KMI Talks to Darren Levine (Part 2)

written by: ALICIA LUDarren-levine-interviewIn the first part of our interview, Darren Levine explained what makes Krav Maga so effective — it’s designed for everybody and it’s based on real life.

Now, we continue talking with Darren about everything from the legal issues surrounding Krav Maga, what he considers the most important principles of the system, and, of course, his very special relationship with Imi.

Here’s a “would you rather” for you: If you had to choose between a very physically small but very well-trained Krav Maga practitioner accustomed to real-life situations or a physically large professional fighter who fights in a controlled environment, which would you rather be personally?

Well, it all comes down to this: Who’s done the most training and what kind of fight we’re talking about. A tall fighter at a tremendously high level — they’re training every day, they have a nutritionist. If they’re professional that means they’re extremely talented. On the other hand, you have someone that trains three hours a week at a school. In a fight, I want the fighter.

However, it doesn’t mean that a fighter who’s working on combative striking drills and submissions knows anything about what happens when someone puts a knife to their throat or a gun to their head. So what threat are we talking about?

If it’s one where two people are going to engage and it’s determined there’s going to be a fight, I would take the pro fighter that’s training 30, 40 hours a week every week before anybody who’s training three to five hours a week in Krav Maga. However, if that person has been training for years in Krav Maga and knows all weapon defenses, I would much rather have the Krav Maga person defend me against the specific issues we address rather than the more general, controlled fighting in a combat sport.

Are there any other factors that come into play?


Yes — mindset. Knowing nothing more than what you’re giving me, pro fighters have a fighting mindset. They don’t want to be defeated; they don’t want to be knocked out; they’re not afraid of losing, or they would never enter the ring. There are plenty of people who do Krav Maga for years and years and years and they go through the training drills and the stress drills, but if they haven’t been fighting as many fights as a pro fighter, that’s a serious disadvantage.

And I think one thing Krav Maga students should be really aware of — it’s not a putdown of our system, but we always say we’ll gouge, we’ll bite, we’ll poke someone’s eye out, whatever. There are no rules in our system. Well, a monkey can do all those things without any training also. And how hard is it for a pro fighter to do all those same things? It’s not hard at all.

If you’re in the position where someone has you in a rear naked choke, and you go to gouge their eyes out, they’ll break your neck in two seconds. In other words, just because we have no rules doesn’t make us superior to someone who’s training professionally on that high level. They can do the same stuff we do, and what this means is for training purposes, we can learn from all the arts to develop ourselves in a well-rounded way and also be good at Krav Maga. We should know how to function on the ground, we should know how to function against a boxer, we should know how to function against a judo [practitioner] … I mean, a street fighter is truly that. They know how to deal with everything. I think that there’s nothing better to develop a fighter’s mindset than fighting.

Speaking of mindset, there is this challenge in Krav Maga where you have to teach the students to be as aggressive as possible, but you still have to teach them the importance of prevention. So, in other words, how do you teach students Krav Maga but also teach them to avoid using it if they can?

That’s a great, great question. Here’s what I think. Any people who take Krav Maga at the beginning generally have a background in other systems. In class, especially with our women’s ability to fight, like real fighters, and our ability to deal with weapons, and self-defense against bear hugs, headlocks and all of that, they are shocked. Like, whoa! I never expected that from someone so small.

And not just women, but men who don’t necessarily have an appearance of being super big or strong. The thing we constantly hear from students is “Wow, this is making me think twice about who I can take on on the street.” You never know who you’re going to deal with. You start to see talented people who you wouldn’t expect to have that kind of power, and ordinarily you wouldn’t expect to see that from someone of their size or their appearance. But I think that learning and training really hard and aggressively, you start to realize, “Whoa, there are a lot of people out there with a lot of skills,” and it humbles you.

I think the right kind of instructor has respect for humanity, but also understands that it’s not a sport. If I fight, I’m gonna fight to the death. But I’m not going to put my life at risk, risk the lives of my family, I’m not going to put any loved ones at risk for something that is insignificant. If a threat comes my way or is directed at someone, a third party that I love, I’m going to fight to the death, but I’m not going to fight over something silly like a parking spot. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about survival. If I can run away from a threat, I will. If I can’t, I’ll fight to the death.

And it’s not just life or death. If someone has some kind of weapon or wants my property, I know from having prosecuted those cases that the control is generally with the person with the weapon — let’s say a handgun — and it’s very easy for people to say, “Just cooperate, just give them your watch, just give them your wallet.” I’ve not only handled robberies, but I’ve handled murders where the victim did everything that was asked of them, gave up their property, gave up information, gave up the keys to their car, and then were taken to a more isolated area and raped and murdered. Because they went from being a robbery victim to being an eyewitness, and many times people who are desperate realize, “Sh*t, I’m not leaving them behind; I’m going to kill you.”

I want to be in control and if I get a sense that this is not a simple property crime but an act of control and violence, I’m not gonna cooperate, I’m gonna fight. I don’t want my life to be in the hands of a stranger who’s a drug addict, gang member, or some other lifelong criminal. I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna keep control of the situation. And based on my abilities, I’ll assess whether I need to defend or not.

Tell me more about the legal issues — when does Krav Maga overlap with the law?

It’s pretty simple. I’ve written books on it. I lecture all over the country to law enforcement and civilians. “Use of force” law is based on an objectively reasonable standard, and what that means is based on what you knew at the time, was your conduct objectively reasonable? Meaning a reasonable person in your community, a reasonable police officer — would they have used the level of force you used based on the threat of harm to you or a third party?

