Hey! He’s a lover, not a fighter
He takes lessons in the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga
So there I was, eating a Cool Mint Chocolate Clif Bar, anxiety forcing my heart into thumping beats, unsure if it was nerves, the green tea in the Clif Bar, or the three cups of coffee (decaf, but loads of sugar) I consumed sitting all day in a social media marketing seminar. I was 15 minutes away from leaving the comfort of my home office to drive to Krav Maga Las Vegas’ Henderson location for my first, free, drop-in class. I had almost no idea what to expect or how to prepare, aside from bringing workout clothes, a towel and water, and asking for a person called “DC” And to eat an energy bar before class.
It all started on Facebook
We creative types aren’t typically known for our admirable physical attributes, unless those features include bad posture, poor eyesight or a grayish pallor. But for most of my adult life, I’ve tried to buck the stereotype and maintain a healthy lifestyle to offset the rigors of bending over a keyboard for 10 hours a day (and stave off the Grim Reaper): eating right, jogging, weight training, even yoga during my more tender years. I’ve ramped it up over the last few years, with multiple stabs at vegan diets and a successful From Couch to 5k program that turned me into a recreational runner. After the latter, I found myself ready for a new challenge, something more interesting and disciplined than running around my neighborhood or bicycling the Red Rock loop.
I don’t remember when I decided some form of martial art should be my next physical recreation activity of choice. Well, that’s not true. The comic book geek within me did figure the first step to becoming Batman might involve learning how to kill with my hands. But as for the moment Krav Maga specifically came into my sights? It was a Facebook conversation last year provoked by my pal Ryan’s own fighting style contemplation:
Ryan: Boxing, MMA, or Krav Maga? Pondering if I should mix up my physical training a bit.
Pj: I’ve been considering doing something like this as well, but feel kinda intimidated, since I’ve never done any martial or fighting arts and not really any group training sans yoga.
Ryan: I have very little tae kwon do experience from back in college, but Krav is geared toward regular civilians. It’s straight up street self defense, not really a martial “art.” Take his gun away from him, fold his knee backwards, punch his trachea, foot to the nuts and run away kinda thing. There’s no sport or scoring or forms in it. I like that you’re proficient in it from the first lesson from what I’ve read/heard.
They still make you work out like nuts though and part of the upper level testing is taking on multiple armed attackers. Level three test is about 4.5 hours long I’ve heard with Crossfit, lower testing, THEN your level test.
Pj: Krav Maga sounds like the place to start in my training to avenge my parents’ murder by a low-life criminal.
Ryan: And I shall be your sidekick.
Pj: Can I call you “The Radiant Kid?”
Pj: “Captain Awesome and the Radiant Kid.” S--t, I need to start working on that NOW.
Pj: We’ll fight poor grammar and bad composition in the Naked City.
Ryan: Armed with Wite-Out, Sharpies and wicked neck punches!
Get in, get done, get out
Krav Maga — literally “close combat” in Hebrew — is a defensive fighting style developed by in the 1930s by a man named Imi Lichtenfeld out of pure necessity. The champion boxer and wrestler found himself defending his neighborhood in Bratislava against anti-Semitic gangs, and learned the hard way the strengths and weaknesses of both street and sport fighting, later working to develop the basic principles of what would become Krav Maga.
“Krav is a reality-based system with few moves to defend against numerous attacks,” says Kirk Offerle, an instructor at Battle Born Defense Tactics, a local Krav Maga studio. “It is a common sense approach to self defense. When necessary, get in, get it done and get out safely.”
It’s so effective in its simplicity, Krav Maga has become the fighting system of choice for the Israeli Defense Forces, and has been adapted for use by a wide range of intelligence and law enforcement organizations around the globe, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, French Special Forces and New York Police Department SWAT units. Hey, you know what I say: Good enough for the French Special Forces, good enough for me.
For the record, I’ve been in exactly three physical confrontations in my 35 years. One, in junior high, was so innocuous I barely remember it, other than it may have involved some shoving or name-calling but never escalated to proper “fight” status. Another was during high school, when I backhanded a kid who was doing something to annoy me from the seat behind me on our bus. And the closest I’ve come to a real fight was a year or two later when I was sucker-punched by the ex-boyfriend of this girl I was seeing. When the world came back into focus, I was on the ground, watching our mutual female interest holding a knife as she shooed him away.
All this might lead you to believe I’ve either been very adept at avoiding confrontation my entire life, or I simply have no aggression flowing through my veins. But just ask my ex-wife or parents, and they’ll attest that the latter certainly isn’t the case. I’ve left in the wake of my anger — from a very young age — the crumbled, shattered and tattered remains of walls, windows, doors, knuckles and various household items. It’s not an aspect of my personality of which I’m proud, but it’s one I’ve learned to control over the years. My birth father had a similar rage boiling just under his skin, and it’s made me very consciously move as far into a “zen” place as I possibly can. Maybe a bit too far.
