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Lichtenfeld was born on May 26, 1910, to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in the Astro-Hungaria Empire. He grew up BrAtislava, Slovakia. His father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, was a chief inspector on the Bratislava police force and a former circus acrobat.Lichtenfeld trained at the Hercules Gymnasium, which was owned by his father, who taught self-defense.

Lichtenfeld was a successful boxer, werstler, and gymnast since his youth. He competed at national and international levels and was a champion and member of the Slovakian National Wrestling Team. In 1928, he won the Slovakian Youth Wrestling Championship, and in 1929, the adult championship in the light and middleweight divisions. That year, he also won the national boxing championship and an international gymnastics championship.

In the late 1930s, anti-Semitic riots threatened the Jewish population of Bratislava. Together with other Jewish boxers and wrestlers, Lichtenfeld helped to defend his Jewish neighborhood against racist gangs. He quickly decided that sport has little in common with real combat and began developing a system of techniques for practical self-defense in life-threatening situations.

In 1935, Lichtenfeld visited Palestine with a team of Jewish wrestlers to participate in the Maccabi games but could not participate because of a broken rib that resulted from his training while on route. This led to the fundamental Krav Maga precept, 'do not get hurt' while training. Lichtenfeld returned to Czechoslovakia to face increasing anti-Semitic violence. Lichtenfeld organized a group of young Jews to protect his community. On the streets, he acquired hard won experience and the crucial understanding of the differences between sport fighting and street fighting. He developed his fundamental self-defense principle: 'use natural movements and reactions' for defense, combined with an immediate and decisive counterattack. From this evolved the refined theory of 'simultaneous defense and attack' while 'never occupying two hands in the same time.

In 1940, Lichtenfeld due to the Nazi occupation of his homeland, heading for Palestine on the Aliyah Bet vessel, Pencho, which shipwrecked on the Greek Dodecanese Islands. He reached Palestine in 1942 after serving with distinction in the British supervised Free Czech Legion in North Africa. The Haganah's leaders immediately recognized Lichtenfeld's fighting prowess and ingenuity. In 1944 Imi began training fighters in his areas of expertise: physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, use of the knife, and defenses against knife attacks. During this period, Imi trained several elite units of the Hagana and Palmach (striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units of the IDF), including the Pal-yam, as well as groups of police officers. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded and the IDF was formed, Imi became Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF for about 20 years, during which time he developed and refined his unique method for self-defense and hand-to-hand combat. After he finished his active duty, Imi began adapting and modifying Krav Maga to civilian needs.

The method was formulated to suit everyone – man and woman, boy or girl, who might need it to save his or her life or survive an attack while sustaining minimal harm, whatever the background of the attack – criminal, nationalistic, or other. To disseminate his method, Imi established two training centers, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Netanya.