The first time I heard about “Krav Maga” was in 2008 when “The Dark Knight” movie came out and some Internet commenter described Batman’s fighting style using those words. (Yes, I now know it’s not Krav but that’s beside the point). I was intrigued by this style’s brutality and fierceness, but, as with most things, I simply filed it away.
Fast forward several years and I’m watching my son prepare for his Taekwondo black belt test. He’s been at it for nearly 7 years now. There was a point at which he started learning “self-defense” techniques; actual technique sequences, numbered 1 through 20. He demonstrated some for me – including the iconic two-finger eye jab – and, moderately satisfied that my $165 per month, for 80 months or so, had resulted in some form of practical application, I filed that away as well.
Then, early in 2022, local news saw an uptick in public behaviors that could be described lazily as “crazy.” Whether it was unprovoked stabbings, random attacks in public places, or other incidents triggering reactions of, “Hmm… Vancouver never used to be like this before.” There was an increasing sense of low-grade unrest on many fronts. Oh, and nevermind the backdrop of COVID, domestic US issues, trucker convoys, and what have you. This, coupled with an incident involving a friends’ child being lured into a car on her school grounds by a stranger, primed us to start thinking how we could better prepare ourselves.
We started by getting our firearms license, because clearly we had no framework for thinking proactively and were pulling on whatever threads we had within reach. A friend of mine is a competitive shooter and post-COVID lockdown had me wanting to try new and atypical things, so firearms training it was. “How decidedly un-West Coast and un-Left leaning of me,” I thought.
Except not. If nothing else, we learned two things; how to properly handle firearms to ensure safety, and that there are a surprising amount of people in British Columbia that have firearms in their trunks. That’s right, that lady in the Safeway parking lot could have a trunkful of rifles and ammunition, and it is completely legal for her to do so (and perhaps not so uncommon).
A thoroughly read-and-not-taken pamphlet at the firearms training centre advertised “combatives” training, and this sparked my memory of Batman’s not-actually-Krav-Maga style of fighting. Inspired and newly invigorated by my ability to score 100% on a written exam after 20+ years out of University, I turned my energies toward Google in search of “combatives training Burnaby.”
A quick tidbit about myself; I am your prototypical middle-aged gamer-dad business person. I have little to no interest in many things that require physical exertion, in many ways due to lack of time. In my day-to-day context, MMA could easily mean “Mickey Mouse Association,” and UFC a chain of fried chicken restaurants run by Mormons. To our friends, “KM” still usually means and only means “Korean Ministry,” i.e. the Korean speaking arm of a Christian church that has both a KM and an EM (English Ministry).
The top result of my Google search was Urban Tactics Krav Maga (“UTKM”). With a new thread to pull on, this then triggered my compulsive rabbit-holing instinct, whereby I did ultra background research into Krav Maga, UTKM, and other types of combative sports taught locally.
Satisfied that UTKM was as good a place to start as any, we sent an email inquiring about lessons and ended up at our free first class in April of 2022. That was a bit over seven months ago. Yesterday we passed through the Trial by Ordeal known as the Yellow Belt test.
Which brings us to the real topic of this blog post. If you’ve made it this far, prepare yourself – the titillating crescendo culminating into a dazzling climax is nigh upon you!
In my research on Krav Maga, the topic of rankings and belt systems seemed to be a controversial one; partly because Krav has yet to have a globally accepted governing body, largely due to the fact that Krav has not been codified into a sport. Therefore, any claim to a belt or ranking system is almost always interpreted by the “Comment Below” mob as a “thinly guised money grab” on part of the self-appointed Krav “Sensei”. You will see it all over the Internet: “THERE ARE NO BELTS IN KRAV MAGA!”
In part this is true. Krav is first and foremost a set of principles. How do you award a belt to principles? Or so goes the argument. And without a codified set of techniques, or a sporting framework within which to evaluate one person’s mastery of said techniques over another, how do you evaluate someone’s ability or progress?
Enter our lead instructor, Jon Fader at UTKM. What drew us to UTKM initially was Jon’s low-pressure, self-uninterested demeanor when we first met him. Signing up at UTKM was purely something we would choose to do ourselves, not because he tried to convince us that it was something that would be good for us.
Secondly, what we began to sense (and continue to understand) is the brutal practicality of Krav Maga; both in how Jon runs his school as well as how to apply the system in practice. Earning a Yellow Belt at UTKM is HARD. It’s not hard because each technique is particularly hard, or because skipping rope for 5 minutes is hard (actually skipping rope for 5 minutes is probably the single most frustrating thing I’ve ever tried to do), or because sparring is hard.
A Yellow Belt is hard because UTKM’s philosophy is that everything you have learned has to be demonstrated under duress and exhaustion.
Having witnessed my son’s progression of TKD belt tests, I understand that there can be a business-model-first mentality behind a lot of martial arts schools. In fact, my father recalls there being only white, red, and black belts given back in the early days of TKD. Now you often see no less than 10 (what IS a “yellow stripe” really?), with a fee for each belt test and a minimum interval of 3-6 months between tests. There are obviously upsides to TKD, and I only use TKD as an example because that is what I know first hand; I can imagine that many other martial arts schools operate in a similar fashion.
But in going through UTKM, I began to see the sheer impracticality of TKD as a self-defense discipline. An art form? Sure. A style of dance? OK! A solid TKD roundhouse to the head? Maybe! Spinning jump kick? Hmm… maybe not? Self-defence test pattern #5 in a real fight? Um, I don’t think so. TWO FINGER EYE JAB? NO WAY!
For the TKD Black belt, one has to do 100 push-ups. A UTKM Yellow Belt test requires 500 push-ups, AND 500 sit-ups, AND 500 squats. (Editors note: Allegedly)
But more than that, a TKD Black belt is a recitation of all the patterns and a demonstration of the techniques. Having achieved a Black belt speaks nothing of any practical ability to use such skills in a real-world setting. (Again, this isn’t directed to TKD specifically but to all similar martial arts.) Competitive TKD stops after a single kick scores a point… the real world doesn’t work that way.
The Yellow Belt test is only the first of several in the UTKM belt system, which is ultimately interested in only one thing: proficiency in technique under (sometimes extreme) duress.
I am proud of my Yellow Belt. In all honesty, I don’t need a belt. It could be a sticker or even just a round of high fives. The test itself is what spurs my confidence. Almost in my mid-40s, I was able to be physically challenged as much as one might voluntarily subject oneself to, and I successfully demonstrated that I could potentially ward off a series of violent altercations without getting fatally wounded in the process. In contrast, most people my age don’t know how their body will react to a punch in the gut, and most don’t have any mental model of cross-cultural conflict: what is considered positive eye contact in one culture may invoke belligerence in another. Are you prepared?
I am still a beginner and I feel I have only scratched the surface. If in the real world someone pulls a knife on me or catches me off guard, there is no guarantee that I will survive. To be fair, training with a plastic knife is very different from a real shiny, sharp, and stabby thing. But the Krav Maga mindset drives me to stay alert and to constantly train myself to stay honed. It’s not about the belt, but rather checkpoints of achievement that say maybe I can have a fighting chance.
Finally, the belt test itself is a cultural point of celebration within the UTKM community. To me it is the demonstrated highlight of kindness, fierceness, and unrelenting commitment of each member to better the others. There is so much support demonstrated during the test that it is truly a memorable experience (even in the form of friendly ribbing).
So, yes, there ARE belts in Krav Maga (and badges, stickers, and high-fives). But what does the belt require of you and what does it mean? That is what you really need to consider.
Written by Danny Y. – UTKM Yellow Belt