November 28, 2023

Krav Maga – Not Real Pretty But Real

7 min read
Krav Maga – Not Real Pretty But Real

Jason Mark is a cop. You need a sense of humor to make it as a cop, and Jason’s a funny guy. Most likely he’d chuckle at your “Bad Cop! No Doughnut!” bumper sticker, maybe ask you for a bagel instead. And you can dump the stereotypes; watch what Jason does in his spare time and you might realize that not only is this gym-rat in better shape you’ll ever be, he’s a martial arts expert capable of kicking your butt twenty which-ways-to-Sunday and you might even feel stupid for having that bumper sticker in the first place.

Thursday, 8pm, Penn Oaks Fitness Center: Nearly a dozen men and women, attired in sweats and tees, hands taped and alternately holding striking pads, whale away at each other with fists and feet, the scene overlaid with the throb of a heavy-metal CD. They’re sweating and panting, since Jason just had them doing pushups and crunches. Now he charges about amongst them excited as a bulldog set loose in a Chihuahua parade, yelling, prodding, shoving: “What was that, Kevin? You call that a punch? I kiss harder ‘n that! Put some shoulder into it! This is a punch-” he slams a hand into the mitt and the guy holding it stumbles backward. “And this is an elbow-” Wham! The guy stumbles back further. “See, that works too! Use everything you got. And whatever you do, don’t stop. If you stop, you’re dead…” Moments later he’s demonstrating escape from an up-against-the-wall strangle: “J-move…one arm up, turn and dip…good, Sue…ok, Steve’s tall…whatcha gonna do? Right -go in low! Make him a soprano…”

Let’s get something straight: Krav Maga (“krahv magah” or “Contact Combat”) is as ugly as it sounds. The official fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces isn’t concerned with aesthetics. It’s designed to be simple and efficient, of necessity, brutal, nasty. All the stuff you’re not allowed to do in the other martial arts- groin kicks, eye gouges, elbows to the throat, aren’t only encouraged in Krav Maga, they’re taught, practiced. Sounds like street-fighting? It is.

“There aren’t any rules in Krav Maga except one: don’t get hurt,” says Ernie Kirk, owner of the busy Kirk’s Martial Arts Academy in Kennett Square, where Jason also instructs. “This is about survival, so anything goes.” Unimposing, though solid, Ernie wears glasses and is soft-spoken, evoking more his former school-teacher self, than a whup-meister who holds fourth-degree black belts in Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido, a black belt in Goju-Kai and advanced brown-belts in aikido and judo. But that’s way it should be, since ordinary folks looking for practical self-defense aren’t going to relate to a Van-Damme clone.

While Ernie lacks Jason’s constant bulldog frenzy, his ferocity-coefficient turns on a dime. “Relax,” he actually tells two students who are squaring off. “Lock into some stance, you’re gonna be too focused on one thing, and something else is gonna hit you.” A moment later he’s hollering “Follow through!” stopping a roomful of paired punchers and grabbing one of them to demonstrate. “You don’t stop at the head; you go past it, through it!” His fist whistles past the guy’s ear. “This is for keeps, not for points.”

For keeps. For real. That pretty well sums up where Krav Maga stands in relation to other martial arts disciplines. You won’t find any “kata,” grasshopper stances, leaping crescent-kicks and all that other choreographed, cinematic gee-whiz which everyone knows exists only for spectator value. Ernie, who was for years the first licensed Krav Maga instructor on the East Coast, acknowledges that a lot of the things he loves about martial arts would get him killed on the street: “There are inherent self-defense weaknesses of these other arts since they’re geared to sport and competition.” One may wonder how he’s able to separate them in practice, considering that such a level of reflex leaves little time for thought. The street demands fight or flight, maim-or-be-maimed, no second thoughts. Whatever you do, you’d better mean it.

