The Gazette Goes inside the Craft of Contact Combat
About three weeks ago my friends and I were held up with a very, very large knife outside of a gallery space on the border of Ridgewood, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn. Luckily, the brandisher of the enormous knife wasn’t the violent type, was satisfied with the four dollars in cash we produced and all but left us alone. But three years before this incident, almost to the day, I was jumped by a group of teenagers on the border of the Marcy Houses. The outcome was slightly different: the attackers didn’t want my money so much as to scare me away from their neighborhood, and though I walked—ran, rather—away with no serious injuries save some bumps, cuts and bruises, I have not been able to walk around Brooklyn the same way I used to. I grew up in two large cities—San Francisco and New York—and consider myself a true urbanite, though after these two incidents and so many stories I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances about being mugged, beaten, attacked or held up with various weapons, I admit I am uneasy moving through the streets at night or in certain neighborhoods by myself. The only way to feel safe in the city is to know how to protect oneself.
Two weeks ago The New York Times published an article about a form of self-defense called Krav Maga. It is loosely translated from Hebrew as “contact combat,” and is designed to simulate street fighting, complete with groin-kicks, elbow throws, punching and biting. Krav Maga emphasizes both offensive and defensive maneuvers, though the core and purpose of the craft is based on learning how to anticipate and protect oneself from danger, be it a fist, an elbow, a knee or a weapon. But even as Krav Maga becomes increasingly popular throughout the United States—it is employed by multiple police forces across the country, the FBI, Army and Navy, not to mention offered privately in gyms as a form of exercise—one of the only places to learn it in the borough of Brooklyn is at Otom Gym on Calyer Street, right here in Greenpoint. So I decided to sign up.
When I walked into Otom Gym’s mirror-rimmed basement studio I was immediately surprised by the lack of women in the class, this particular time slot catering to students of all skill levels. In fact, out of a group of thirteen I was the only female present, which was both intimidating and somewhat alarming considering that women are both more vulnerable to attack and less prepared or physically able to fight back. But post warm-up, roughly ten minutes into the hour-long lesson, the absence of women began to make a little more sense. At first, the atmosphere surrounding Krav Maga seems to be one of machismo: it is physical, brutal and highly aggressive—which is exactly why all women living in Brooklyn should look into it ASAP.
“You are going to get choked, and you are going to get pushed, and you are going to get kicked, because if you don’t know what it feels like you won’t know what to do when it happens in real life,” announced instructor Piotr Tuznik, 28, a blond-haired blue-eyed Greenpoint-born Krav Maga instructor who has dedicated the last nine years of his life to studying the craft. Tuznik was inspired to take up Krav Maga after seeing a cover in the Village Voice, depicting a street fight—the attacker wielding a knife, the victim wrestling the knife out of his hands.
“I was bored by other martial arts, they seemed like a waste of time because what would I do if I were to get punched? I don’t know, because it had never happened before. I want there to be more women in my Krav Maga class, I want more students like you,” Tuznik told me, “Because you’re the type who can’t rely on power and force. Krav Maga is so real, so authentic—the aggression is there, because this is how it’s going to be in the street, and we want to be able to recreate that.”
And they do: Tuznik was not exaggerating when he said participants in the class would actually be pushed, choked and manhandled; I certainly was. But after being shown exactly what to do if, for example, someone tries to strangle me, the experience of engaging in a physical struggle (in a controlled environment) and being able to free myself from a potentially dangerous situation is at once frightening and incredibly, and surprisingly, empowering. Krav Maga turns the tables: victims are no longer victims.
In the course of an hour dozens of moves, motions and positions were introduced, reviewed and put into practice as Tuznik paired participants off to spar. I was assigned to Arek Golak, a solid and sturdy Krav Maga veteran who trains with Tuznik in Manhattan. He was helpful, gracious and supportive of my efforts, and proved to be an excellent faux-attacker considering he is twice my size.
“This isn’t like boxing where I’m always in the same weight class as my opponent,” Golak said with a smile. “When I do Krav Maga, I’m ready to war.”
There are three primary principles of Krav Maga: to strike vulnerable targets so your attacker will always feel pain (groin, temple, knee, etc.); combine offensive and defensive motions; follow your instincts. Mostly though, Krav Maga is about becoming aware of one’s surroundings, and learning not only what to expect in a dangerous situation, but how to react.
“This is an art form, but look at its history: this was developed to fight wars,” Tuznik continued. “For some people, this is a way of life. You will get used to having people throw punches at you so if it happens on the street, you’ll know what to do. On the street there are no rules, and I have to know what to do until my attacker is no longer a threat.”
Though Krav Maga classes consist of a series of not-so-simulated street fights, students who have practiced the craft for extended periods of time often find themselves to be less aggressive in their everyday lives than before—a direct result of feeling stronger, more confident, more alert and most importantly, less afraid.
“Fear makes people automatically more aggressive,” said one Krav Maga student, a thin and gangly 6-foot-four-inch man weighing approximately 150 pounds, who has been taking classes regularly for more than a year. “If you’re afraid you rush to resolve the problem—you strike. But with Krav Maga, it gives you the confidence to walk away from a fight unless you have to protect yourself. You become very calm.”
Though it’s difficult to make a judgment after a single class, I can say for sure that I’ll be back, and anyone who has ever felt unsafe, uneasy or frightened on the streets of New York City should take this up immediately. And the best part? You don’t even have to leave Greenpoint!
Krav Maga is offered at Otom Gym at 169 Calyer Street on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings. For more information go to www.brooklynkravmaga.com