Revisiting the Krav Maga-MMA divide

One of the most popular posts that I have ever written attempted to answer the question of "which is better" in terms of helping any reasonably motivated person to learn how to defend himself or herself effectively- MMA, or Krav Maga?

My answer to that question really came down to another question: "it depends on what you're looking to do".

Time, experience, and the opportunity to train with and under both highly skilled Krav Maga practitioners and amateur MMA fighters- one of whom is actually about to turn pro pretty soon- have not changed that perspective.

Indeed, if anything, the accumulation of experience (not to mention quite a few bruises and lumps along the way) have taught me that the only way to properly answer this question is to have a really good idea of what it is you really want, and then pursue that goal relentlessly and single-mindedly.

So it was with considerable interest that I encountered a video made by a Dan 2 black belt in Krav Maga, who also happens to be a skilled mixed martial artist, attempting to tackle that very same question:

If you're wondering who Marcus Kowal is, you might want to take a look through his bio. This man has trained under the legendary Rickson Gracie in BJJ- the only analogy that I can think of which even comes close to being appropriate might be something along the lines of learning the art of war at the feet of Gustavus Adophus himself. He is a highly accomplished martial artist in his own right.

So this isn't exactly some fly-by-night hack mouthing off. This is a guy who lives and breathes the fighting arts.

His points about the key differences between MMA and Krav Maga are well made and worth remembering. His example of working through the guard is a really good one. In MMA, if you're in someone's guard, you have a variety of ways of working through that guard- and your opponent can use the guard to trap you, tire you out, grind you down. Since you're working against a time limit, with referees adjudicating each round, you and your opponent can afford to take your time to figure out what to do, how to counter each move, how to break out of an armbar or a leg-lock or a knee-bar.

But in Krav Maga, the ground is considered to be your worst enemy. If you end up on the ground in that art, it is because things have gone seriously to shit for you. You made mistakes somewhere during the fight, and now you've got someone on your legs looking to beat you senseless with bare knuckles.

Worse still, he may well have friends with him. And all he has to do is hold you down until they arrive with pool cues and broken beer bottles.

At that point, you are well and truly boned.

The major criticism that I hear about Krav Maga from students of other disciplines is that it doesn't prepare you for what happens when the fight goes to the ground. I actually agree with that criticism, and the level of interaction with the ground varies greatly depending on which organisation you join when studying KM. I have trained with an Israeli organisation closely linked with our own, and therefore with the founder of the art, in Israel, and because of that I can say that the Israelis themselves would much rather almost pretend that the ground doesn't exist as a battlefield.

They prefer to keep everything standing in a fight, because their greatest fear is that of being surrounded by multiple hostiles in a situation where the only options range from bad to worse.

In MMA, by contrast, such situations don't come up. You're not training against multiple attackers- you're training to face one guy for set time periods in a controlled environment. Don't get me wrong- it's still a brutal and dangerous environment. But it's one guy. There are limits to what he can do to you, and what you can do to him. You have weeks in which to train to face a particular combination of skills and styles- you can prepare so that you don't just walk blindly into a fight.

You spend that time building up your strength, your speed, your skills, and most especially your endurance; fighting is exhausting, and anyone who doesn't train for the extreme cardio shock involved in intensive time-limited fighting will simply be destroyed in the cage.

Krav Maga doesn't deal with any of that. The basic philosophy behind that art is to be as comfortable as possible in any situation, simply because you never know what could come at you. That is why it is a system of self-defence- which by the way is just a euphemism for "learning how to beat the living shit out of other people so that they don't hurt you first".

In KM, the goal isn't to outlast your opponent by grinding him down. If a fight starts, the goal is to get in, deal tremendous amounts of damage very fast, and then get the hell out as quickly as possible. Prolonged engagements are anathema to a KM practitioner, which is why that art's techniques focus on the delivery of brutal, high-speed strikes to vulnerable targets in rapid succession.

That is why Krav Maga, when taught properly by instructors who actually know what the hell they're doing, is both great fun and deadly serious. Because it is a system, rather than an art, it focuses very clearly on a core set of principles and techniques that then get expanded and built upon and re-imagined as you move up the ranks.

There are, however, some legitimate questions that can be raised as to the practicality of Krav Maga- at least as it is taught in certain schools.

For instance, in my school, the higher up you go in the ranks, the more elaborate kicks you have to demonstrate. For yellow belt, you only have to demonstrate the four basic kicks- low snap kick, high snap kick, front roundhouse kick, and side kick from side stance. (This sounds easy, but the reality is that just these four kicks alone are quite hard to master.)

Then for orange belt, you have to demonstrate rear kicks from a side stance. For green belt, you have to expand upon those kicks by throwing a rear wheel kick, a rear push-kick, and a rear "regular kick" from both a hinge spin and a full spin. For blue belt, you have to demonstrate flying scissor roundhouse and side kicks and hinge-spin versions of slap kicks, plus "axe" or "hammer" kicks.

