May 20, 1999
Eye of the Damn Tiger
Like most women, I had never punched anyone in the face. That is, until I socked Spar Pro, a plastic peach-colored torso on a stick. It was a totally foreign sensation, twisting into a right-handed uppercut and letting Mr. Spar Pro have it right on the chin, his beady eyes staring me down as his rubbery head jiggled in reaction to the blow.
The Spar Pro regularly takes such abuse as part of the instruction offered at the Krav Maga National Training Center in West Los Angeles. Established in 1997, it is the largest such program established outside the state of Israel, where the battle-oriented self-defense system was invented.
Krav Maga, the official fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces, isn't about winning competitions like some of the other martial arts. It's about surviving a violent confrontation however possible, a philosophy which has made the training popular with both law enforcement officers and regular people looking for a way to protect themselves on the street.
If that means grabbing a fire extinguisher and bashing your assailant over the head before running to safety, so be it. Krav Maga teaches you eye strikes, groin kicks, throat punches and other techniques that help you fight dirty, fight fast and survive.
"When someone attacks you, they aren't playing by your rules," said instructor Wade Allen, a former cop with a lithe body and an easy gaze. "We teach you to fight smart."
After a few solo rounds with the passive plastic man, I was ready to try my first Krav Maga class. Looking around the mirrored room, I was a little intimidated by the closet full of knuckle-protectors and other imposing equipment. I spotted a petite woman about my age with bright red lips, tattoos and a shock of bubble-gum pink hair.
"I love this stuff," she told me. "If I took Judo or something, sure I could learn to kick some ass -- in 80 years. This teaches you moves you can use right away."
As I jumped rope to warm up, and attempted some crazy sit-up things involving an exceedingly heavy leather ball, I thought, this ain't no "cardio-jam" or yoga. This is downright exhausting.
Wade paired us up and we took turns throwing jabs, practicing choke releases and perfecting our stance. My tiny pink-haired partner almost knocked me back with the speed and force of her punches against my hand pads.
There must be something to this, I thought, observing this delicate-featured woman transform into a tightly-coiled fighting machine. Forget Rocky, this girl had the eye of the tiger.
My punches, on the other hand, were like an intoxicated middle-aged white couple doing the lambada in the middle of the dance floor -- embarassing, awkward and totally out of rhythm.
Still, before the class, the thought of actually striking someone or using something within my reach to defend myself would have never crossed my mind. I always thought a bad attitude and some street savvy were all I needed. That and a little pepper spray.
"Pepper spray?" Wade scoffed at the thought. "Cops spray that stuff in their salsa and dip chips in it. You can't rely on pepper spray."
Fair enough. But to the beginner, Krav Maga is way more complicated than packing a can of false-bravado inducing spray. My mind was congested with all the things I had to remember; where the feet go, how to move the hips, where to land the punch. With repetition, the moves are supposed to become second nature, and I could see how they would, eventually. Special classes designed for women teach you how to fight off attackers at the ATM, while carrying groceries and even from a prone position, like being asleep in bed.
Even to a stridently non-violent person like myself, it made sense to at least learn the basics. Although you may never have to use them, the philosophy at the studio is that just learning self-defense helps improve your self-esteem and overall confidence.
As I chatted up Wade after class, I thought some of Krav Maga's change-your-life claims were a little far-fetched and "salesy," especially in light of the rather steep $65-$85 monthly fee for the training. As the day wore on, however, my biceps sore and my legs weak, I did feel a little different.
Back at my apartment later that afternoon, I went outside to sit in the sun and read, which would have been pleasant had I not forgotten to bring my keys. I was locked out in Central Hollywood. Shoeless and clad only in a bathing suit, I stood on the sidewalk with my head in my hands, feeling both like a bad sitcom scene and a sitting duck.
I panicked until this certainty came over me. I'm getting in there, I thought. Eye of the damn tiger. I hiked the fence, crawled to the side of the building, removed the window screen nails with the cover of my book and crawled in.
It may sound strange, but I think that one class gave me the feeling, however fleeting, that I was tougher and more resourceful than I thought I was.
That's not just some "Jew-do," I thought, no longer laughing at my own stupid little private joke with myself. That Krav Maga stuff really does bolster your own sense of what you can do, whether it's breaking into your own apartment or throwing your fist toward the eerily life-like jaw of a plastic man.
Teresa Strasser is a 20 something who writes for the Jewish Journal