This story is one part of a large effort by MixedMartialArts.com to understand what works in martial arts. The process is to study what happens on the street, rather than what happens in the arena. If you enjoyed it, check out the library on:
•Martial Arts on The Street
•Style vs. Style
What is Krav Maga?
Krav Maga was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld in the late 1940s to provide combatives training for the Israeli military. The founder was a competitive boxer and wrestler in what is today the capital of Slovenia. In the mid-1930s, Nazi sympathizers threatened Jewish neighborhoods, and in response, Lichtenfeld led a group of fellow combat sports athletes to protect his neighborhood via street fighting. In 1940, as Nazism engulfed the region, he fled via boat.
In the late 1940s, Lichtenfeld began to provide lessons in combatives to the military that eventually became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The goal was to synthesize the most practical, easily adoptable parts of boxing, wrestling, and street fighting, and teach them to conscripts. For 20 years Lichtenfeld refined his method.
In 1965 Judo techniques and its belt ranking system were brought into Krav Maga. In 1968, Lichtenfeld's first black belt student, Eli Avikzar, began learning Aikido, earning a black belt in art, and eventually incorporating that too, particularly against weapons.
Today Krav Maga is taught at least at its most basic level, to all IDF combat soldiers, with elite groups, and relevant members of the law enforcement and intelligence services, receiving far more training. There are now a number of variations of Krav Maga developed, and a number of organizations teaching worldwide.
The Problem of Pressure Testing
The quality of Krav Maga students varies enormously, from terrifying special forces operatives who can kill you with a pencil, to, more frequently, LARPers. There is a large percentage of the population who want to be tough, but aren't willing to do the work to become tough; commercial operations are all too delighted to convince these unfortunates that striding around in cowboy boots means they really are Jesse James.
Boxing, MMA, judo, and jiu-jitsu among other martial arts are not plagued with this extraordinary unevenness, because they have discovered truths the hard way, and pressure test them via sparring and competition. The Israeli military understands this simple reality, and holds Krav Maga sporting competitions.
The US Army does the same thing with its Modern Army Combatives events.
Jieitaikakutojutsu, the self-defense and fighting system developed for Japanese Armed Forces, does it too.
Civilian efforts do not uniformly embrace such pressure testing, because reality is often bad for business. It is far, far better in terms of student retention to tell them that what they are learning is too deadly for competition, implying, and sometimes outright lying that they could doubtless destroy practitioners of mere sports-tested martial arts.
Pressure testing via realistic competition does not mean one cannot if necessary gouge eyes, bite throats, swing the biggest rock you can find, or employ other methods that would lead to death if used in competition. To the contrary, the skills earned from pressure testing via competition give you a platform from which you can do whatever you have to do.
By contrast, those Krav Maga programs that pantomime pressure testing, and promise that the techniques taught are simply too deadly, are likely leaving their adherents worse off. A mouse knows it's a mouse, and is bright enough to hide from an eagle. A mouse brimming with confidence, that believes itself to be a wolf, is not long for this world.
However, there is a greater question still than training methods. Has it ever worked?
Has Krav Maga Ever Verifiably Worked?
For generations, the effectiveness of martial arts training methods has been demonstrated by two means. One is flashy demonstrations. Boards are broken and complaint students are dispatched in dramatic fashion, and thus the art is made to appear dangerous, regardless of reality. The other means to convince the public of the art's effective was argumentation; they get really good at it - "Deadly, street, internal, Navy SEAL, linear circular, blah, blah, blah."
If you want to determine whether any given approach actually works, neither argument nor demonstration is much useful. In reality, there are just two means - have exponents fight, or watch it work on the street. In great news, there are a number of verified cases of Krav Maga working on the street.
Consider the example of Kfir Itzhaki.
Kfir Itzhaki vs. a Knife
Today Itzhaki is a therapist and the founder of INSTINCT, a combatives instruction firm. On November 2, 2015, when the video below took place, he was a sergeant first class in an IDF elite counter-terrorism unit, and a high-level Krav Maga self-defense instructor.
Itzhaki was off duty, unarmed, parked in a car at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station when he saw a man with a large knife on a rampage, stabbing unarmed civilians at will. Most people would run. Itzhaki did too, but toward the danger.
In the video below from his YouTube channel, Itzhaki narrates what happened. A man dressed head to toe in black is seen running while stabbing and slashing at random. The Krav Maga instructor, wearing dark shorts and a white t-shirt, gives furious chase.
"I understood that I am going to go all the way; either I die or I get wounded, because facing a knife is the most difficult fight that exists. Even if you are armed, it's a palpable threat. Any wrong move can lead to injury. And fear starts to accumulate within you; but there are two options - take the fear and run away, or channel it to aggressiveness and determination."
Itzhaki got his butterflies flying in formation, ran up, and distance managed with a push kick. The attacker then ran into a store, where a different security camera caught the action.
A central aspect of Krav Maga is improvised weaponry. Itzhaki grabbed a display case and smashed the attacker's face with it. As the man fell to the floor, the Krav Maga trainer disarmed him. Whether from adrenaline, his mental state, or drugs, the attacker appeared to feel no pain, and was looking for the knife. Itzhaki choked him out, and by now other onlookers had joined the fray.
It was over.
There are other confirmed cases of Krav Maga working on the street too. In sum, Krav Maga can work incredibly well.
The Problem with Krav Maga
The central problem with Krav Maga is that it has not developed an internal correcting mechanism. A boxing gym, a judo dojo, an MMA school, a sanda kwoon, a jiu-jitsu academy, will all in time cease operation if the students are terrible. There is endless intermingling between facilities, with visitors, smokers, and competitions all significantly pressure testing practitioners on a very regular basis. Truly terrible facilities are quickly exposed and disappear.
Unfortunately, Krav Maga facilities can bamboozle needy, credulous students into believing a rusty roller skate is a new Tesla. There are many hapless students of Krav Maga who will look at the video above, and believe that it confirms the efficacy of what they are doing, when in reality they are no closer to that level of skill than is a LARPer to being an actual wizard.
As an aside, LARPing is a super fun activity for thousands of people. No insult whatsoever is intended towards it. The only issue with Krav Maga is that some students of it are LARPers who think they are actual elves, druids, etc.
So is Krav Maga an effective martial art? Yes, it is a ferocious approach when taught properly, with intense pressure testing. And, unfortunately, it too often is taught ineffectively. And the average prospective student has no idea which is which.