Krav Maga history, origins & fighting style influences

by Joost | Last Updated: August 19, 2020

Krav Maga (/krɑːv məˈɡɑː/; Hebrew: קְרַב מַגָּע [ˈkʁav maˈɡa(ʔ) is a Hebrew term that means “contact combat” or “close combat.”

Imi Lichtenfeld developed this fighting system in the 1950s for the Israeli Army.

The system is a combination of philosophy and techniques from several martial arts styles.

Krav Maga history

The Israeli Army and special troops were the first to use Krav Maga fighting techniques.

In the 1970s, Krav Maga training became available to civilians and gained extreme popularity.

To this day, people from all corners of the world are actively engaged in Krav Maga training for self-defense purposes.

Chances are, you can find a Krav Maga gym near you.

Many military groups and law enforcement agencies embrace the concepts and techniques of Krav Maga because it is a versatile and efficient self-defense technique.

Before engaging in Krav Maga training, it is essential to have some background knowledge about the topics mentioned above.

This information will undoubtedly deepen your understanding of the basic principles and techniques of Krav Maga.

How did Krav Maga get started?

Krav Maga was established by Imi Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian Jew, who grew up in Bratislava. Lichtenfeld’s father was a well-known Bratislava police inspector.

Imi was a heavyweight boxing champion, a ju-jitsu and judo practitioner, a dancer, and a trapeze acrobat artist.

Due to anti-semitism and the onset of WWII, Imi’s family was forced to emigrate from Czechoslovakia to a part of Palestine, which is presently Israel.

After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) employed Lichtenfeld to develop a fighting and self-defense system.

When Imi was a chief instructor of the hand-to-hand combat group of the IDF, he enhanced the Krav Maga system.

Many units of the Special Forces, like Haganah, Palyam, and Palmach, embraced the principles and techniques of Krav Maga.

Eventually, it became the official combative training program used by police, security forces, and military men.

Since Imi was dealing with a mix of both out-of-shape and fit soldiers, he created a fighting system that is simple and intuitive instead of complicated and full of rigid techniques, which may require many years of training.

Expansion to the United States

The Israel Krav Maga Association and the Israeli Ministry of Education held the first-ever International Instructor’s Course in 1981.

The training took place at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education.

23 U.S. delegates attended the training led by Imi.

Eyal Yanilov, Imi’s adviser and the current president of the International Krav Maga Federation, also conducted the program.

During the training, Imi befriended a martial arts practitioner from California, named Darren Levine.

He told him that he would visit the USA to teach and train him. Levine was a martial arts and boxing practitioner and was involved in the implementation of the Heschel Day School physical education program.

He then conducted further training at the Heschel Day School.

Levine and Joel Bernstein, one of his students, and other members of the Jewish organization in L.A. established the Krav Maga Association of America at Imi’s request.

In 1987, Levine and his top students started offering Krav Maga training to the U.S. law enforcement personnel.

With the guidance of Imi, law enforcement agencies integrated Krav Maga in their training.

Right after Levine earned Krav Maga 6th degree black belt, he was awarded the Founder’s Diploma for Special Excellence in Krav Maga by Imi.

There were only two people who received this diploma; the other one was Eyal Yanilov.

Imi awarded this diploma to those who were deserving to become Krav Maga leaders.

In January 1999, Krav Maga Worldwide Enterprises was established, which paved the way to the promotion and expansion of Krav Maga in the U.S. A and other parts of the world.

Up to this day, Krav Maga is used by local, state, and federal police agencies like the Secret Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, and FBI.

There are celebrities as well who engaged in Krav Maga.

These include Mia Kirshner, Jennifer Garner, Shannon Elizabeth, and Jennifer Lopez, and the technique was featured in these movies.

Krav Maga influences

Who was Imi Lichtenfeld?

Imi Lichtenfeld was undoubtedly a great athlete. He had undergone comprehensive training in Japanese jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo, and boxing. His experience included more than 12 years of fighting experience on the battlefield and in confronting guerilla.

Lichtenfeld was a self-defense and close combat instructor for more than 20 years. These experiences all contributed to Imi’s establishment of Krav Maga. He developed this fighting system to be suitable for people of all walks of life.

Background and early life

Imi Lichtenfeld was born in 1910 in Budapest to a Hungarian Jewish family. Imi’s family moved to Bratislava, Slovakia when he was a young boy.

Imi’s father was the chief inspector and instructor of the Bratislavapolice force.

With the help and support of his father, he engaged in several sports when he was still a child.

He has been performing for many years in the circus, specializing in trapeze performance.

Moreover, Imi also trained in judo and traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu and earned the black belt rank in both martial arts disciplines.

He also became a European boxing and wrestling champion.

Aside from being a martial arts practitioner, he was a waltz instructor as well and an owner of a large waltz school.

Because of his experiences in different fields of physical activity, he understood the capabilities and limitations of the human body, which later led him to establish an efficient fighting system.

