‘Queensbury Rules this ain’t’ – learning the brutal Israeli self-defence Krav Maga at a Wellington workshop

I’m standing with my eyes closed, waiting for someone to hit me.

The aim of the exercise is to condition us to stress and a moment later I’m struck hard in the chest. When I open my eyes, fists are thrown and I try to implement the defense techniques we have drilled. I block a few punches but miss just as many.

If it had been a real-life situation, I’d have been in trouble.

I was enrolled in a one-day Krav Maga workshop in Wellington, hosted by internationally renowned instructor Tim Alexander.

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Held at the Filipino Community Centre, in Petone, the course consisted of self-defence, how to protect a partner in the midst of an attack and how to act in an “active shooter scenario”.

Krav Maga instructors Tim Alexander and Gabriel Molina face-off during a training exercise.

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Krav Maga instructors Tim Alexander and Gabriel Molina face-off during a training exercise.

There were 25 in attendance, a third were women and the ages ranged from mid-teens to mid-60s.

Most people already studied Krav Maga and signed up to bolster their skills, others were there for the first time looking to learn a few techniques to defend themselves.

Krav Maga means “contact combat” in Hebrew and was developed in Eastern Europe in the 1930s by Imi Lichtenfeld to protect Jews from Nazi attacks. In 1944 he began training the Jewish paramilitary, which would later become the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The modern system is based on Lichtenfeld’s teaching but also incorporates boxing, Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu.

We stood in line as Alexander outlined the day.

The 41-year-old is from Brisbane and has been practicing Krav Maga for 16 years. His role with the International Krav Maga Federation (IKMF) has seen him teach hand-to-hand combat to police, military and aviation staff.

The dad-of-one also has a degree in clinical psychology, giving him an insight into the complex cognitive processes that occur when a person faces a threat.

The International Krav Maga Federation is officially contracted to deliver the training to the Israeli Defense Force

Uriel Sinai/GETTY

The International Krav Maga Federation is officially contracted to deliver the training to the Israeli Defense Force

“We all know about fight or flight but there is a third, more common, outcome – to freeze,” he told us.

“If an attack happens most people don’t know how to act, their first thought is, ‘why is this happening to me’?”

We warm up with a range of stretches before being shown some basic defensive moves.

Gabriel Molina, IKMF’s NZ director, simulates an attack and Alexander responds with a violent burst of punches and kicks, before turning and fleeing the situation.

Krav Maga differs from other self-defense techniques in that it is non-competitive. It is also not a martial art. Unlike karate or taekwondo, which are fought with honor and integrity, Krav Maga is dirty and devastatingly efficient. Kicks to the groin are encouraged, blows to the back of the head are approved – Queensbury Rules this ain’t.

We pair up to practice.

“Are you wearing a groin-guard?” my partner asks. I quickly say that I’m not.

We trade blows, pummeling the pads with punches and kicks. It’s exhausting and we’re both breathless after the 60-second bouts.

As the morning progressed we learned what to do in a knife attack and how to protect a partner who is being assaulted.

Stuff reporter Lee Kenny attended the one-day Krav Maga workshop in Wellington.

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Stuff reporter Lee Kenny attended the one-day Krav Maga workshop in Wellington.

The moves are brutal. Krav Maga students are taught to target painful areas of the anatomy – the eyes, throat, testicles and kidneys – to stop an attacker.

New Zealand law says a person can use reasonable force in the defense of themselves or others but we are told throughout the day that Krav Maga should always be the last resort.

“The number one rule is don’t get hurt, don’t get into the fight. Even though you might have the right to defend yourself, you walk away,” Alexander explained.

“I’m a peaceful person. I’m just really good at violence in the name of peace.”

The day was organized by Molina, who teaches weekly classes in Wellington. By day he is a diabetes nurse specialist at Hutt Hospital but he has been a Krav Maga instructor for four years.

He learned self-defense to avoid violence while growing up in the Philippines.

“It was a violent place. I got bullied, threatened, mugged and I didn’t know what to do.

“I see self-defence as very close to learning to swim. We learn to swim because if you go into a body of water you don’t want to drown. You might not be attacked or assaulted but if it does happen it is better that you know how to defend yourself or at least know how to recognize a danger so you can avoid it.

“I think people are complacent. New Zealand is a very peaceful place but we know there are some pockets where violence exists, quite routinely.”

I ask him if there’s a worry that a little bit of knowledge can sometimes be worse than none at all.

Reporter Lee Kenny helps a group pin a mock attacker to the floor.

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Reporter Lee Kenny helps a group pin a mock attacker to the floor.

“There is always that danger and I recognize that. That’s the reason why in Krav Maga we always put it into context, we always say these are tools you can use to lessen the risk of getting hurt but it doesn’t make you invisible. “

Another controversy is Krav Maga’s close association with the Israeli military. The International Krav Maga Federation is officially contracted to deliver the training to the IDF.

But Alexander says his classes are 100 per cent non-political.

“As an organization and as a system we do not discriminate, we are happy to teach anyone who is looking to protect themselves.

“We will condemn acts of terrorism, we will condemn acts of violence. Personally, I don’t care who walks through my door, if they are a person who is looking to empower themselves, I don’t care about their background, their race, their religion, their politics.”

One of those who came to train was 27-year-old cyber-security consultant Alex Nikolova, who lives in Khandallah.

“What appealed to me about Krav Maga was the fact that it worked on mentality, not just on physical techniques. I was interested in the psychological part of it and the practical applications to protect myself,” she said.

Another was dad-of-three Eric Gosse from Upper Hutt, who started training last June.

Gabriel Molina, Tim Alexander and Eric Gosse practice what to do if a friend or partner is attacked.

STUFF/LEE KENNY

Gabriel Molina, Tim Alexander and Eric Gosse practice what to do if a friend or partner is attacked.

The 48-year-old is an ED nurse at Hutt Hospital and has treated patients who have been on the receiving end of nasty attacks. There is always a risk of violence to front-line emergency staff.

“With the shift work, you’re coming out at 11 o’clock at night so you don’t know who’s around or what they’re going to do.

“Krav Maga builds your situational awareness so you’re more aware of your surroundings. It also gives you confidence, knowing that if something bad were to happen at least you’re got some skills in the toolbox.”

In the final part of the day we were taught what to do if faced by a gunman.

Alexander stressed he was not there to discuss or critique the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15 but asked the group to take a few moments to reflect on the atrocity.

“I felt it was important personally. It was not something that anyone said to me (to do). The reality is, it’s a very fresh situation, a very sad situation.”

The sound of gunfire was played through a speaker before he used a replica semi-automatic rifle to recreate a shooting. We are told the best approach is to get low and either get to an exit or lock ourselves in a safe room.

It feels uncomfortable contemplating the situation but the point of the day was to force us to consider what we would do if the worst did happen.

Krav Maga expert Tim Alexander, off-duty with his young baby.

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Krav Maga expert Tim Alexander, off-duty with his young baby.

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