London Copperbox Arena, Olympic Park.
29th March 2014
I had what could politely be described as an “anxious” week in the build up to my latest grading. Bitten nails, lack of sleep, fear of failure and just to rub salt in it…a cold four days beforehand meaning I would wake up at 4am coughing, with my face resembling a half melted candle.
Practitioner 3 had been initiation into the “Big Boys Club”.
P4 was fighting for the right to remain there.
I was in two minds up until the Dress Rehearsal that KMM ran last week, as to whether I should postpone my grading until October. I had no fear of humiliation if I was to fail after going in fully prepped. However I did not wish to go in half cocked and crash out just because of wanting the extra bar on my patch.
After the confidence boost from the pre-grading workshop the demons of despair decided to give me a mild dose of the common cold. As working out or exercising while ill is a minefield at the best of times, I worked out a strategy of only going to two classes in the run up to the grading AND not going at all on the day preceding it. This turned out to be a good idea as my body had time to recover and my mind was more or less clear of Kravvy thoughts on the Friday.
One of the big scares in the build up was knowing that the chief examiner on the day would be Zeev Cohen. Master level 1/ Expert level 6. One of my club’s instructors had passed his Kids Instructor’s course with Zeev as a tutor and said how good but also how focused on perfecting the techniques Zeev is.
So…a face full of phlegm, not 100% confident on passing and the number 2 for Krav Maga Global would be there on the day.
To put it mildly…I was bit nervous.
Due to problems with the Birmingham venue at the October 2013 grading, KMG UK had decided to hold only three in England this time. One in London, one in Bristol and one in Penrith. I chose London but most of KMM seemed destined for Bristol. Luckily two guys were heading down for P4 as well and we pooled a car to head down.
Morning of the grading finally came to dawning with all the speed of continental drift. I had to drive for an hour to where my mate lives to share the ride but my Sat Nav decided to throw a tantrum about 10 miles from his house. Instead of simply flashing up “Location Unknown” it kept taking me to obscure villages and three left turns in a row (i.e. a circle). I finally rocked up about 45 minutes later swearing my head off and the three of us piled in his 4x4 and headed off to London.
When we got the venue we had over an hour to spare. The Copperbox Arena is a hangover from the last Olympics and a well designed and vast complex. We headed up to watch the P1 and P2 guys going through their paces in the final stages of their grading.
To see such a vast amount of people in one place ALL being tested took my breath away. There had been about 50 Practitioners at my P1 grading in October 2012 but here there were 100+, all going through the motions while 6 examiners walked around with white polo shirts and clipboards marking down scores. Zeev himself was blending in well, with a blue jacket on, and not standing out at all. As he was roaming around the hall checking people out and watching ground releases, it made it clear that he was taking this seriously as were everyone else.
When things finally wrapped up for P1 and P2 they separated into two groups and awaited their fate. We were told that individual feedback was to be given this time along with your percentage score.
Our registration opened and we queued up to be handed a number that need to be pinned to the back of our t-shirts and an endearing “Yanilov dollar” that allowed us £5 off any KMG merchandise purchased that day from the store to the side of the room.
As the clock ticked ever nearer to our proposed start time we assembled on the other side of the curtain dividing the hall and went through a few stretches and techniques. Everyone was looking nervous and we could hear rounds of applause and names being called out as our predecessors collected their patches and certificates. I got chatting to two guys from a London club and one was showing me some last minute wrist grab releases.
A few endearing urban myths about Zeev were doing the rounds while we waited. One was that he’d once walked into a P4 grading and failed everybody in the room after 10 minutes with only the words “Not aggressive enough!" before walking out again. My emotions were clearly showing on my face when one guy looked at me and smiled, saying “Don’t worry about it, it’s all just bullshit.”
We started about an hour later than we thought we would but as there were (thankfully) no clocks on the walls, we didn’t really mind beyond wanting the stomach butterflies to get lost. We were told to form four lines, with pairs facing each other making two tunnels of partners. I was without a grading buddy as my two mates had partnered each other. After yelling “Anyone need a partner?” I got introduced to a really friendly French guy named Ian who was 56 and a former boxer. Said he’d been doing Krav for about 5 years but had been slow on taking the gradings.