You cannot be the original aggressor and claim self-defense. So if you’re a righteous victim and someone comes to you to use force against you, you can always use a level of force higher than they’re using onto you to stop the threat. But that’s just what it is — you can defend yourself and escalate into deadly force unnecessary to defend against bodily injury or death. If you use lethal force, you’d better be able to demonstrate that your life was in danger or you were in danger of being seriously injured.

What it comes down to is our use of force can never be used as punishment for what someone did to attack you. In other words, once you’ve defended yourself, the force must stop. “Defended yourself” meaning that they’re no longer a threat to you. Sometimes, for instance, if you’re doing a knife defense and the knife falls out of their hand and they turn and run, and you take the knife and you chase them down the block and break their neck — well, that’s no bueno. Because you defended their weapon and they ran, and now you ran them down. What was the point of running them down? You’re not in imminent danger. They’ve fled the scene.


We’ll change the facts a little bit. Once you’ve done the knife defense, the knife goes flying from the hand of the attacker. And he backs up slowly and picks up the knife again. The fight continues, right? But what if he takes just one step in the direction of that knife that’s on the ground? You can attack him from behind, you could shoot him in the back. You can attack him to stop the threat — he’s already shown intent. He’s armed, he attacked you, it’s a lethal force situation. He was disarmed and then went to rearm himself. He didn’t back away from the knife. Then, in that situation, you’re allowed to reengage and use force to stop the threat.

But not only are there rules for self-defense and guidelines for use of force, one has to be able to articulate why you did what you did. And most martial arts systems don’t work on that. I work on that a lot with my students.

Do you think Krav Maga schools focus enough on use of force guidelines, or do you think they only focus on teaching their students to be aggressive, almost as if they’re encouraging them to fight?

I can only speak to what our schools are doing, and use of force is a big part of our curriculum, and Imi’s way is a big part of our curriculum. We’re not building thugs; we don’t want street thugs. That’s not what we’re about; we’re about getting the ability — all people, all religions, all backgrounds, all nationalities — we’re about giving people the ability to defend themselves against people who are doing evil things. We’re not about going out and beating up the most people. I can’t speak to what other schools are doing, but I hope they’re not doing that. You know, when I start seeing blood-stained logos, Krav Maga logos with blood dripping from them, it sickens me, to be honest.

It goes against everything Imi created.


darren-levine-with-imi-krav-magaSo speaking of Imi, you were very close to him. Did he ever give you any advice outside of Krav Maga?

I don’t think I would have married my wife if it wasn’t for Imi. Imi was a very big influence. He was very close with the girl I dated long before my wife — very, very close with her. He was extremely close with my parents. He told me that he thought of my parents, even though my parents were so much younger than him — like 20 years or so, or more — he thought of my parents as his parents.

When Imi would come live with us, my parents would be up with Imi till 2, 3 in the morning, having strawberries and champagne and vodka, just speaking about life. Imi was really an interesting guy, not that he didn’t have faults, because everybody has faults, but he was just really a beautiful human being, and I think that he saw me as someone who was very driven in anything I learned, and I think he worried about me enjoying the simple things in life. He constantly would say to me, “Make sure to have fun too.” And I don’t think I really listened very much to that.

Well, it’s never too late to listen to that advice.


One last question, because I know you probably have a lot to do. If you were to name the three most important principles of Krav Maga, what would they be?

That’s a good question. I think the three most important principles are to keep an open mind in the system, to take all of our principles and to apply them to new kinds of attacks and threats and analyze the danger, and finding the best, most simple ways, both scientifically and physically. Imi was constantly stressing we must always improve — that’s why the logo is open, so inferior techniques get thrown out of the system and better techniques flow into the system. But always maintaining our core principles — that philosophy and that overall overriding principle is the most important.

Second is to train from a position of disadvantage. Everyone has varying states of readiness. You know, if I see a knife from a distance, I’m going to be much more prepared to do the right thing at the right time. But if that attack comes at you suddenly and unexpected, and you’re just seeing it for the first time as it’s on its way to you, you’re not in as advantageous of a position to defend.

I think in Krav Maga, we need to train for varying states of readiness. When we’re being choked or when we’re doing gun defenses, we need to put ourselves in the most disadvantaged position — our balance is off, our weight is not in the right place, we train with one arm, we do anything we can do to replicate reality so that we’re not always fighting from a position of advantage, like knowing what technique, what danger is coming and when it’s coming.

It’s one thing to know when we defend against an edged weapon, but it’s nice every once in a while when you’re training against an edged weapon if someone else comes up behind you and puts a gun against your head. Then you have to switch gears right away. So if I’m doing a choke from behind on someone, I don’t meet them standing upright — no one does that on the street. If I’m choking someone from behind, they’re gonna have to learn to defend when their weight is resting on me, where they’re totally off balance and at my mercy — that’s where they should learn to defend from, not when they’re standing upright.

And third, employing realistic training methods to test the skillsets we learn in class. A lot of skillsets don’t mean anything on the street. So the third principle I would say is how to replicate the stress of a real-life violent attack … so we push our students to the limit, without injuring them, but push them as close to the brink of wanting to quit and letting them feel what that feels like, and teaching them to overcome any obstacle to win. And that’s also a life philosophy. Those are the three that I would say are the most important.

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