Fists of Jewry

Amy Touisithiphonexay brings krav maga, the Israeli art of self-defense, to South Florida

When State Farm Insurance dubbed the crossroads of Pines Boulevard and Flamingo Road in Pembroke Pines "The Most Dangerous Intersection in America," the company was referring to traffic accidents. But at 7 p.m. on a recent Monday, a shopping-center storefront at that same intersection reverberates with a different kind of dangerous collision.

Under a sign that reads "Nee's Kung Fu," the sounds of human grunts and nylon on leather seeps through the plate-glass windows. Occasionally, customers doing their grocery shopping at the adjacent Publix Supermarket shuffle up to the window to see what the commotion is all about. The windows fog from the moisture of 25 hard-working bodies, sweat gushing from their pores, their breath coming in labored huffs.

They look like a Special Forces unit in their uniform of black workout pants and T-shirts, their white, green, and pink hand wraps adding the only hint of color to the ensemble. They dance around the room as an instructor barks orders at them. It's not the dance of high kicks or flailing hand chops typical of a kung fu school. The actions are simple, direct punches: not sweeping roundhouses, not exaggerated stances -- just flat-out, full-throttle aggression.

Husband and wife Sifus (teachers) Nee and Amy Touisithiphonexay man the fort at Nee's Kung Fu in Pembroke Pines
Joshua Prezant
Husband and wife Sifus (teachers) Nee and Amy Touisithiphonexay man the fort at Nee's Kung Fu in Pembroke Pines

The teacher also confounds expectations. While the school itself is run by the kind of guy one would expect to see in such a place -- Nee Touisithiphonexay, a compact Laotian-American with a winning smile and bulging biceps -- he is not teaching this class. He's standing in the wings, arms crossed, as his wife, Amy, instructs her pupils in the Israeli-made self-defense system known as krav maga.

At five-foot-three and maybe 120 pounds, Amy doesn't look very threatening. With her curly, shoulder-length brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, the 37-year-old mother of two looks more like a fit soccer mom than a tough-as-nails, smash-mouth martial arts instructor.

Then she goes to work.

As Amy demonstrates how to block face and body shots on student Waymon Byrd Jr., her tone goes from conversational to demanding, the inflections emphasized as Byrd, who has a good 100 pounds on her, tries to punch her in the head. The class hangs on her words as she shifts intonations.

"It's my voice that gets their attention," she says later. "I'm just so pumped up about what I'm doing that everybody just feeds off my energy. It's spur of the moment; none of my actions are planned."

Many of the male students have mustaches -- a testament to the high concentration of law-enforcement officers on hand. And many of the women are as petite as their instructor. The ages run from teens to late middle age. Despite her pupils' differences, Amy works them all the same way: hard.

The students pair off. The first exercise teaches a basic block of a straight punch. "Put your guard up," Amy barks. "Keep your hands loosely balled, and as the shot comes, a short 45-degree flick of the hand redirects the blow. You're not committing your entire arm or using a long, blocking motion to block your adversary's left jab -- that would leave your face open for a hard right."

At first the students sort of go through the motions of punching their drill partners in the face. They're not making contact, just waving their fists.

"Don't pull that punch," Amy yells. "Hit them in the head. You don't have to knock them out, but you're not doing yourself or your partner any good if you don't get the feel for the motion."

That is the essence of krav maga: real fighting for real conflict. "Many of the pretty martial arts are for show," Amy asserts. "Krav maga is definitely not pretty to watch."

Krav maga teaches its practitioners how to confront an aggressor and then quickly eliminate that aggressor -- a philosophy born of its founder's experience as a Jew in Nazi-dominated Europe and as an officer in the Israeli army.

"I'm Jewish," Amy says, "and I thought it was very interesting that [krav maga] was formed for Israeli soldiers. It's challenging. American Tae Kwon Do Association President William Clark told me a girl couldn't do it and become an instructor because of how physical it is. I said I could."

And she did. Amy is the only female krav maga instructor in South Florida and one of only three in the state. She is relentless, however, in that she wants her students not only to learn the physical techniques but to develop confidence in themselves.

"As you learn and you realize that you don't necessarily have to be the victim of an assault, you start to walk differently," she says. "And it shows. People can see the difference."

krav maga is unlikely to replace kung fu or karate in popularity, and it certainly isn't as attractive as Bruce Lee's flying feet or even Daniel LaRusso's crane technique. But if you want to kick ass, it can sure come in handy.

"krav maga isn't about beautiful kicks and memorizing forms," Amy says in one of her quieter moments. "It's about throwing keys at someone to distract them or hitting them with a book. Or putting your fingers in someone's eyes or punching them in the groin."

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