Hebrew Hammertime


AURORA | Nathaniel Ocansey keeps saying that he wants to crush me.

It’s not as if the guy holds any kind of personal grudge – I haven’t insulted his honor, wronged his family or challenged him to a contest of strength. But somehow, that same sentiment keeps coming up. He says it casually as he’s showing me how to execute a proper groin kick, a blow designed to inflict quick and painful damage. The words “I want to crush you” come up again as he’s going over basic defensive technique, an approach that has me holding my hands close to my face in what feels like a gesture of panic.

Maybe I’m starting to imagine things, but I think I hear those words right before he tells me to strangle him with as much force as I can muster.

I really shouldn’t take it personally. Rapid damage and complete destruction is a cornerstone of Krav Maga, the fighting style that Ocansey teaches in a second-floor gym in the industrial stretches of downtown Denver.

“In a lot of other fighting forms, they’ll tell you don’t kick in the groin. We’ll tell you to kick in the groin. In jujitsu, you don’t strike, but when you’re on the ground, we tell you strike as much as possible,” Ocansey said. “For someone who’s never done it before, everything you’ve been told that’s unfair in a fight, we’re going to tell you to do it in Krav Maga.”

A large part of that no-holds barred attitude is rooted in the history of Israel.

Imrich Lichtenfeld started designing and developing Krav Maga (Hebrew for “hand-to-hand combat”) in the 1930s in his hometown of Budapest. Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian who would emigrate to the new state of Israel after World War II, started developing the fighting style as a teenager for reasons of survival. It started as a way for Lichtenfeld and his peers to defend Jewish neighborhoods that were under attack by anti-Semitic street gangs, mobs stirred up by Nazi rhetoric and the looming prospect of war. By the time the system was adopted by Israel’s defense force after the country was founded in 1948, it had become a practical alternative to Eastern martial arts systems like karate and kung-fu. Its goal was to end a fight as quickly as possible. The fighting system became standard practice in a country where every citizen had to sign up for mandatory military service, where accessibility and efficiency were key.

But Ocansey isn’t training me for service in the Israeli Defense Force. We’re at the Colorado Krav Maga Regional Training Center, a gym set up in an anonymous stretch of industrial Denver. Ocansey, a Colorado native, has never been to the Middle East; some of his most perilous moments from the past five years have come in jobs as a bouncer at downtown bars.

But Ocansey, along with millions of other Krav Maga enthusiasts in Colorado and the United States,

have taken to the Israeli fighting style. Along with studios in Denver and Aurora, Krav Maga classes are all the rage at local gyms. Krav Maga has shown up more and more in pop culture in the past 10 years, appearing in films like “Enough” and television shows like “Being Human.”

Ocansey, who first heard about Krav Maga through a TV show, has seen the impact. He and his fellow instructors teach students of all ages, training Americans in an Israeli fighting style.

“Imrich looked at how people were attacked, how we responded and built that system off of that,” said Ocansey, whose T-shirt included words in Hebrew and the direct slogan, “Krav Maga: We do BAD things to BAD people.” “We get people from law enforcement, military, lawyers, doctors, paramedics, college students, kids. The age ranges from 14- and 15-year-old kids to people who are 55 and 60.”

But not all of Ocansey’s students are complete novices. Elliot Charles, an American who lived in Israel from 2008 to 2011, served in the military and learned an abbreviated form of Krav Maga. When he came back to Denver, the 23-year-old student at Metropolitan State University of Denver sought out a way to keep up his training.

“It’s extremely practical. It’ll save your life,” Charles said, citing a news story from November about an Israeli mother of three living near the border of Gaza who fought off an intruder with Krav Maga. That kind of efficiency and accessibility is the key to Krav Maga, Charles said, and it’s the reason he thinks the discipline will survive where other fitness trends have failed. “It’s training and self defense. It’s not just a matter of getting in shape. You’re learning techniques to be able to defend yourself.”