World War II

In the middle of the 1930s, the Jewish community in Bratislava experienced a crisis.

It was a period of anti-semitic riots in which Jews were the targets of violent attacks.

Imi studied the nature of street attacks after he witnessed Jews being harassed and violently on the streets.

He learned that unexpected and random attacks could be won or lost in a matter of seconds.

It all depends on the victim’s reaction. He decided to incorporate more rapid threat neutralization techniques into his fighting style.

In the 1940s, the Nazis seized the country. Because of Imi’s passion for protecting his fellowmen, he formed groups to fight against the invaders.

During World War II, Imi became part of the Czech Legion, a group that fought against the fascist.

After the war was over, he went to Israel and joined the group Haganah. This group fought against the Arab and British states to gain independence.

Life in Israel

He became a fighting instructor of the group. From that period, Imi became an inspiration and influencer of many fighting groups in Israel.

After the establishment of the Israeli state, Imi became the chief self-defense instructor of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

He personally conducted training for the Israeli elite forces and further developed Krav Maga while working with his students.

The techniques imparted by Imi and the abilities and courage of the elite forces improved the fighting systems and operations of Israel.

Other Israeli armed organizations heard about the great improvement of the Israeli elite forces through the help of Imi.

So they asked him to conduct training for other armed structures like the police and security groups.

In 1967, Imi retired from serving in the military.

When Imi was still in the military, he had a time frame of fewer than two weeks to train each group or army squad. therefore, he couldn’t create a new fighting system.

After his retirement in 1967, Imi established a self-defense system using his experiences in the military and in the battlefield.

He aimed to create a fighting system that is suitable for civilians including children and women.

In fact, it’s so popular for women these days, that it’s almost the number one go-to self-defense course, and with good reason, as you can read here.

He then opened training centers in Netanya and Tel Aviv. Each center consisted of 5 students whom he personally trained.

When Imi fully established the fighting system in 1971, he named it Krav Maga, which means close combat.

Krav Maga is a combination of techniques that are both applicable to military and civilian practitioners.

The Last Years

Imi remained the advisor and counselor of IDF until his death.

Even in his late years, he still conducted training for those who have Krav Maga black belt ranks.

He continued to participate in all meetings and seminars in Israel and oversee and shared his experiences and discoveries with his followers.

Imi made one final contribution in 1995 and created the International Krav Maga Federation.

Imi’s creation significantly improved the combat system of IDF. Imi died in 1998 at the age of 88. He is buried in Netanya, Israel.

Judo influences in Krav Maga

Krav Maga Training

Krav Maga is intended primarily for self-defense, and not for competitions or shows.

Many people train in Krav Maga to defend themselves during a fight or attack.

Krav Maga involves training a person to neutralize an attack and use efficient moves and techniques to defeat the opponent while under stressful situations.

When using Krav Maga as a self-defense technique, there are no specific moves or choreography to follow, and no uniforms and traditional routines.

Krav Maga is a fighting system that involves the use of contemporary, dynamic, and effective fighting moves and techniques.

This fighting style enables a practitioner to use his natural instincts to effectively and quickly neutralize the threat and defeat his opponent.

During Krav Maga lessons, you are first trained to use your instinctive reflexes.

Next, you also learn how to have increased awareness of your surroundings.

Finally, you learn to defend yourself or your significant other using precise moves.

Krav Maga is not developed to show off or start a fight, but it is intended to save lives.

This principle is based on Imi’s statement that Krav Maga training courses are developed “so that one may walk in peace.”

How dangerous is Krav Maga?

This fighting technique is only as dangerous as any other contact combat sport.

When students are learning, they use protective gear to prevent injury.

Krav Maga is not a dangerous activity when practiced safely in a gym.

The philosophy behind it is to teach you to protect yourself from an attack so that you can get home safely.

Keep in mind that the average person probably won’t have to use their Krav Maga on the streets.

However, knowing these techniques can help save your life in case of trouble.

Do I need previous experience to start Krav Maga training?

Learning Krav Maga requires no previous training or experience, anyone can learn from scratch.

But it is important to take note that there are fighting styles that greatly influence Krav Maga.

We will discuss some of these styles in the next section.

At the start of the training, you will be able to learn the basics like stances, striking moves, falling and getting up techniques, and basic defense moves to counteract common attacks such as headlocks and chokes.

Aside from dealing with the attacks, you will learn to perform moves smoothly and effectively under stressful situations.

You will also learn about attack prevention and awareness techniques.

First, you will learn the basics. Then you will move to the advanced level of training.

Here you’ll learn all about dealing with simultaneous attackers, using weapons, getting out of complicated or stressful situations, and learning advanced weapon and fighting techniques.

What Fighting Styles Influenced Krav Maga?

Karate influences in Krav Maga

Having prior experience or knowledge about these fighting styles is an advantage when training in Krav Maga. But again, it is not a requirement.

The following are some of the fighting styles that greatly influence Krav Maga:

Main influences:

Secondary influences: