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Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Thursday, 23 September 2010 09:56 UK

Getting to grips with Israeli Krav Maga martial arts

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Israeli combat technique goes mainstream

By Kristin Wilson Keppler
BBC World News America, Raleigh, North Carolina

A hand-to-hand combat technique first designed to turn the Israeli military into an elite fighting force is becoming increasingly popular in the US.

"You bring your foot up hard, right between his legs."

In a basement studio space in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, Ken Richstad, the owner and trainer of Krav Maga Raleigh, is teaching his students one of the most basic - and more infamous - moves of his particular marital arts specialty: the kick to the groin.

One of his students stands in front of him holding a thick padded mat. Legs spread, he is trusting that Ken will not miss. Because, while this is just training, Ken is not holding back. His foot hits the pad with deafening force.

"Look up at their chest," Richstad tells them. "If you look at the pad, you'll stop your force at the pad. You want to keep going. If this was real, you'd want that kick to be as hard as you can make it."

His students, particularly the men in the group, grimace as he makes contact over and over again.

'Contact Combat'

It is called Krav Maga, and its gaining favour among both gym enthusiasts and people looking for a new way to protect themselves. The name comes from the Hebrew words for "contact combat," a martial art created in the 1930s by Imi Lichtenfeld, a Jewish boxer in Bratislava.

He developed his fighting system to enable unarmed Jewish men to defend themselves against anti-Semitic attacks.

Krav Maga
The training methods involve natural reactions

Lichtenfeld fled Bratislava in 1940 during the Nazi occupation of his homeland and made his way to Israel, where his fighting skills led the Israeli military to put him in charge of training their soldiers.

When Israel became a state in 1948, Lichtenfeld was appointed the Chief Instructor for the Israeli Defense Forces.

"One of the reasons Krav Maga worked out well for Israel is because the training methods involved using your natural reactions, using your natural instincts, allowed for the training of a large number of people in a short amount of time," Richstad says.

"And, because they have mandatory service, it's not going to be just a select number of people; it's going to be everybody. And that made it easy for them to teach these skills quickly and efficiently."

Israeli street fighting

Today, Krav Maga is used by Special Forces around the world. And, according to Richstad, with some surprising results.

"What we've found is that when Law Enforcement agencies start doing Krav Maga training, there's actually a reduction in use of force problems.

"Because they're prepared for stressful situations in their training, they don't react too severely when it happens on the job. Even though they've done all of this incredibly aggressive training, that actually makes them able to control themselves and, in their case, the criminals better in those actual real life situations," he says.

Though Krav Maga does have its origins in the streets, Richstad says to call it glorified street fighting is unfair. While there are few rules - hair pulling, eye gouging, and biting are all allowed - the recurring principle of Krav Maga is to make it home alive.

But, he is quick to point out, this is not about violence.

"It's not about starting fights, of course," he said. "But if you get in that situation where you have to defend yourself, you go on offense right away, because, that's how you're going to end the fight and be able to get home safe."

Regular people

"My students are just regular people," he says. "They have families, work regular jobs, some of them are really great athletes. I don't think any of my students is itching to go out there and fight."

His students range from five years old to adults in their mid-thirties, and the approach with all of them is the same: have fun, be responsible, work hard. And don't go looking for trouble.

For many of Richstad's students, the decision to take Krav Maga is more personal.

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Nicolas Munsen on why he learns Krav Maga

"I'm actually here because I was beat up at a bus lot," said Nicolas Munsen, a high school freshman.

Nicolas has been practising Krav Maga for nearly a year now. Besides getting him into shape, he says he's stronger, calmer and, while he's not looking for a fight, he knows now that he is ready if someone comes after him.

Keep it simple

One of the principles of Krav Maga, Ken says, is to keep the training simple, with one solution to many problems.

"In the moment when you're stressed out and scared and surprised, it's going to be hard to think of ten different possible responses, so we're trying to build kind of natural reactions," he explained.

A female student grabs her attacker's wrist and and spins her hand out
A female student grabs her attacker's wrist and spins her hand out

His students team up, one acting as the attacker. His "victims" close their eyes, waiting for the attack. Some of the grabs are from behind, others from the side, but all of his students react the same way. Their hands fly up to their throats.

"And it happens to everybody, even people who've trained for 20 years. When they get choked, their hands go up and grab the other person's hands. What we try to do is make a self-defense technique out of that natural response."

For the girls, it's a moment of triumph. They grab their attackers wrists, spin their hands out, and they're suddenly free. What follows is a volley of near-miss kicks, punches and knee thrusts.

Don't quit

By the end of class, Richstad's students are sweaty, panting and exhausted. But, he says, this too is one of the tools that makes Krav Maga different from other forms of self defence.

"We do a ton of drills to emphasise the importance of not quitting," he said.

Richstad constantly moves around the room, pushing his students to throw one more punch, kick harder, and never quit. It is this fighting spirit, he says, that he wants to instil in his students.

"Learning more about what you're capable of, having more confidence, that always helps you. And that's what the training's all about," he smiles. "We just do groin kicks to get there."



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