For brown belt, you have to be able to string kicks together into intelligent, controlled combinations. And for black belt, you have to show aerial spinning kicks and rear kicks and all manner of other showy but not-terribly-practical kicks that would be immediately familiar to any reasonably advanced tae kwon do or kung fu student.

Now, any MMA fighter who knows how to stand and bang will look at a curriculum like that and go, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?". Why the hell would anyone need to know how to throw all of those kicks, when most of them are not even the least bit useful in a street environment while wearing street clothes? (Try throwing a hammer kick while wearing skinny jeans. Oh, but let me know before you do it- I'll want to get good video footage of you falling arse-over-heels onto the sidewalk.)

The answer is quite simple: while the core philosophy of Krav Maga is indeed about self-defence, the system is also based on the twin foundations of control as well as aggression.

By demonstrating that you can throw these very difficult, very technical kicks that other, more showy arts specialise in, you are demonstrating that you have control. And that is critical for any fighter to have, regardless of size, skill level, or proficiency with weapons.

The argument that my teachers have always made is that, if you cannot even throw a rear defence kick with proper form and control, how can you be expected to defend against such a kick? And how then can you claim to be able to disarm someone wielding a weapon, such as a stick, a knife, or a gun, if you cannot both inflict damage and defend against it?

As for MMA, I have nothing but the highest respect for practitioners of mixed martial arts. I have trained under an instructor who is soon going to turn pro in MMA; he's an amazing striker, a phenomenally skilled grappler, an incredibly gifted martial artist, so I expect to see great things from him in the near future. I have trained with amateur MMA fighters at our school. They are strong, dedicated, skilled men who have seen giant leaps in their fighting abilities from the relentless and brutal training regimens that they have put themselves through.

I encourage any man to take up a martial art- an effective one, to be clear. I encourage men to do this because there is no faster way to build fitness, strength, confidence, and lifelong bonds with other good men than through martial arts. If you stick to martial arts- whether it be muay thai or BJJ or Krav Maga or any other form of real combat art- you will gain so much more than you put in.

But you have to go into the study of a martial art knowing what you want to get out of it. If your goal is just to "get fit", then go take a tae bo class. It's not "real" martial arts, but you will get fit. If, however, your goal is to become effective at defending yourself, in whatever situation you find yourself, then do your homework, look for schools not only permit but encourage sparring, and take your time to really build your foundations.

And don't ever be afraid to try new things. I, personally, would like to take Krav Maga as far as I can- but I know that, in order to become more complete as a person and a martial artist, I will need to do something else eventually. And that "something else" will probably involve a significant amount of grappling and groundwork. So, sometime in the next few years, I plan to take up BJJ or judo as well, to round out my skills.

Ultimately, the question of "which is best" really depends on what you want to get out of a martial art. If you do decide to give Krav Maga a shot, know that it is a battle-tested, field-expedient system that has been used to great effect in real life. Find yourself a teacher who knows what the hell he's doing- contact me directly if you're interested in some tips on the subject- and start training. You have nothing to lose, and a very great deal to gain.


  1. Any recommendations on how to find "a teacher who knows what the hell he's doing"?

    I'm in a rural area, so while you can find various schools, it's hard to be able to tell whether they know what they're doing or they're bullshido bases. Is there a valid association or something that can point people to valid teachers?

    1. An excellent question. I will be honest- it is not easy to separate the genuinely good and committed teachers from the pretenders. Feel free to contact me and tell me privately via email where you are based, and I can ask on your behalf of the people that I know in my organisation. Any personal information will be kept completely confidential.

      There are a lot of different Krav Maga organisations out there, as you probably know. The ones that I know are almost surely not worth going to include Darren Levine's Krav Maga Worldwide, as they are considered to be a "belt factory" by some of the Israeli organisations that I've worked with.

      Some useful rules of thumb for detecting the bullshido outfits:
      - Do they allow and encourage full-contact sparring? If no, it's bullshido.
      - If you ask them about the concept of continuations, do they look at you blankly? If so, it's the sort of place that concentrates more on "churn" than on producing students with really sharp technical skills.
      - Do they insist on 3-hour tests for your first belt/patch? The reality is that yellow belt/P1 material is very basic and requires no more than 15 minutes to test. But the test has to be done at FULL speed and aggression. Any organisation that insists on testing people for 8 hours for a black belt is not actually "testing" anything under simulated combat conditions; rather, it is attempting to give its students a sense of accomplishment by making them do the same thing over and over again under something similar to classroom conditions.

      That last one is not quite as big a red flag as the first two; a lot of international KM organisations, for better or worse, have resorted to the latter approach and you can't really get away from that.


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