 20 years teaching Krav Maga to the soldiers of the nation’s defense force.

Eventually civilians began learning the combat martial art for their own protection, but as it became more commercialized, it stopped being a practical form of self defense and more like a “modern martial art”. Krav Maga was first a philosophy that let a fighter deal with any situation. But it wasn’t long before the method of training changed and people started training for specific situations.

In the beginning Lichtenfield knew first hand that to survive a street fight you need a primary set of techniques and strategies that can be applied to any situation. Imi Lichtenfield taught his students to do whatever was necessary to survive, not play games. There were no hand wraps or spandex. He understood that if you want to make it home you need to have a set of tools that will work anytime in any situation. In a street fight nothing is certain and even the best combatives training is only a starting point. Don’t think that if you have learned Krav Maga that you will be ready for anything, because it is only the beginning. If you want to win in a close combat situation you need to keep things simple and effective, so don’t get bogged down by to much information.

Today popular Krav Maga has been described as from everything to a form of Judo to a Mixed Martial Art. It has left the street and taken on the roll of a martial art, using sporting techniques misapplied to self defense situation. Students wear hand wraps, boxing gloves, have belt ranks and are taught situation specific defense techniques, just like the ones taught in the vast majority of martial arts studios. The only thing separating popular Krav Maga from the rest of the pack is the name and the marketing. They have the story right, but the product is no different. Fortunately there are a few proponents of the old ways still about. I hope for their sake and the legacy of Imi Lichtenfeld, their voice is heard.