Written by: Alicia Lu
‘Krav Maga Is For Everybody.’
Darren Levine is a busy man. The first time I called him for our interview, he was on his way to investigate a shooting targeting LAPD officers. It was about a week after two NYPD officers were executed point blank, when tension was high between law enforcement and communities across the country. As a prosecutor for the LA County District Attorney’s office, Darren was right in the thick of it. Yet, he didn’t leave me hanging. A few weeks later, after the dust kicked up by nationwide police brutality protests had settled a bit, Darren reached out again, to my surprise and pure elation.
Darren is understandably a well sought-after man for his incomparable insight on Krav Maga. As one of the most decorated and recognized names in Krav Maga, he currently holds a sixth-degree black belt in the self-defense system and is one of only two recipients of the Krav Maga Founder’s Diploma, which was personally handed to him by Krav Maga founder Imi Lichtenfeld. The popularity of Krav Maga in the U.S. today is largely due to Darren, who Imi entrusted to plant the seeds stateside. Not only did he plant the seeds, Darren grew Krav Maga into a national, and eventually global, system by founding the renowned Krav Maga Worldwide, which today has more than 150 locations worldwide.
That’s just one-half of his life. Darren has been working as a prosecutor in LA for nearly 25 years. Over the course of his career he’s seen a lifetime’s worth of violent crime, and he’s come to know how criminals think and work, which gives him a unique and invaluable advantage as a Krav Maga instructor. Conversely, his Krav Maga training has also tremendously influenced his work as a prosecutor, for which he’s received several awards, including Los Angeles County Prosecutor of the Year in 2003 and National Co-Prosecutor of the Year in 2004.
With these kinds of accomplishments, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Darren featured in another recent interview, which shared the untold story of how he and Imi went from student and master to family. Darren described Imi as the grandfather he never had. (In our interview, he amusingly noted that Imi, despite being more than 20 years their senior, had considered Darren’s mom and dad as his own parents, forming a family tree that could have been drawn by M.C. Escher.) The entire interview was enlightening, but there is one anecdote that led to a personal epiphany.
In 1981, Darren participated in a summer program in Israel, where he met Imi for the first time. Over the course of the six-week program, Imi repeatedly took Darren out of training so that they could chat one on one at a local coffee shop. At the time, Darren remembers, he was “dying inside” because all he could think about was going back to training, and yet, here he was talking about Krav Maga rather than practicing it. As Imi continued to recite the foundations of the system, Darren finally mustered up the courage to say, “Imi, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I have to go back and train.” Imi looked at him and said, “You are training right now.” An army sergeant who had joined them echoed, “You have no idea how lucky you are right now to be sitting in that chair getting this kind of training.”
And that’s exactly how I felt at the end of my own interview with Darren. After one conversation I felt like I understood Krav Maga on a whole new level, from a perspective that one can’t get with just training. People often forget that behind every groin kick, every stress drill, and the constant aggression is a philosophy that is at its core about peace. As I took in what Darren said about Krav Maga, its principles, how it’s shaped his life and career as a prosecutor, and how it continues to evolve, I began to see the system through his eyes — and by proxy, through Imi’s eyes. Indeed, it was the most enlightening Krav Maga training I’ve ever had.
But I’m willing to share. Here is part one of my exclusive interview with Darren Levine. Read on for the best Krav Maga lesson of your life.
What is your personal philosophy on life based on what you’ve learned from Krav Maga?
I think a lot of our techniques are based on problem solving, in terms of identifying the danger, what’s the best way of eliminating the danger, and the most natural way. For me, in life, I think it helps me analyze issues and problems and any challenges, and thinking about overcoming those things and the best way to overcome them. Like Krav Maga, I try to be very logical in my approach to everyday problems and trying to find the best solutions based on what feels natural to me.
Would you say that it influences your day-to-day mentalities then, in all areas of life?
Oh yeah, in all areas, from how I look at people, how I assess people, how I assess an environment, whether I sit or stand in an environment, my balance, where I walk, where I don’t walk, how I get into my car — it’s absolutely a way of life. It’s definitely increased my awareness.
Not only has Krav Maga done that, but 25 years of being a prosecutor, surrounded with real-life crime. I know why people attack, the way people attack, precursors to being attacked. It’s one thing to have a skillset — such as Krav Maga or any other fighting system — but it’s another thing to be aware of how criminals actually are trained and how they carry out crime. There’s distraction techniques that they use, and the way they approach you, and I think between Krav Maga and my work as a prosecutor, it’s definitely changed my everyday life and how I perform in the world.
