I hear it all the time, “If Krav Maga is so good, why isn’t it in Mixed Martial Arts?” It isn’t a bad question. MMA showcases the best martial art styles, so if Krav Maga isn’t represented, then it must not be the heavy hitter that it markets itself to be.

MMA revitalized martial arts out of its calcified traditions into the Combat Sport that it is today. In doing so, they reidentified with their namesake, Martial Arts. However, even Combat Sports have not left the arena of art. MMA has rules that ensure a fair fight, such as weight pairings and referees. The athletes train for specific dates against specific opponents to fight in a sterile environment.

On the mat they are devastating, but the world is bigger than the octagon.

Krav Maga is a combative system, not a sport; nothing is competition-legal. It does not belong in the ring. The reason could be best described with one of my earlier experiences as an instructor. At the conclusion of a Krav Maga law enforcement seminar with my chief Israeli instructors, we had an exercise called the gauntlet. The students ran a route staged with ambushes ranging from knives, guns and sticks to bare hands.

One of my students disarmed an assailant with a pistol, and then simply ran the gauntlet and shot every other attacker; it was all deadly force and entirely legal. The students with backgrounds in martial arts were upset, but the Israelis just laughed. “This is Krav Maga!” Itay Dannenberg heckled, “why make it hard on yourself?” My student lived to fight another day.

The founder of Krav Maga, Imi Lichtenfield, once remarked about fighting in the ring, “the legs of a baby are stronger than the balls of Mohammad Ali.” The biggest distinction between Combatives and Combat Sports is that there is nothing illegal in combatives. In Krav Maga, we train for the fight we could lose, not the fight we could win. We kick the groin, we strike the neck and back of the head, and we gouge eyes.

Fighting with weapons inside abandoned buildings in Israel. These sorts of scenarios replace traditional sparring in Krav Maga. (Credit: Itay Dannenberg/XFighting).

Combat Sports are fair contests designed to match similar fighters with different training styles to identify the most superior methods. But often, what gains a marginal advantage in the ring is unnecessary or even detrimental in a back-alley knife fight or to an outnumbered Tzanhanim in combat. Combatives are solutions taught to a diverse trainee base that focuses on modern-day threats, where years of training to gain technical ascendancy are unfeasible.

Combatives understands that in the surprise and rigors of unrefereed combat, gross motor movements and extreme bursts of violence replace the more calculated and refined movements necessary to triumph in the ring.

Another important distinction with Krav Maga is that unlike traditional martial arts, where each dojo attempts to trace its lineage back to the originator of the style, Krav Maga does not (and should not) try to trace its lineage to Lichtenfield, its founder. While Imi’s teachings are still alive, Krav Maga adapts to the dynamic world around it. The authority in Krav Maga moves forward, not back, as each chief instructor of the IDF is tasked with honing the skills that Israeli soldiers, sailors, and intelligence operators bring into combat.

Krav Maga was developed less than 100 years ago after the state of Israel was formed, and does not have the organizational memory of Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai. Its recent explosion in American culture combined with its young age means that there are few controls to guide the dissemination of updated techniques and theories to the training public. Often, American gyms are simply certified through an enterprising ex-IDF soldier who might fabricate what he may not remember.

Photo credit: Itay Dannenberg/XFighting.

This facet of the system gives credence to the complaints that MMA fighters levy against Krav Maga. In much the same way that the oriental martial arts have been “Americanized,” Krav Maga is often stripped of its potency for easy marketing. I see Krav Maga “martial artists” with black belts in gis, touting “Fitness that’s fun!” marketing campaigns. These places reduce the combatives system to little more than a booty boot camp.

Frankly, if having a black belt in Krav Maga is the same as having a black belt in Muay Thai, you’re doing it wrong.

Having said that, the Israeli military gives MMA the respect that it deserves. The striking in Krav Maga has moved to a Muay Thai focus as the chief instructor of the IDF is also a Muay Thai fighter. Combatives in general, and Krav Maga in specific, rely heavily on Combat Sports to influence and update their techniques. Consider the octagon the theoretical laboratory work that then saves lives in the field.

Currently, there is only one international standard bearer for Krav Maga; XFighting (formerly KMI). XFighting employs the Chief Commanders of the IDF’s Krav Maga Training Unit, such as Itay Dannenberg, Ran Nakash (featured in Fight Quest Krav Maga Israel) and Shaul Wolfson. They routinely host the current active duty chief instructor, the commander of the Krav Maga school, the chief instructor of the IDF’s special operations units and other division heads. XFighting’s content is monitored by the leaders of the Israeli military.

At international seminars, XFighting often presents unclassified Israeli intelligence about what their soldiers are encountering in combat and urban ambushes. This kind of expert thinking drives holistic and in-depth immersion training, such as XFighting’s upcoming Desert Camp where students of all backgrounds are trained outside of a dojo in real world conditions.

The Israeli military does not believe in reinventing the wheel. The IDF takes what works from the Octagon and applies it in the streets. However, in America, just because the Hebrew words for “contact combat” are decaled in a studio window, it does not guarantee that the instructors are teaching combatives instead of just another martial art.

Chief Instructor Itay Dannenberg teaching knife defense, a skill that does not get much attention in the Octagon. (Credit: Itay Dannenberg/XFighting).

Jake is a Krav Maga Instructor through XFighting. His initiation in combatives was the US Marine Corps Martial Arts Program where he earned his Black Belt. After he got out, he worked as a celebrity bodyguard and combatives director for a Hollywood firm, working with the owner to develop an in-house combatives designed specifically for executive protection. Jake also deployed as a contractor with Constellis overseas and now resides with his family.

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