Imi (Imrich) Sde-Or (Lichtenfeld), founder of Krav Maga was born in 1910 in Budapest and grew up in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. A major influence on Imi’s upbringing was Imi’s father, Samuel Lichtenfeld. From age 13 Samuel was involved in a travelling circus, wrestling and weightlifting and an interest in athletic pursuits was passed onto Imi.
Twenty years later Samuel joined the Slovakian police department, where he rose to the position of Chief Detective. In this position, he also trained his men in self-defense and ways to overcome violent assault, and again an interest in this was passed onto his son.
Training in several disciplines, at the age of 19 (1929), the talented Imi became an international champion in gymnastics, wresting and boxing. Till 1939 he was a member of the Slovakian wresting team and was considered one of top Europeans in his weight division
In the mid-thirties, political conditions changed across Europe with the rise of fascist and anti-Semitic movements. Imi became an informal leader of a group of young Jews, most with a background in boxing, wrestling, and weight lifting seeking to protect the Jewish quarter in Bratislava from anti-Semitic gangs.
Over a period of about four years Imi and his friends took part in numerous violent clashes with the anti-Semitic thugs. It was in these street clashes that the seeds of krav maga were planted. In 1940 Imi fled Europe as the Nazi domination of Europe increased. His escape to Palestine (later to become Israel) was a journey that lasted almost two years.
After recuperating from severe infection as a result of the journey, Imi joined the Czech Legion, under command of the British Army during World War II. Upon his release, in 1942, Imi requested and was granted an entry permit to Palestine. Through friends Imi joined the Hagana resistance. These friends introduced Imi to General Itzchak Sadeh, head of the Hagana, who given his talents in hand-to-hand combat had Imi train members of the group.
Imi trained several elite units of the Hagana and Palmach (the striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units IDF), including its marine commando unit, the Palyam, as well as groups of police officers.
With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Israel Defense Forces were formed. Imi became Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF (and the resistance) for about 20 years, during which time he developed and refined his method. Imi personally trained the top fighters of Israel’s special units, and qualified many generations of Krav Maga instructors, for which he gained the recognition of Israel’s most senior commanders.
We must bear in mind that Imi’s method, Krav Maga, had to meet the varied needs of the IDF. That is, it had to be easy to learn and apply, so that the soldier, whether a clerk in an office or a fighter in an elite unit, could attain the required proficiency within the shortest possible training period. It was also important, that the soldiers’ level of proficiency could be maintained with minimal review and practice. It was even more crucial that the self-defense and fighting techniques that Imi devised could be readily applied under the most stressful conditions.
After retiring from active duty, Imi began adapting Krav Maga to civilian needs and spreading the system to other parts of the world. With the active assistance of Eyal Yanilov, Imi’s right hand man, Krav Maga has grown, improved and spread to all the major continents of the world.
Imi started to teach using an outfit of military shirts and shorts. Then at the very early stage as he was making and searching his way in the world of martial arts, he adopted the Judo uniforms and belts. Imi took all the KM material that he had at the time, divided it to levels as he saw fit and assigned it to the colored belts. At the early stage the curriculum was narrow, including much military and police techniques and was suitable for the time, the mid 60’s in Israel. The belts and judo uniforms where dropped by Eyal and others, at a later stage and the curriculum was divided differently
Eyal became Imi’s right hand in the early 80’s. He was substituting for him in teaching the high level instructors when Imi was unable to teach, got the assignment to write the official Krav Maga book a job that started in 1984. From the mid 80’s due to the different units Eyal was teaching as well as his work with different civilian and military groups the two have been modifying KM together to suit modern times and current needs. In 1987 Imi nominated Eyal to be the head of the KM professional committee, i.e. – chief instructor of Krav Maga. In this place Eyal’s job was to modify techniques, curriculum and develop the system as a system. In the late 80’s early 90’s and under Imi’s supervision, Eyal was in charge of teaching this new curriculum to instructors.