The Father of Krav Maga – Who Was Imi Lichtenfeld?
Compared to most other forms of martial arts and self defence out there, Krav Maga is a relatively new system – one based on more modern methodologies and contemporary requirements for self protection. While popular martial arts such as karate and kung fu have roots tracing back centuries, even millennia, the genesis of Krav Maga was only decades back. The man who started it all was Imi Lichtenfeld (also known as Imi Sde-Or, the Hebrew calque of his name), a Hugarian-Jewish-Israeli self defence visionary.
The founder of Krav Maga, Imi Lichtenfeld, lead an incredible life and influenced thousands of people – and there was no other practitioner of martial arts like him.
Lichtenfeld was born in Budapest in 1910 to a Hungarian-Jewish family who moved to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital when he was still in his infancy. Imi’s father Samuel Lichtenfeld was the chief inspector in the Bratislava police force, but also owned a modern gym – the first in the capital – where people practiced self-defence; then mainly boxing and wrestling. It was here that young Imi cut his teeth in athletics.
His father, being an accomplished wrestler in his own right, encouraged Lichtenfeld as a young man to box and wrestle, and even dabble in some gymnastics. Throughout his formative years he was quite a successful wrestler and boxer. He won the Slovakian Youth Wrestling Championship in 1928, and in 1929, the adult championship in the light and middleweight divisions. He also won the national boxing championship, and an international gymnastics championship in the very same year. Clearly a very talented athlete, Lichtenfeld was one of the most successful young wrestlers in Europe throughout the late 1920s and early 30s.
Throughout the mid-late 1930s, following the Nuremberg Laws that established Nazi-ideologies of rampant anti-Semitism, Lichtenfeld began to find very real uses for the skills he had collected throughout his teenage years. The laws literally robbed Jewish citizens of Europe the same rights that protected non-Jews. As as result, unbridled violence against the Jewish community began to become commonplace in cities around Eastern Europe.
In an effort to protect his community against these acts of violence, Lichtenfeld joined small vigilante groups (some say he was the leader) in Bratislava who would regularly defend citizens against anti-Semites – quite literally saving lives using skills and techniques he has developed as a boxer and wrestler.
However, it soon became clear to him that the skills he had learned, while very useful, didn’t exactly translate to the situations he found himself in on regular basis. Here the seeds of krav maga were planted – his fundamental self defence principal being to ‘use natural movements and reactions for defence, combined with an immediate and decisive counterattack’.
In 1940, Litchenfeld fled Bratislava in the hope of reaching Palestine, then under British administration – and freeing himself from the clutches of the Nazi occupation of Europe. In his attempt to flee, Lichtenfeld found himself shipwrecked amongst the Greek Dodecanese islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea, following a series of dramatic events that almost saw him lose his life.
He eventually made it to Palestine after serving with the Free Czech Legion in North Africa, supervised by the British. Lichtenfeld was welcomed into the pre-state Israeli paramilitary organisation called the Haganah – Hebrew for The Defence – who immediately recognised his skills and unique methods for hand-to-hand combat.
As such, he was soon appointed as an instructor in this art and began leading small groups in physical training focused on face-to-face combat, wrestling and defence against knife attacks. By 1948, Lichtenfeld had trained groups ranging from the police force to specialised military units.
In 1948, the first Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion brought together the scattered military forces of the newly-born Israel, forming the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) of which Lichtenfeld was named Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness. It was here that he built the foundations of Krav Maga over a 15 year period from a collection of different principals including boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, military training, fitness and swimming; the main focus being hand-to-hand combat and self-defence. Krav Maga roughly translates to contact combat in Hebrew.
In 1963, Lichtenfeld finally retired from the IDF, aged 53. Not one to rest on his laurels, he immediately began developing Krav Maga with a new audience in mind: average citizens. His ideology was that Krav Maga was fundamentally very simple, and with a few tweaks and adjustments, could be adapted for use by anyone.
He quickly opened two gyms in Israel – in Tel Aviv and Netanya, and began teaching his art to students from a range of backgrounds and age groups. Krav Maga quickly become more and more refined, with a focus on key principals for self defence and utilising the body’s natural movements and reactions as a base for counter-attack.
It was during this time that Lichtenfeld adopted his Hebrew name, Imi Sde’Or – directly translating to ‘field of light’. In 1972, Imi opened the first official school for Krav Maga available to civilians at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, a renowned training centre for Olympic athletes.
By the time of Lichtenfeld’s death on January 9th 1998 (aged 88), Krav Maga had become widely accepted as the benchmark for self defence and fighting across Israeli Defence Force, the Israeli Security Forces, the Police department and Military Police, and the Anti-Terrorism Forces. Not only this, but Krav Maga became a key part of teaching self defence to everyday civilians, including high school and elementary students.
How Is he Different from Other Visionaries?
In comparison to traditional forms of self defence and martial arts, Lichtenfeld’s principals for Krav Maga steer away from the philosophical in favour for the practical. General Choi Hong Hi, founder of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), is a prime example. Upon founding the WTF, Choi established the philosophical basis for the art under the Five Tenants of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, patience, self-discipline and invincibility of the spirit. As a whole, Choi’s vision for Taekwondo is far more spiritual than Lichtenfeld’s, with a focus on intangible principals over practical techniques.
Kanō Jigorō, the father of Judo, founded the system under similar pretences to Lichtenfeld, with physical principles at the fore. However, Judo has a much wider philosophical application that is couple with Confucianist ideologies which ultimately shaped it from a martial art to a way of life.
The principals of Muay Thai, on the other hand, are far more intense than that of Krav Maga, with training focussed on creating a fully combative fighter by using eight points of the body to mimic weapons of war. Nai Khanomtom – widely recognised as the original practitioner – was a renowned fighter, his style referred to as Siamese-style boxing which formed the basis of Muay Thai.
No two systems of self defence or martial arts are exactly the same. Lichtenfeld’s vision for Krav Maga however, is far removed from what is taught among most other traditional forms. The focus is on how a person will, and should, react in a real-life situation where a threat is imminent. Few others teach with a level of practicality that Krav Maga does, and none in a way that is so easily taught to anyone. In this respect, Lichtenfeld was a true pioneer and his knowledge runs through the entire history of Krav Maga.