Krav Maga - 2, Pj - 0
My chest was tight. I hacked up more phlegm than I thought it was possible for a human body to produce. My hands were tingling. My ears ached. My mouth was sore. But most of all? My pride hurt.
My first Krav Maga session did not go well, to put it mildly. By the time the class broke for a breather following the warm-up — and bear in mind, when I say “warm-up,” I mean “boot camp drill that Full Metal Jacket’s Sergeant Hartman would find harsh” — my body was spent. My thighs were burning. My breathing was shallow. I tried continuing with the class, but spots were forming in front of my eyes, my breath wasn’t coming back and, with my pride left in a puddle of sweat on the padded floor of the studio, I dragged myself out to my car, feeling like a chump.
After some internal wrangling, I returned to the same Wednesday night class the following week. Sure enough, a number of familiar faces from the previous week were there, including a young couple who obviously liked it enough for a return visit. It seemed like instructor DC Pacheco cut back the intensity of the warm-up, whether or not for my sake. I hope it wasn’t. There were none of the sprints, push-ups or long jumps that did me in last time; just some jogging and about five minutes straight of scissor kicks to work the abs to death. It was still challenging — but just-within-my-comfort-zone challenging.
After the warm-up, we got right to moving through a series of basic moves built on the standard defensive fighting stance. I was partnered up to practice moves with a stout young man about my height named Raul. But I was skittish, concerned about doing actual damage, especially when practicing groin kicks.
“Don’t worry, I’m wearing a cup,” Raul told me. “I always do here.”
Oh, good. I wasn’t. But I didn’t have to worry about that much. Raul’s been training in Krav Maga for about two years, and for him, this was pretty basic stuff, so he generously spent the class helping me work on my moves. In a way, though, that almost didn’t help. I already had trouble keeping up with all the stuff Pacheco was throwing out. This wasn’t rocket science. He broke it down into easy-to-digest chunks: Groin kick. Side kick. Jab. Throat grab. But I was over-thinking it, trying to maintain optimal positions while being unnecessarily mindful of my sparring partner’s well-being. I was intellectualizing what should have been a visceral, no-holds-barred exercise in self-preservation. I was doing exactly what Offerle warned against.
“Often people get myopic in their approach to learning Krav Maga by concentrating too much on technique instead of understanding the basic principles of Krav,” Offerle told me. “Learn the principle and the technique will come.”
Easy enough for him to say. Pacheco sure as hell concentrated on technique. Why else would he be coming over to me every few minutes to adjust my stance, or punching distance, or kick angle? I felt uncomfortable getting close to Raul, let alone wrapping my hands around his thick, sweaty neck to execute a head butt or eye gouge. I wanted him to do something to provoke me, to force out the inner rage I’d misdirected at drywall and glass and high school lockers my whole life. But with Raul as my ineffective punching bag and not a single clear or present danger nearby, that trigger never manifested itself for me during the class.
At the end of class, I approached Pacheco, who was winding down and taking care of business as usual behind the cash-wrap in the corner of the studio. I perused the class schedule and the rate card.
“So what do you think,” he asked me.
I mumbled a response.
“What was that?”
“I’m up in the air about it,” I replied, not only unsure about Krav Maga itself, but also the pricing: $165 a month unless I make a long-term commitment, and my heart just wasn’t in it. Nor was my wallet.
“I’m no salesman,” Pachecho said, grinning. “I’ll be here. Unless I get fired.”
I thanked him again and walked out the door, feeling physically better than I did after my previous visit, but that’s all. I was hoping to get some sort of charge from Krav Maga, hoping it would stir some sort of inner bad-ass within me — or at least the inner guy who doesn’t want to get his ass kicked. That didn’t happen.
I asked Offerle — a former professional dancer and restaurateur — what made him turn to Krav Maga. He told me he had read about the practice in an article on Roger D’Onofrio, the former U.S. Army Special Forces instructor who helped pioneer Krav Maga instruction in Las Vegas. But it was not until Offerle was intimidated by a few guys in his own restaurant (the gone-but-not-forgotten Jazzed Cafe) in 2004 that he took a much more active interest.
“After the incident, I could not shake the feeling that somehow I felt guilty for not reacting differently,” says Offerle. “Here were two guys that, for no real reason, accosted me on my property — and I felt guilty? Never again, I decided. I enrolled in Krav Maga with Roger the next day.”
Offerle says it was “love at first punch.” For me, it was “meh” at first punch. The promise of Krav Maga is that after your first class, you’re no longer a victim. But fact is, I was never a victim in the first place. Sure, I might have an epiphany like Offerle’s someday, something that will make something like Krav Maga grab me by the short and curlies and never let go, but I don’t think I’m missing out on anything should that never manifest itself.
I started running again pretty heavily after taking that second Krav Maga class. And wouldn’t you know: After all that searching for a new challenge (and being subsequently let down by it), the road under my feet didn’t look so bad anymore. The boredom I was feeling had pretty much passed. And best of all, I didn’t have to wear a cup.
It’s the little things.