Once we had our places marked out we were told to remember where we were standing and Jon Bullock called us over with a microphone (room was THAT big, he needed one). There appeared to be about 150 of us, most going for P4. He asked us to shout out how we felt right now. Answers ranged from “positive” and “determined” to “nervous” and “scared”. Jon pointed out that the answers were both negative and positive and then said:
“Turn to the person next to you and you have 30 seconds to tell them EXACTLY how you feel right now, then it’s their turn. GO!”
Ian was nearest to me so I blurted out my fears and phobias and anxiety while he smiled and nodded reassuringly. Then he told me that he wanted to pass but it was not the end of the world for him but he was a little nervous.
Jon then pointed out that our faces looked a little different now. His next tool to boost our positive energy was to tell us: “Now tell the person nearest to you what passing this grading will mean to you. GO!”
Same again and by the time we’d finished some people were even laughing. Jon said that this had changed the mood and added that success is 80% motivation and 20% physical. He then added the finishing touch which was that we were to stand up and assure our partners that they WOULD pass and we knew and believed in them. Cue a lot of smiling and hugging and claps on the back. Feeling a lot more confident and relaxed I took my place opposite Ian and finally we kicked off.
Due to the sheer amount of people (50 or so in P4 and the rest spread between 3 and 5) we had to wait a while before we had an examiner walk up to assess us. We were told to practice the moves relevant to the level at about 50 to 60% and only to go “hammer and tongs” if the examiner was with us.
Me and Ian were the second to last pair on our row and when we got to choke hold releases the examiner made Ian grab me again, saying “Don’t try to be a friend. Grab him properly now!” We did the moves and then moved on to stick and knife attacks plus bears hugs while constantly refreshing techniques and keeping a crafty eye open for what was going on just down the row, as our examiner moved closer and was asking people to show specific movements and releases.
When our technical abilities were finally done and dusted, we got called into a huddle and told to put on shin guards, forearm guards, gum shields and MMA gloves. We were all tired by this point, which the examiners blatantly knew and one said, “Here’s where you have to suck it all up.” We were told to fight for 2 minutes with hands only, then 2 with feet only, then 2 with hands and feet, then finally 2 with a stick or knife nearby to attack our opponent with. Each round had to be a new partner.
I knew from the milling we’d had on P3 that this would be hard but I’d forgotten just how exhausting this type of thing can be. My first two rounds weren’t so bad and by the time we got to “hands and feet” I’d chosen a partner who knew how to box so he caught me a few meaty smackers in the jaw. By the time we got to the final session I was with a guy who grappled with me and I lost my left contact lens. He was a gent and paused when I told him, but I realised I wouldn’t be able to find it let alone put it back in so just carried on. Same dude then dislodged my gum shield which I decided not to retrieve either. Big mistake as his next punch chipped one of my front teeth. I finally managed to clinch with him and punched him up close a few times before the much appreciated “STOP!” was shouted across the hall
Guessing we were far from finished I wasn’t surprised when we were told to put on 16oz full boxing gloves and go again. The examiner said: “We have about 15 minutes left, we hope to get as many rounds in as we can. 2 minutes again, change partners each time but feel free to try and take your partner to the floor. Punch him a little bit, then get up and fight again.”
We were now resembling combat-ready versions of The Walking Dead and as we began to fight you could hear the panting and groaning. While I was fighting I tried a tackle but realised that unless my opponent was as tired as me and not much stronger, then chances are I wouldn’t get him down. Then the opportunity arose when I saw two people come tumbling down behind him, which he hadn’t noticed. Seizing the moment I shoved him over them both and followed him down. A roving examiner watched us tussle for a few seconds then yelled, “GET UP AGAIN! FIGHT!” GET UP!”