Thus there no competitions in Krav Maga. There are no “uniforms” either, and while there are belts awarded for proficiency levels, no one wears them. Most wear tees and sweat-pants along with wraps and other protective gear. Save for a ritual bow at the conclusion, the classes are informal and eclectic. One moment you’ll be doing conditioning drills and calisthenics, the next, punching or kicking a pad held by a partner, then practicing escape from a particular hold or attack.

“Every move is based on your natural instincts,” explains Katie Bevard, a tall, attractive former school-teacher (another teacher…today’s school-kids must be a handful!) who instructs and manages at Kirk’s full-time. “So you don’t have to think about which of a dozen moves to use. If someone grabs you by the neck, your instinct is to grab his wrists. So we use that instinct -it’s called a ‘pluck-‘ (she demonstrates an abrupt grab-and-yank movement) and make it work as an escape. It works for anyone, from any direction. And it sets you up for counter-attack. All Krav Maga moves do that: one escape, multiple counters. Whatever you do must be instantaneous and followed by disabling strikes.”

Since the moves are so simple, the learning curve is minimal. Unlike other martial arts where the beginner may spend months punching and kicking the air or performing stances and other seemingly pointless rituals before squaring off with an adversary, Krav Maga emphasizes contact from day one. Punches and kicks are delivered deliberately at an opponent’s face, neck, groin…and stopped by a striking pad of one sort or another. The point is to remove inhibitions about such impolite exchanges. You can’t just indicate delivering a throat-chop or a groinward kick…to make it automatic and instinctive, you have to experience delivering it.

Since there’s no competitive hierarchy, Krav Maga classes democratize the learning process: at Kirks’ you’ll find neophytes pairing off with advanced, the instructors urging everyone to switch around and “experiment with different body-types.” A beefy kid with a shaved head glares down at a slender woman old enough to be his mom: “I want that pencil! Gimmee that pencil!” He pounds on the pads she’s holding. She recoils under his assault but continues to come back at him. A stress drill: the best way to condition yourself for physical confrontation is to indulge in it. Sometime later there’s a stress/fatigue drill where one student, surrounded by four others, must kick and punch at their pads non-stop, while harassed from behind by yet another. All take turns in the middle, all finish exhausted, dripping, happy.

And sometimes bruised. Katie nods emphatically. “We turn out the lights occasionally and fight in the dark. You get tagged sometimes. We’ve all got bruises, scrapes, cuts. Nothing serious, but it’s a great learning tool. Makes it real. Tae-Bo?” She snickers. “I remember that. Fun…good workout. But that’s all it was. And you never got these…” She proudly shows off a bruise.

Is it any wonder that Krav Maga is taking the country by storm? Initially embraced by the military and law enforcement, it has caught the attention of the media and gone mainstream, helped in no small part by recent events. Ernie says that enrollment has increased some 35% in the Philadelphia area since 11 Sept, and he’s adding new centers in South Philadelphia, Center City and Conshohocken. In many of the classes, women outnumber men. Teens and seniors joyfully swat and grapple with each other. Ernie’s even been invited to teach Krav Maga at elementary schools.

Saturday, 1pm, Kirk’s Martial Arts Academy: It’s nearing the end of a three-hour seminar. One of Ernie’s Philadelphia instructors is present, a petite 19-year-old Temple film-major named Greta who also holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Though she’s suffering a cold which has left her near groggy, Ernie repeatedly calls Greta to the front to demonstrate. She’s something of a star at Kirk’s -the other instructors rave about her- and Ernie likes to show her off. He unleashes a barrage of blows at her, rapid-fire from all directions and Greta parries them off with Lara Croft-like effortlessness and precision, an awesome display of reflexes which leaves little doubt she could seriously cramp a masher’s style. Ernie lets her go and begins handing out rubber knives. “Ok, pair off! Knife-attack with wound simulation. Forget the movies -you will get wounded in a knife encounter. Guys, I apologize in advance to your wives and girlfriends. We’re putting lipstick on these. And turning out the lights…”

Ernie’s a funny guy too.