Getting defensive

“How about the machine gun takedown? Lemme do the machine gun takedown!”

Gabriel Khorramian, an instructor in the Israeli self-defense technique Krav Maga, is brainstorming what sort of disabling maneuver he could pull on me that would look good in a photograph and not render me unable to speak in complete sentences.

I figure “machine gun takedown” is a flashy name akin to “dragon punch.” But no, like all of Krav Maga, it’s very straightforward. It is how you disable a machine gun-wielding foe.

Barny Foland, the co-owner and head trainer of San Francisco’s Krav Maga training center, demonstrates what Khorramian would be putting me through. First, he’d have to give me a blow to the arm to point my imaginary firearm toward the ground. Then, he’d grab my groin area from behind …

OK, we’re not doing the machine gun takedown.

Originally designed 50 years ago to whip Israel Defense Forces soldiers into shape fast and impart practical self-defense techniques, Krav Maga is now taught by more than 200 U.S. schools nationwide. And the same factors that suit Krav Maga to the IDF make it an excellent fit for the everyday men and women I saw in the 1455 Bush St. training center (information: www.kravmaga-sf.com or (415) 921-0612).

After years in a shoebox-sized studio, Foland moved into the current locale, a deceptively cavernous series of gyms, about two years ago.

Foland, an eighth-degree black belt in Chinese boxing, says it took him years to learn any moves he could have applied in a real-life self-defense situation. But in Krav Maga, students can become proficient in a matter of months.

Unlike the theatrical nature of kung fu or karate, Krav Maga is a series of stripped down, instinctive moves — not so flashy, but brutally effective. In fact, the only showy aspect of Krav Maga might be its imposing symbol, a pair of interlocking Hebrew letters that wouldn’t look at all out of place on the multicolored jumpsuits of a James Bond villain’s private army.

As Foland and I sit chatting in his small office, a noise resembling the tipping over of a soda machine followed by laughter and cheering emanates from beyond the walls as advanced fighting classes take place a few yards away. Foland and business partner Eric Powell are completely unfazed by the din.

“You want a cup of coffee?” Powell asks, suddenly.

Sure, why not?

Suddenly, he’s serious. “Are you taking Danny’s class tonight? Well, don’t drink any coffee.”

Powell and Foland exchange knowing glances. I don’t drink any coffee.

Danny Zelig is a lithe and compact man with an intense stare and a sense of humor as dry as the Gobi Desert. Of the dozen instructors at the San Francisco center, he is the one who reminds Foland the most of the drill instructors at a Mavines boot camp — which makes some sense, as Zelig used to train IDF combat regiments in Krav Maga.

It’s too late to feign an injury. I am going to have to take this class. Within 10 minutes, all 20 or so of us in the padded studio are sweating more profusely than Patrick Ewing trapped in an Easy-Bake Oven — our clothes resembled the aftermath of the water-log ride at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

When he asks us to partner up, I grab the guy next to me — a young, hulking fellow with the build of a college linebacker — named Matt Schultz. I immediately regret my decision, as Zelig’s first drill has us drop to our stomachs and pull ourselves across the studio — with our partners on our backs. Despite Schultz’s well-intentioned coaching, dragging a man at least 50 pounds heavier than yours truly across the room feels like doing chin-ups while wearing moon boots. I move about as quickly as the folks building the new span of the Bay Bridge. Needless to say, once I finally reach the other side of the room, Schultz roars back across the floor. On his back, I am a flea.

By this point, a crowd of Bush Street onlookers gathers in front of the studio’s plate-glass windows, waiting for Zelig to demonstrate how to fold, spindle and mutilate a would-be assailant.

OK, for those of you playing along at home, here’s how it works:

If someone grabs you around the neck, the first thing you must do is rapidly pivot your body 90 degrees to the left. Then, clamp down on his left arm with your left arm (“So he doesn’t get away”) and give him a quick punch across the face with your right.

I’ve got to admit that if a man Schultz’s size put his hands around my neck, my first impulse wouldn’t be spin-grab-punch but to shout “take the money!” But we stuck with Zelig’s method.

After we all get our mechanics worked out, Zelig adds a few more steps to the equation. After the spin-grab-punch, give your attacker a swift kick to the crotch, double him over by grabbing onto his right shoulder with your right hand, and then knee him in the face until you’re ready to hit him in the back of the head and neck a few times.

The onlookers cheer and point as Zelig demonstrates his technique, and I suppress my desire to do the same. His motions are swift, economical and effortless. And though he’d doubtlessly demonstrated the moves thousands of times, they appear to flow naturally and instinctively, as if he is making them up on the spot. It is like watching Kevin Spacey deliver his Oscar clip.

I, on the other hand, am not able to recreate Zelig’s effortless fluidity. My inability to remember the correct sequential order recalls nothing so much as the incredibly awkward seventh-grade dance class everyone’s parents forced them to take. At one point I managed to tread on the feet of the girl dancing next to me and my partner, which, thankfully, is more than I hurt anyone in my Krav Maga class.

After the choke moves, Zelig instructs us to lift up large pads about the size of a sofa cushion, so our partners can practice their fistwork. As Schultz wails into the pad I hold onto for dear life, every blow feels like a Curt Schilling fastball slamming off the catcher’s chest protector. I glance into Schultz’s eyes and note he is utterly and totally concentrating on landing his blows; he is in a faraway place.

At this point Zelig instructs the punchers to start throwing knees into the pad. Suddenly the Curt Schilling fastball feels like Schilling throwing a bowling ball.

Zelig saunters over toward Schultz and admires his student’s technique. “If you want to knee harder, pull his shoulder down as you go, make his momentum work for you,” the instructor says.

Gee, thanks man!

In the rare spare moment, I ask Schultz if he’s a police officer. No, he responds, he’s a lawyer.

“Lemme guess, are you a litigator?”

Yup.

We are almost done. All that’s left is a punching-and-kicking exercise. We have to pull ourselves along with our hands and elbows, spring up, and kick the pad at groin level maniacally until Zelig tells us to stop.

Let me say that merely holding the pad for Schultz nearly wears me past my breaking point. In fact, he even boots the pad out of my hand, and I couldn’t help but think that the 49ers could use a man like this for kickoff duties.

And then, with nary a moment to dry my spectacles with my soaked shirt, it is my turn to crawl, tumble, kick and punch. Toward the end, my punches wouldn’t have floored an inflatable clown, but I did fulfill my main goal: Don’t pass out.

Zelig gathers us into a line one more time. Glancing at his utterly drenched pupils, he quietly utters, “Tough in here, easy out there.”

After changing out of my workout clothes, I walk into the chilly San Francisco night, the cool winds running through my damp, ruffled hair. I have never been worked harder than the one hour with Zelig.

And if anyone were to put his hands on my throat, I’d know what to do — shout “take the money!” At least for the next few days I’ll be too sore to lift my arms up in the air, let alone fend of an attacker.

But, after I’m feeling better … ah, just take the money!

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.