As we changed partners again I could feel my arms and legs getting heavier. I knew we were being judged on aggression and resilience and was determined not to give in. While scrapping this time a guy wandered up and began punching me, despite the fact that I already had a partner. I had enough mental function left to realise he was the “odd number” from when we’d started and had been told to roam around and randomly pick on existing pairs.
The examiner finally stopped the fighting and had another surprise for us. We now had to fight for 2 minutes BUT it was to be groups of 3 with 2 against 1. I felt a gentle tug on my arm and it was my buddy from KMM, who jerked his head to indicate I should join them. As we kicked off it was simply a case of fighting through the fatigue and remembering not to get cornered or “go between them.” When the fighting was finally over we had one final surprise waiting for us.
“OK everyone. To finish: 60 push ups; 60 crunches; 60 squats and 60 burpies.”
The groaning was audible and one brave soul panted, “16?”
The examiner grinned and went, “Nice try, no. SIXTY!”
I managed all the push ups, crunches and squats, but lost the ability to remember my own name by the time I got to the burpies (think I probably maxed out at about 40 before I fell face down on the floor).
We then stumbled over to get water and peel off our sodden protective gear while we recovered, wolfed down a banana or a granola bar, and waited to hear our fate.
P3 and P5 got their results first as they were smaller groups. After about an hour the examiners apologised for keeping us waiting and invited us to sit on the floor around them to hear our scores. There was much grunting and creaking of joints as sore bodies were lowered to the gymnasium floor.
He made it clear that there were three results. A pass, a technical pass and a fail. A technical pass meant that while you had achieved the minimum grade of 70% or more, you were lacking in one or more things that they felt you should improve on to satisfaction, before you would be awarded your certificate. Bottom line was that you had passed BUT your own club’s instructors would have to sign you off as competent in the grey areas and THEN give you your patch.
As the numbers were read out, people raised their hands and the scores were given. A guy behind me was one of the first names called and had achieved 92%. He was beaming, clearly over the moon and the examiners congratulated him on having the highest score. One of my mates was called next and had a high score of 82%. I though he was through and clear when the examiner then added that he needed to be reassessed on bear hugs.
Before long someone was told they “need to retest”. On previous, smaller gradings this was done privately beforehand, with people being taken to one side and informed they had failed. This time the information was given flatly and the examiner then moved on. It was bad seeing the hurt and disappointment on people’s faces and as my name hadn’t been read out yet I could feel my nerves jangling once more.
My partner Ian had the second highest score of 91% and was congratulated personally. My number was next and I was optimistic of a similar score until the examiner said “73%, you need to retake stick defences.” I nodded my acknowledgment and was monumentally relieved to have passed while still narked off to have to wait before I could get the sewing kit out once I got home.
There were so many people who had to retake stick defences that the examiner eventually started saying something like “Number 253? 78%. Sticks” and then moving on without elaborating. Of the 50 or so people at around me, roughly 20 passed outright, 20 passed but had to be reassessed on one area back at their club and 10 or 11 failed. This was the hardest grading I’d been to where the expectations were set at a very high level.
Finally we applauded as the guys went up to collect their patches and certificates and then made our way out. It was only then that I noticed Zeev Cohen again who was chatting with Jon Bullock near the doors. He’d taken personal charge of overseeing the P5 gradings and hadn’t taken part in our assessments. As I looked back into the vast hall, the edges were littered with empty mineral water bottles, chocolate bar wrappers and the odd banana skin.
I rang Al, one of our club’s instructors to tell him we’d passed and asked if we could do the reassessments the following Monday in 2 days. He laughed and reassured me not to worry and congratulated us all on getting through.
We piled into the nearest service station on the M40 for something to eat and I can’t remember the last time I’ve finished 2 bags of chips, a double chicken ‘n’ bacon burger, a big piece of fried chicken, a pot of baked beans and a litre of Tango before.
This was an emotionally and physically draining experience. A week with little sleep. Training with a cold. Fingernails bitten till they bled. Stress. Anxiety. Lost contact lens. Lost gum shield. Chipped tooth. Exhaustion. Bruising. AND a resit of stick defences to come.
It was worth it.
Bring on P5.