Author and MMA writer DeLeon DeMicoli was a long-time student at Krav Maga Institute from when it used to be named Berkeley Krav Maga. We are honored to be the subject of an article written by DeLeon!
DeLeon DeMicoli writes for the MMA Underground, a CBSSports.com partner. His free time is spent on the mats learning Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu, boxing and Krav Maga in East Bay, CA.
The Krav Maga Institute: Street Certified
On a Saturday afternoon, a large group of us ran down Gilman Street and crossed a dangerous intersection where a maze of highway exit/entrance ramps and streets converged at a single point without the assistance of a traffic light. We continued running down Eastshore State Park. Entered an area referred to as the “Dirt Motel” due to a construction company leasing the land as a temporary storage area for piled high hills of top soil.
As we gathered around Danny Zelig, Krav Maga Institute’s founder, he instructed us to carry one another up and down the dirt mounds. At first he was met with trepidation, some of us shaking our heads as we peered up into the hills of loose soil, wondering if we’d make it with an extra hundred pounds plus of flesh over our shoulders. But no one backed down.
I found myself to be odd man in the middle with my hand raised and announcing I still needed a partner. An older gentleman wearing glasses I’ve seen around the gym but never met answered my call. The sight of him made me look to others, hoping someone my size would appear instead. But no chance. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. Then I nominated to go first. Knelt down and threw him over my shoulders, lifted him up. After taking three hellish steps, having loose soil crumple below me, my chest heaved and I felt the strain in my legs. Gravity forced my shoulders to lurch, chin tucked into my chest. But I couldn’t give up. I relied on the techniques Danny taught like focus on my breathing and let muscle memory do the rest.
At the top of the hill, Danny yelled for us to only hold on to our partner with one hand. Keep the other hand free for attacks. Even when we’re vulnerable, we still had to be prepared for a number of life-threatening scenarios. In Krav Maga, there are no rules. It’s not considered a competitive sport. You fight to survive, attack when threatened and never stick around; because in reality, who knows if more people are coming to fight.
Once I reached the top of the hill, I walked around Danny and made my descent, swinging hammer fists and throwing my jab to take attention away from tired legs and the weight on my shoulders. When I hit ground zero I put my partner down. He gave me a moment to catch my breath. Then, we switched. It was his turn to feel the hell of climbing up the hill with me over his shoulders.
Krav Maga (meaning “contact combat” in Hebrew) originated on the streets of Bratislava (now the capital city of Slovakia) during the 1930s.
Samuel Lichtenfeld was a police officer and former circus acrobat. He taught self-defense to his fellow officers in his gym, Hercules, and would later inspire his son to be a great athlete and develop one of the deadliest fighting systems in the world.
Samuel’s son, Imi Lichtenfeld, was known in the community as a skilled boxer and wrestler that had competed in several national and international tournaments, thus becoming part of the Slovakian National Wrestling team. He began to develop his fighting system during World War II.
What Imi realized was when he and his wrestling teammates defended their community against the fascists (reminiscent of a Quentin Taratino movie) most of what he learned in the ring and on the mat did little to protect him in hand-to-hand combat. Street fighting didn’t have rules and a referee. Imi didn’t have the luxury to get a standing eight count if he was knocked down. Street fighting was animalistic and deadly. Weapons were common and the fight wasn’t over until someone was knocked unconscious or dead.
When Nazis occupied most of Europe and rallied against the Jewish community, the will to fight was more important than ever. And so began the fighting system Imi would use against the Nazis. He developed techniques to attack while simultaneously defending against his opponent, different from other martial arts that taught defending and attacking as a two step process.
As the Nazi threshold grew stronger, Imi fled the country and arrived in Palestine in 1940. He began training his system to militant groups that were seeking to make Israel an independent state. When Israel claimed their independence in 1948, Imi was asked to become the state’s chief instructor. Imi would not only teach Krav Maga to the military, but after opening instruction to civilians in 1978, he would teach Krav Maga to all citizens of Israel to ensure they knew how to protect themselves.
Krav Maga evolved into a deadly hand-to-hand combat fighting system that assumed all attacks were life-threatening, and to survive meant neutralizing the attacker by any means necessary. Whether it was against knives, guns, multiple assailants or less than ideal environments, Krav Maga was the ideal fighting system for common street attacks and appealed to urban cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
After the fireman carry, we were instructed to run sprints up and down the hills. We had to forward roll on the dirt ground and return to our feet in a fighter’s stance. Then, shadow box.
Danny led a jog over the highway and down Second Street where industrial buildings lined the sidewalks and blocked the sun from passing through. We ran sprints up and down the street, continued jogging. By the time we returned to the academy we still had three hours left of a six hour test, no different from the military training Danny had when he was learning Krav Maga in Israel.
Danny Zelig was a boxing state champion. He was introduced to Krav Maga as a teenager in 1984. While serving in an elite combat unit, his superior boxing and fighting skills stood out and he was awarded the opportunity to train to be a Krav Maga instructor at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, Israel. Danny received his Military Krav Maga Instructor certification directly from Imi’s Head of the Rank Committee in 1987. When his military commitment was fulfilled, he relocated to the United States to train civilians.
In the locker room students changed out of their dirty rash guards and shorts, a silhouette of dust hovered overhead. Clif bars were ripped open and devoured in one bite. Jugs of water and Gatorade were tipped back and guzzled quickly for those needing to hydrate.
On the mat, Danny and his instructors walked around the room with clipboards judging everyone’s technique. The room was filled with grunts and howls, pulled packaging tape sound of strikes hitting flesh and bodies slammed down onto the mat. Noses bled. Scratches and bruises covered our arms and necks. Everyone appeared tired, but no one admitted it. That was something Danny taught us. Look fear in the eye and fight back, never show emotion. He was making sure his students were street certified and ready for whatever life threw at them.