We are pleased to bring you the 3rd installment of the most thorough Darren Levine interview ever conducted. Darren spent several hours with us talking on and off the record. Looking back, we can’t help but believe that Darren is a national treasure, and the one true master of Krav Maga in the United States. Please enjoy…
Kerry Kirk: Darren it is so good to see you again. We are excited to have you back in town for the Houston seminar. Part I and II of your interview have been very well received, and I appreciate that you are taking the time to answer more questions.
KK: Can you tell me about the early years of teaching Krav Maga and how Worldwide eventually came into being?
DARREN: As we discussed, my mother was the headmaster of Heschel Day School. The plan was for me to go to Israel to learn Krav Maga and upon my return I would teach Krav at Heschel. Through my experience in Israel, my mother learned a bit about how brutal our training was and she became concerned that Krav would be too violent for the kids. So instead of incorporating Krav Maga into the curriculum, we began an after school program to test it. What we saw surprised us all—Krav had improved the kids’ self-confidence so much, in fact the opposite was true. Kids became much less aggressive. Some of the kids I was teaching were in general therapy and some were seeing educational therapists. The feedback from these professionals was that Krav Maga had done wonders for the kids. It empowered them. So after getting this feedback, my mother integrated Krav Maga into the school curriculum. That was how I first began teaching.
The Krav program really took off. It actually competed too much with the regular P.E. program—which was a bit of a problem. So many students were taking Krav Maga, that we were not able to fill our sports teams with enough people to play football or soccer or softball. So to keep our sports program alive, they had to make Krav an elective—which meant students could only take it one quarter of the year. Parents called and complained. Therapists called and complained. The only solution was to create an after school program. The parents were so impressed with what the kids were learning they asked for an adult program. So I started teaching an adult program in the evenings. That program at Heschel grew to about 200 people. It wasn’t well suited for the location—the school’s multi-purpose room—because school activities often prevented us from using the space. By the way, that was the same room where Imi taught those first summer camps with me with Michael Margolin, John Pasqual, Gerald Whitman and Marni.
In any case we moved on to a place called the University of Judaism. When I initially went to see the director to discuss the program, they told me they had brought in a myriad of different programs (karate, boxing, etc.) that a had not been successful. They said we would only ever have 10 or 15 students. I said okay, let’s see how it goes. That program grew to about 350 students. We were teaching in the dance studio, but there were so many people, we spilled out onto the patio and ended up disrupting classes adjacent to the dance studio. The noise and movement were too distracting.
But I was reluctant to move the program. Michael Margolin, Howard Mellon, Marni, Amir, everybody was saying we needed our own school. In 1996 we formed a partnership to open the Krav Maga National Training Center. For the first six months Amir and I (at that point Amir was riding his bike to teach classes with me) were in the same room teaching three people and we were wondering if this would ever work. But eventually 3 students became 10 became 15 became 30 became 60 and then we had to expand our schedule. We actually outgrew that space as well and ended up in Sherman Oaks.
KK: At what point did you begin teaching law enforcement?
Going back to the Heschel days, police officers took the evening class and the feedback from them was that Krav was better than the training they got at the police academy. And Los Angeles police officers have very good training. From that exposure, we were invited to do demonstrations and teach courses at police departments. There was a need and law enforcement people were recognizing the need. That is how the LEO program began.
Going back to the National Training Center, we had formed a partnership to open the commercial space. But What happened next was much bigger. As Krav became more well known, people wanted to travel to LA from all over the country to learn Krav Maga. They were going back home after taking just a few classes and they started teaching. We did not want that. We realized the need to have a formalized curriculum—the same way we were training instructors for law enforcement (which was a well established program at that point). We did not want people using the Krav Maga name and ruining it, denigrating it. That led us to build a curriculum for licensing—which was way beyond the scope of simply owning a center. Word was spreading about Krav Maga around the country and around the world. People would write us letters saying they wanted to see what we were doing, but that they could not travel to Los Angeles. At that time there was another group posing as Krav Maga instructors. We heard that they were planning on releasing videotapes. I never had any interest in doing videos. I always felt that if I did one, a year later I would look back at the videotape and say that was a mistake. We could be better than that—because the system is always evolving and improving. We did it honestly because far less qualified people–who were frankly fakes, planned to release videotapes, and I didn’t want that to ruin our name with law enforcement at a time when that program was expanding. We formed a company, Krav Maga Productions to produce the tapes. With the release of the videotapes, everyone wanted to become an instructor, so that really pushed the licensing program. It became a much larger endeavor than the initial training center so we formed Krav Maga Worldwide.
