How to disarm a bad guy

A growing number of Americans are turning to a form of self-defense that provides them with peace of mind and a first-rate workout to boot.

July 27, 2005|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Among the strip malls and shopping centers of a Baltimore suburb, doctors, lawyers and executives are learning the intricacies of hand-to-hand combat.

The professionals generally aren't in any danger, but learning to avoid a chokehold, blunt a knife attack and take away a handgun also happens to provide a good workout.

Which is why krav maga, the self-defense tactics that Israeli soldiers learn to disarm a hand grenade-toting attacker, is an increasingly popular exercise among the American fitness set.

About 40,000 Americans are raising their heartbeats while learning to gouge eyes and kick knees, the discipline's national association estimates.

Some 400 clubs from Boise, Idaho, to Prairieville, La., teach krav maga, including two in Washington, D.C., four in the Philadelphia area and the one that opened, in May, in the Crondall Corner Shopping Center in Owings Mills.

"The world is not all sparkles and fairies -- you have to watch out," Katie Murtaugh, a second-grade teacher, said as she wrapped her hands in the new studio before a class on defeating chokeholds and headlocks.

A short time later, Murtaugh huffed and puffed as she learned to swipe away the hand of an attacker strangling her, then strike his groin and punch his windpipe.

The instructor said the goal was to immobilize the attacker. Then he turned off the lights in the room and asked Murtaugh and the other students to practice with their eyes closed.

"I like the aggressiveness of it," said Murtaugh, a lithe and bespectacled 30-year-old who lives in Baltimore.

Unlike the devotees of other martial arts, krav maga students don't wear uniforms, bow to a master or learn ritualized moves. Instructors say the tactics are designed to prevent an assault or quickly get out of one.

During the classes, students first learn the awareness to sense an approaching attack. They're instructed to try to defuse an argument with calm conversation and a confident bearing. Much later: the joint-dislocation techniques.

National experts and club owners say krav maga -- Hebrew for "contact combat" -- happens to capitalize on several trends affecting fitness in the United States.

All martial arts are booming in popularity, with 1.5 million more participants in the past six years. Overworked Americans are especially attracted to krav maga's easy-to-learn tactics and relatively unstructured programs.

Also, given all the news coverage of crime and terrorist attacks, workout warriors are interested in learning self-defense.

"If anything is ever to happen, at least I'd have some skill set -- as opposed to appeasing a robber or terrorist," said Harel Turkel, 24, a computer consulting company owner from Pikesville who was panting after a recent class.

Although he has never been mugged or attacked, Turkel said he worries that he might be one day, whether walking through a desolate parking garage at night or flying around the world on business.

"I can already picture in my mind what I would do," he said. "Grabs, punches, elbows, whatever it takes to get me out of the situation safely."

Krav maga is also popular among law enforcement workers. About 400 police departments and other agencies practice it, the national group said.

They learn tactics specifically tailored to their work, such as subduing suspects and holding onto service guns while wrestling on the ground. Baltimore County police emphasize techniques for defending against knives and razors.

Three years ago, the county department asked Lonsdale M. Theus, a former Santa Monica, Calif., police officer who was teaching krav maga to police, marshals and other agents for the national association, to give an introductory lesson.

Now, Theus is the department's part-time trainer, and its recruits and officers receive lessons. He has also taught police in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, and the Maryland State Police's dignitary protection unit.

"I would get calls, I would get e-mails, saying, `I read about you in Police Marksman magazine,'" Theus said.

The street-fighting tactics were developed by Jews to fend off anti-Semitic gangs in pre-World War II Slovakia. In 1981, krav maga instructors from Israel introduced it in the United States as a goodwill gesture.

It first grabbed the attention of adolescents who packed an elective class at their Jewish day school in California's San Fernando Valley.

Soon, their parents clamored for adult sessions, and it spread by word of mouth, said John Whitman, president of Krav Maga Worldwide, the Los Angeles firm that licenses 200 studios teaching the self-defense system in the U.S.

Students tend to be 25 to 35 years old, men and women, who are well-educated and have white-collar jobs giving them disposable income, according to a study finished last December by Krav Maga Worldwide.

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