GERSHON BEN KEREN
Gershon Ben Keren is a 5th Degree Black Belt in Krav Maga, who has been training in Krav Maga since 1993. In 2011 he was inducted into the Museum of Israeli Martial Arts, in Herzliya, Israel by Dr Dennis Hanover. He is the author of, “Krav Maga – Real World Solutions to Real World Violence” (Tuttle Press), and “Krav Maga – Tactical Survival” (Tuttle Press), and has been writing the weekly Krav Maga Blog (www.kravmagablog.com), since 2012.
Real-life violence is fast, dynamic, and frenzied. Where I grew up, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be attacked without realizing, until some way into the assault or after it; they would feel the back of their neck being grabbed, their head being pulled down, and something being repeatedly slammed into their stomach – only when they saw the blood, did they realize they’d been stabbed multiple times. By then, their assailant was walking back to finish their drink, eat their Kebab, etc. I’m from Glasgow.
I started training in the martial arts, not as a hobby, to gain belts, or compete, but as a means of increasing my survival chances. My motivation was simple: fear. When you grow up Jewish in a city that is divided along sectarian lines, you become a target for both the Catholic and Protestant populations. You don’t have a side to call your own and/or support you, you’re it. United Nations statistics, state that you are 7 times more likely to be assaulted in Scotland than anywhere else on the planet, and if you want to increase your chances of this, visit Govan – four miles of unspoiled derelict docklands and rundown public housing. This is where I grew up, alongside and in between gangs such as the Ibrox Tongs, the Tuecharhill Young Team, and the Kimbo Kills. The question isn’t whether you will be assaulted when you live in such a neighborhood, it’s when, and how often.
In the 1970’s, the three popular pastimes in our district were drinking, fighting, and soccer; sometimes all three would be engaged in together. As a child, teenagers would often force us younger kids to fight each other as a “Square Go”, simply for their own entertainment. Sometimes they’d arm us with bricks and hammers, etc. to increase the sport. The culture was a violent one, and those kids who were considered “daft” – the most violent and aggressive ones- would get the respect of the older set (I never received this honor, and to be honest never really desired it). During these matches, I got a good education to the strengths and weaknesses of Judo; great when the fight closed distance, which it often did, but not so good on the ground, where everyone watching the fight would start stomping and kicking you and the other combatant – if you’re thinking of finishing a fight with an armbar on the ground, where there are third parties present, I’ll tell you from experience it’s not a good idea. Judo often gets a bad rap as an ineffective martial art, however at a young age I soon realized that when a person hits the concrete hard, the fight goes out of them very quickly – and that most fights end because a person emotionally crumbles and gives up, rather than being physically incapacitated and unable to continue. I actually got not bad at Judo, and have won regional and national titles, as well as holding a 2nd Dan in the art. I believe that Judo provides a foundation for real-life fighting that few others arts I have studied can match e.g. when you learn to think clearly, and formulate strategy, as you’re being thrown about, you have a valuable skill for life.
When you grow up in a violent neighborhood, you get a sixth sense about when things are going to kick off. You pick up on potential assailant(s) checking you out (“Target Glancing”), or looking around for the presence of law enforcement, escapes routes, and to check whether you have acquaintances who can come to your assistance (“Scanning”), etc. You also get good at recognizing when somebody’s movement is attuned and tied to yours, as well as when the environment favors an attacker – it lacks natural surveillance (other people can’t see or witness what’s going to happen), and restricts and funnels your movement in a particular direction, etc. In short, you develop good situational awareness. If you grow up in “prey” mode, you soon learn to detect the warning signs, that things aren’t right. Throughout my time teaching Krav Maga and reality-based self-defense, I have tried to formalize these skills, so that they can be communicated to others, either in classes, in my books, or in articles I have written for my blog, and other publications. Without being able to predict and identify violent situations before or as they develop, it is very difficult to respond effectively when things turn physical e.g. if somebody sidles up to you, grabs your shirt/neck and starts shanking a knife into you in a frenzied manner, changing their target areas, from your stomach, to your back, to your neck, and back again, and you weren’t able to prepare in some way for the attack, you’ll be stabbed multiple times before you even have a chance of getting back in the game. That’s reality. Identifying the warning signs of such an assault are as important - if not more so - as the block you use to stop the knife.
I continued my education of violence, when at 18 I started working door security – or as it was then referred to, “bouncing”. It wasn’t so much that I had a fascination with violence, rather that I needed a way to help pay myself through university, and an opportunity came up through the Judo club I was training at (most of the pubs and clubs in the city took their doormen from the two most notable Judo clubs in the area). I started working in a club called the Blue Monkey, that was a converted movie theater, which often saw the locals “bomb” unsuspecting targets, by dropping full pints of beer from the upper-level balconies, with concussive force; I soon learnt that 360 degree scanning and awareness, meant looking up, as well as around – just when you think you’ve got your awareness sorted, another factor comes into play. I also learnt to defend against high kicks; something a lot of people don’t believe occurs in real life. It was not uncommon, when chasing somebody up the stairs, to have them turn and deliver a kick to your head. For them, it was a low-kick, but the environment meant you had to deal with it as a high one. In my final year at university, the club got burnt down by a gang from the next door city, and I ended up working the doors of several pubs. At this time, I was still relying on, and using Judo to deal with violent altercations – a fellow Judoka/doormen instructed me that when you had to throw somebody out, to make sure that you gave them their jacket or coat, as once they have it on, it makes throwing them that much easier.
I first came across Krav Maga in 1994 – I’d taken a trip to Israel to recuperate after a back injury took me out of competitive Judo. Initially, I wasn’t that impressed. At the time, it looked to me a bit sloppy, as there was no emphasis on form or process; something that as a traditional martial artist was anathema to me. (Through my further training with different instructors, I learned that my traditional martial arts approach didn’t have to be excluded from my Krav Maga, and I now practice and teach the system as a martial art). What I did like though was the mindset, and the focus on aggression. From personal experiences, I’d come to realize that the only way to deal with violence, was with greater violence; you got nowhere by doing “just enough”, you had to inflict a lot of pain, as quickly as possible (in the rare cases where inflicting pain wasn’t effective, other solutions could be employed) – and Krav Maga as a system, understood this, embodying it in its tactics and solutions. It’s 23 years now since I first started training in Krav Maga, and I’ve been fortunate to have trained with some of the most notable and influential military trainers in Israel. In 2011, I had the great honor of being inducted into the Museum of Israeli Martial Arts, in Herzliya, Israel by Dr Dennis Hanover, whose family and association have probably trained more members, and been more influential in the development of hand-to-hand combat in the IDF, that any other individual or group.
I now live and work in Boston, MA, running a dedicated 16 000 sq ft Krav Maga training facility. I no longer work on the door, or work as a security operative, preferring to dedicate my time and effort to teaching those in my community how to predict, prevent, identify and avoid violence, and if necessary how to deal with it in the most efficient and effective manner. I have not stopped learning, and never will; that’s the martial arts journey. OSS!