With his bald head, tattoos, and muscles, Haim Gozali looks like a very bad man. Yet the Israeli mixed martial artist from Bat Yam hopes to be very good when he battles Ryan Couture (10-5) on the undercard of Bellator 180, a championship event taking taking place at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
“I’m on a mission,” said Gozali (7-3). “I don’t mind being an underdog and I’m not nervous. [In the Army] I got shot at, hand grenades were thrown near me, and as a bouncer, I got stabbed six times. This guy will have a glove and what’s the worst thing he can do? Hit me in the face?”
The 44-year-old fighter, who’s been training in New York, doesn’t expect his age will be a problem when he faces Couture, whose father Randy is an Ultimate Fighting Championship. “I feel better than I did when I was 22,” said Gozali, who goes by a couple monikers: Zohan, an homage to the Adam Sandler movie in which the actor plays an IDF agent moonlighting as a hair-dresser, and Batman. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d have this opportunity.”
Listed at 6′ 2″ and 170 lbs, Gozali is a third-degree black belt in Jiu Jitsu. His last fight, and his first for Bellator, was a victory via submission (heel hook) over Zane Clerk, and place in Tel Aviv last November. (Gozali promotes Bellator fights in Israel, and he also has a fighting contract with the company.) Prior to that, Gozali hadn’t fought in four years. In a 2012 victory over Zdravko Zdravkov, he sustained a staggering punch to the head, but he still won via an armbar submission. “I have a big Israeli head. I can take a lot of punching,” he said.
Still, given his age, Gozali knows this might very well be his last fight.
There should be little doubt Israeli fans will show up to voice their support for Gozali. Two other significant Jewish fighters, boxers Yuri Foreman and Dmitriy Salita, have competed at MSG to much support in Manhattan. (After a lengthy legal battle, MMA is now legal in New York.) And he isn’t the only Israeli MMA Fighter. UFC fighter Noad Lahat, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, who possesses a steadfast duty serving his country, recently fought in Chicago.
Gozali said he hasn’t experienced anti-Semitism, but said that once a fighter refused to face him in a tournament because he was Israeli. In another fight, as Gozali held up an Israeli flag after winning a match, a man asked him if it was a Russian flag. It was then that he decided to get a tattoo of a Magen David—to hopefully quell any confusion. “It’s very important to me that everyone knows where I come from,” he said.
Gozali said he is not religious, but he does put on tefillin every day “because it’s important to do something so we don’t forget who we are.”
When he was a kid, Gozali watched ninja movies in Israel. “I got into karate, I studied jujitsu. I’m not a violent person, but I saw it was something I could do,” he said.
On Saturday, the welterweights will fight for a scheduled three, five-minute rounds. Fighters can win by submission or when a referee stops the fight should an opponent becomes defenseless or tap out. Gozali will likely try to take the fight to the ground.
Reached by phone at his Las Vegas training camp at his family gym, Couture, who comes into his bout with Gozali having lost his previous two matches, said he is not taking the fight lightly. Despite being 10 years younger, he’s not banking on Gozali being slower or out of shape. But he is confident. Said Couture, “I’m gonna go in and dominate.”
“Let him try,” Gozali said. “I’ll be waiting.”