KK: Do you remember what year that was?
DARREN: I want to say 1998 if I recall correctly. The most important thing, for me, was to build the law enforcement and military program because I felt that the contributions we could make to that group were really tangible. We were training SWAT teams, antiterrorist units, state troopers, FBI-HRT, governors’ body guards—a myriad of agencies, and we were saving lives. Krav Maga Worldwide was really formulated to meet needs that were already established.
After Imi’s second or third visit to Los Angeles, he asked us to form a nonprofit organization to regulate and promote Krav Maga in the United States. Joel Bernstein (who is a big Krav Maga student) worked to form the nonprofit, called Krav Maga Association of America, and served as the president and legal advisor. The nonprofit Association does a lot of community outreach programs. We raise money for Krav programs in schools, we help instructors who don’t have the funds to travel for training, we sponsor military or law enforcement divisions who have may not have the budget, but really need Krav Maga training. It’s a wonderful program. So, Krav Maga Worldwide includes the training centers, law enforcement training, and licensing. The nonprofit association (with tax exempt status) is promoting and regulating Krav Maga just the way Imi wanted it to be.
KK: And what other nonprofit groups are you working with?
DARREN: I will get to that, but let me start from the beginning. The most important thing that happened to me through Krav Maga was meeting my wife, Marni. How we first met was very odd —I have not really talked about it to many people—I was actually teaching junior high kids at Heschel. Marni was regarded by the coaches as a phenomenal softball player. Marni and her parents came to me and said they wanted her in the Krav Maga program. I’d never seen a female athlete move the way she moved. Very cute, demure, very sweet, but absolutely fierce. She was so fierce. She wasn’t just training in the day program, she came to the adult program at night along with Michael Margolin. Michael Margolin was her partner and Michael, I think, is one of the best ever in Krav Maga. Marni trained so intensely she had to be rushed to the hospital several times in a rescue ambulance because she was dumped on her head or she was fighting with guys who out-weighed her by 60, 70, 80 pounds I kept having to make the call to her parents. “We are at Northridge Hospital. You might want to come meet us.” It was kind of comical in a way, but she was tough as nails and sweet as can be.
Of course Marni went on to high school. There was a point in time when I was about to be engaged to an Italian girl named Ligia, who lives in Milan. Ligia is a great person who I am still friends with. Imi loved Ligia. In fact one corner of Imi’s apartment was reserved for all the things that Ligia sent him. She was a model, so Imi had some of her pictures. She was an artist and she sent him some of her drawings. I remember once she made a heart out of bark and wrote a message to Imi and he had hung it on his wall. Imi loved Ligia. At some point I realized when Marni was still young—just graduating high school, that she was the kind of person that I wanted to make a life with. I was in law school as she was going into college. I had known her parents for years. And my parents knew hers—because my mom was head of the school and they kept up with Marni’s Krav courses.
KK: And they kept meeting you at the hospital.
DARREN: Yeah, and I kept meeting them at the hospital. Marni’s mother was the sweetest lady in the world—just like Marni. She would put her arm on my arm and say, “We’re so happy you and Marni have a friendship and one day the age difference won’t really be such a difference.” And she would walk away and I was thinking, “Are you kidding me? What is she talking about?” There’s almost a 10 year age difference. I’m 27, she’s almost 18. Things didn’t work out with my other girlfriend. I remember talking to my mom and saying, “You know, what I really want is someone like Marni who is, obviously, someone my age, but someone like Marni.” Both Marni’s mom and my mom would say things like ‘age shouldn’t be an obstacle’.
I was in law school and I was studying for finals. Back when there were pay-phones, I got up, I went to a pay-phone and I called Marni’s parents. Her mom answered the phone. I said “Lynn, I want to ask your permission to date Marni.” There was a long pause. She said, “If it was anyone else we would probably say no but because you have Marni’s best interest at heart, we give you permission.” Best day of my life. Marni was the best person I’ve ever known.
All the women in her family had breast cancer. We went to a lot of funerals together. I was always concerned that she would get the disease, but she was so tough it was almost hard to believe. I don’t know if you remember a guy named Don “The Dragon” Wilson or Steve Martinez or Bas Rutten. Those guys—people I really respect—looked at Marni and said we’ve never seen a woman move like that and can do what she can do. She was on many shows like NBC’s Today Show demonstrating Krav Maga—she was really incredible. She was so strong and powerful and had such great knowledge. She developed our kids program—she was fantastic with the kids. She made our adult program better. I don’t think Krav Maga Worldwide would have survived without her. She was really more important to Krav Maga Worldwide than I was.
