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The name Imi Lichtenfeld doesn't inspire the same fear as that of, say, legendary kung fu bad boy Tiger Chung Li, but Lichtenfeld was the founding father of krav maga. While hundreds of Americans currently practice the art as either a form of self-defense or use its rigorous training regimen to tone their bodies, the Czechoslovakian-born Lichtenfeld developed these quick-hitting, no-frills skills with the elite units of the Israel Defense Force, or IDF, in mind.
Lichtenfeld grew up tough on the thuggish streets of Bratislava in the 1930s. Fascism was sweeping through Eastern Europe, and Jews of all ages were being persecuted for no reason other than their religion. A student of boxing and wrestling, Lichtenfeld honed his skills confronting the taunts of Slovak anti-Semites. In so doing Lichtenfeld began to take note of his own fights, using each confrontation as a learning experience and studying the differences between boxing and street fighting.
In 1940, having become a thorn in the side of the anti-Semitic local authorities because of violent confrontations (which he usually won), Lichtenfeld left his home, family, and friends and boarded the last emigrant ship that succeeded in escaping the Nazis' clutches. An old riverboat, Pentcho, had been converted to carry hundreds of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe to the land of Israel, then called Palestine.
Back then, as today, Jewish settlers faced aggressors from all sides and were constantly battling Arab enemies. Lichtenfeld trained all who were willing to learn how to wrestle, use knives, and defend against knife attacks. During this period he schooled several elite units of the Hagana (the frontline troops of the early struggle for Israeli statehood) and Palmach (the elite striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units of the IDF), as well as groups of police officers. These special-forces groups would later pave the way for the Mossad, or the Israeli secret service.
When Israel became a state in 1948 (and the Hagana was incorporated into the IDF), the fledgling government implored Lichtenfeld to develop an effective system of self-defense and fighting. He served in the IDF for about 20 years, during which time he developed and refined krav maga, which is simply the Hebrew term for hand-to-hand combat. When his duty ended, Lichtenfeld modified krav maga for civilian needs. As Israel's government strengthened throughout the 1950s and '60s, the surrounding Arab countries grew increasingly hostile; by June 1967 a combined force of more than 400,000 troops had hemmed in Israel's borders. Israel decided to strike first: The Six-Day War was a resounding victory for the young nation, and the IDF's success caused the popularity of krav maga to blossom.
The combat style is widespread in Israel today; because of a man named Darren Levine, it's catching on in America. Levine went to an international clinic that Lichtenfeld held in Israel in 1981. An accomplished martial artist in the Korean style of tang soo do, Levine brought back the old man's system and opened a school in Los Angeles.
The popularity of martial arts is at least partially celebrity driven: Chuck Norris knows karate; Bruce Lee mastered and redefined kung fu. Jean-Claude Van Damme was a dancer who learned karate and later filmed a movie, Kickboxer, that made the Thai fighting art a craze here in America. Steven Seagal cracks skulls aikido-style. In the 1990s, with the advent of such family programming as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, grappling and shoot-fighting were in. But Hollywood is run by the unbridled potential of the next big thing, and krav maga, with its couch potato-to-bad ass metamorphosis, is now center stage.
Charlie Sheen's bodyguards are trained in its brutal ways, as are Arnold's and Sly's people. Sharon Stone is hip, J. Lo learned it for a recent movie, and even Ivan Drago (also known as actor Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed, has been known to frequent the L.A. krav maga training center.
"It is the hot thing in L.A. right now, and I hate to use that word, because it implies that we're not going to be hot one day," says John Whitman, president of Krav Maga International, "that we're a flash in the pan. The truth is we're not hot because some guy won the Ultimate Fighting Championship a few times; people are interested in us because we provide realistic training and because it's a system that everybody can do."
Whitman recognizes that many other combat styles out there are effective, but he says they require more training and a fuller devotion. krav maga was specifically designed, he says, to work for every type of physical build and every age. "When the Israeli army was formed, everybody was trained and put into the battlefield," he says, "so a system had to be designed to be usable by all of them."
Following in the footsteps of those on the Israeli government's payroll, various law-enforcement and military outfits worldwide are adopting krav maga for their troops. It has become the lethal form of choice of the French Foreign Legion, the Spanish riot police, Italian anti-terrorism units, and, ironically, the German Special Forces. Stateside, many of Southern California's finest are adopting the program for their forces.