I can definitely see how they have a lot of overlap — one definitely helps the other. Would you say that your prosecution work has influenced your Krav Maga and vice versa?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. I think what Imi wanted more than anything was to keep the system simple, keep the principles intact, in a way that was consistent with his foundation. Having spent so many years doing so many murder cases, prosecuting so many murder cases, rapes, robberies, and hostage situations, and SWAT operations, as far as tactics of officers trying to defeat criminals and tactics that the criminals have developed, a lot of the things that are out there I think are very dangerous techniques setting people up for failure. It saddens me because I don’t think Imi deserved that.
It makes me sad to see that, not everyone but a lot of the people that are teaching out there really do not have an appreciation of street crime, violence, awareness, and certainly do not follow the underpinnings of keeping the Krav Maga system simple. I think ego gets involved. People are trying to make their system look flashier, better, and more fancy, and it’s really unfortunate because it does a disservice to those who really want to be safe.
Can you talk more about those additions that they’ve made to make Krav Maga, the flashier and inauthentic Krav Maga techniques?
Well, I can tell you a story. When Imi was honored at a school in Herzliya [Israel], and a lot of the top black belts went with him. We had a demonstration of real-life fighting, and the fighters were excellent, very powerful fighters, but when it came time for them to demonstrate self-defense, they put Imi in the center of the room in a chair on the mats and they put a demonstration on for him.
The techniques they demonstrated violated so many principles — obviously these people were not trained to think and analyze and problem solve in a very direct, logical way. But Imi’s very polite, and after each demonstration a crowd of their students would clap, and Imi would nod his head.
In the last demonstration — probably a half-hour demonstration — the person was demonstrating a knife technique. He defended against the knife, but the knife was not really controlled. He grazed the face of the individual to take him down, he stomped his head, and while still holding the knife, he twisted and broke the arm, and then jumped in the air, stomped the face again, grabbed the arm one more time and did an armbar to break the elbow. That was the grand finale. Everyone stood up and turned to Imi and the teacher said, “What do you think of my technique?” Imi was a very honest person. He said, “I think you’re a very good boy; you’re a very talented boy.” That’s all he said. And then [the demonstrator] asked, “What did you really think of what we just did?” And Imi paused and very politely said, “Can I ask you a question? Why did you break the arm of a dead guy?” And that silenced the room.
But it was such a beautiful way of exposing how Imi thinks, or how Imi thought. Because he was not interested in jumping up in the air and breaking arms; he was not interested in overkill. He was interested in dealing with the threat, and any secondary or tertiary threats, to counter-attack simultaneously or as soon as possible. And to do the least amount of harm to someone as possible — not the most.
When I look at people professing to be special unit instructors, the things that are being done would never be done in a real fight. Ever. They’re ridiculous. The big message is: Keep it simple; keep it real.
One thing that instructors must always remember — Krav Maga is a system for everyone. And just because you have the physical ability to do something, it’s not Krav Maga if only 10 percent of your students are also able do it. Krav Maga is for everybody. The more simple the techniques, the more direct, the less fuss, the more effective — that’s how you measure the technique, not through your ego or how fancy you look doing them. And safety can never, ever be sacrificed.
That’s why I love Krav Maga — anyone can do it, it’s simple, it’s realistic, and it’s instinct-based.
I love that you said that. What we’re doing is simple and logical and everyone can do this. Everyone can do this. And I have a lot of experience, a lot of experience teaching military personnel who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or other parts of the world, and they can’t afford to be injured, number one, because they’re a special operations team, and number two, they’re not going to run around and do things they can’t do with all their equipment on.
The one thing in common that most people have, whether you’re a sniper, or a climber, or a scout, whatever it is you’re doing, they don’t want bullshit. They want simple things that everyone on their team can do, that make sense and is consistent with their overall protocols. And I think they need to keep that in mind when they’re developing so-called techniques, because generally to develop techniques you really have to have an understanding of Krav Maga principles. You have to ask yourself constantly, “Is this really the best way to do it?” — number one. Number two: “If we do it this way, is it consistent with the overall system?” It’s an integrated system, so is it consistent to what we would do in another similar or analogous situation? And number three: “Is it something that people can learn quickly and retain with minimal training?”
Stay tuned for part two of our exclusive interview with Darren Levine, who shares his thoughts on the Krav Maga mindset, reveals his very familial relationship with Imi, and gives us his three most important Krav Maga principles.