She was 32 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. That was really hard. But I never, ever thought in my life that she would be defeated by it. She had the best doctors and she went into remission and life went on. We continued to grow Krav Maga. She traveled. She formed this friendship with Bas Rutten. Bas was always calling and checking on her from wherever he was fighting in the world. People just respected her.
Then Marni developed a cough. It was a persistent cough. We went back to the doctor. The cancer had spread to her lungs. It spread everywhere and it was like a roller-coaster ride. She was on lots of experimental drugs. This is going to be in the journals. The drugs had wiped out the cancer again and then a few weeks later it was back—even in her brain. I remember once driving her back from the doctor—I was coming around to the side of the car to help her out and I didn’t see her. I looked down to the ground and she had fallen. It was really hard to see an athlete begin to lose her ability to walk.
She had all the symptoms of suffering from chemo, but she never complained. The most she would say—like in the middle of the night when she was so nauseous or so sick—she would look at me and say, “Have I told you lately I’m not really having all that much fun?” That was it. It became about buying her cool hats. It became about keeping the kids happy. We slept with our legs intertwined so I would know if she was getting out of bed. The closest thing she ever said to me about not making it was, “If the doctors can learn something from what I am going through and I can save one other woman, it would be worth it.”
Marni passed away at 37. There were about 3,000 people who attended her funeral. L.A.P.D. sent cards. The chief of police came. There was nowhere to park.
We never even talked about her not being there. After Marni passed, I looked for tapes or letters but there was nothing to find because we both never thought she would lose the battle.
Her wish was for doctors to learn more about this disease (and we knew she’d touched so many lives) and if they could make a breakthrough in their work, that there had to be a reason. I still don’t really know what the reason is but we partnered with Stop Cancer which was a nonprofit organization that was formed by Armand Hammer and Sherry Lansing and they left enough money to Stop Cancer to pay for all administrative costs for the nonprofit organization. They teamed with USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, and UCLA Comprehensive Cancer Center to fund those organizations. What money those research centers receive from Stop Cancer, they must match in-kind. Our mission for the Marni Fund would provide grants to innovative programs—those where young scientists can’t get funding from NCI. We began with local fund raising efforts. We started a 5K, 10K, and Krav schools from all over the country—like Krav Maga Houston and the Ackermans in Arizona—and many other schools hold fund raisers and seminars to raise money for the Marni Fund. Krav Maga programs across the country will reserve one day, one weekend or even a week and hold seminars and donate all the proceeds to the Marni Fund. Marni’s friends and the community continue to support the cause as well.
Last Thursday we had the annual awards dinner for Stop Cancer. The Marni Fund was the number one contributor to Stop Cancer. To date we have raised almost $1.2 million. One of the Marni Fund grant recipients received approximately $20 million from the National Cancer Institute. We are funding cutting edge research on how to do liquid biopsies (how to detect cancer cells with a blood test). And working to harness the power of the immune system—by those people thought to be in remission—to keep the cancer from coming back. We are doing some really innovative things in Marni’s name.
I speak every year a this event. It’s difficult for me to attend. When I spoke, I thanked everybody from Krav Maga Worldwide who puts in so much extra time. I explained to the 500 or 600 people attending, what schools like Krav Maga Houston do and what Jay and Joy Ackerman do in Arizona and how much money they have raised for the Marni Fund. People were blown away.
My daughter who goes to the University of Texas formed a walk there in Austin and raised $10,000. She and her aunt, who is a jeweler, created these incredibly beautiful necklaces and from the sales, they donate almost $10,000 every year. My other daughter also does fund raising events through her high school.
Every year now we are raising between $200,000 and $400,000. It is going to good use at three of the best cancer institutes in the world hoping that the C grant money we give (which is matched by the institution) will find a new way to fight cancer.
Marni’s oncologist Avrum Bluming—also a Krav Maga student—loved her dearly. He is a brilliant man. I’ll always remember this—he apologized to me once, saying, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop the cancer. One day we’re going to look back and say how barbaric it was to treat cancer this way.” So my goal is to fight cancer without deteriorating the person—make the treatments more targeted, precise and effective like Krav Maga.
To learn more about Stop Cancer and the Marni Fund, please visit: