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The New MMA Hotbed: Israel

A father passes the fighting torch to his prodigal son, and a new generation of combat athletes makes a name for the Promised Land

Hillel Kuttler
November 27, 2019
Photo: Bellator MMA
Aviv Gozali, celebrates his victory by holding up his father, Haim Gozali, at the Bellator MMA event on Nov 14, 2019 in Tel Aviv.Photo: Bellator MMA
Photo: Bellator MMA
Aviv Gozali, celebrates his victory by holding up his father, Haim Gozali, at the Bellator MMA event on Nov 14, 2019 in Tel Aviv.Photo: Bellator MMA

Aviv Gozali had just defeated his Ukrainian opponent by submission in 56 seconds—an eternity, given his previous, record-setting 11-second submission win on Aug. 25 in Connecticut—and the delirium enveloping the sold-out crowd in Menora Mivtahim Arena on Nov. 14 surely rivaled the decibel levels celebrating the league basketball titles captured in the building by dynastic Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Gozali basked in the roar of fans enjoying this mixed martial arts (MMA) fight night as the public-address system played one of the best-known ballads by Israel’s legendary singer-songwriter, the late Arik Einstein. It opens with:

Hagozalim sheli azvu et haken,
Parsu knafayim v’afu.
Va’ani tzipor z’kena nisharti ba’ken,
Mekaveh m’od shehakol yihiye b’seder.

My fledglings have left the nest,
Spread their wings and flew.
And I, the old bird, remain in the nest,
Very much hoping that everything will be OK.

The song is called “Uf, Gozal”–Fly off, Fledgling–and the night’s leave-taking moment involved the old bird, Haim Gozali, 46, standing in the cage reveling in his son’s triumph. He’d replaced the black T-shirt depicting his face, the one he’d worn into the cage for his own fight moments earlier in the bout immediately before his son’s stunning victory, with a white shirt featuring Aviv’s mug. Haim had secured a submission victory late in Round 1 against his Russian opponent in a contest promoted as his finale.

(Aviv Gozali submitting his opponent Zaka Fatullazade by anaconda choke (Photo: Bellator MMA)

For one night, at least, the Gozalis were the kings of Israeli MMA. But the competition is growing at home. The big event in Tel Aviv came courtesy of Bellator, a California-based Viacom subsidiary that counts both Haim and Aviv on its roster and has become the second biggest MMA promotion behind the Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as the UFC. Bellator’s stable of fighters is primarily American, Russian, British, and Brazilian, but it has expanded to Israel, holding fights annually in the country for the past four years and promising to return in 2020.

Israel, said David Green, who heads Bellator’s European department, is an MMA “hotbed.”

So much so that the company signed its first six Israelis in just the past four years: Haim and Aviv, of Bat Yam; featherweight Olga Rubin and welterweight Shimon Smotrisky, of Holon; bantamweight Raz Bring, of Modiin; and heavyweight Adam Keresh, of Tel Aviv. All but Rubin won in front of the home crowd in November. The night’s program, in fact, featured eight all-Israeli matchups and one Israeli in eight other bouts, all meant to cultivate local talent, Green said. 

According to Moshik Keidar, in whose Holon gym Rubin and both Gozalis work out, only “a few hundred” Israelis countrywide train in MMA. Still, he and Green said, the sport has a dedicated, increasingly knowledgeable fan base. Ego Total Channel runs round-the-clock on Israel’s leading cable-TV providers, broadcasting MMA, jiujitsu and wrestling worldwide.

“Israeli people are born fighters,” said Haim, a fourth-degree black belt. “We have to fight to live.”

But there is more than one way to fight and, even in the best conditions, a career in combat sports can only last so long. For Haim, the time had come on the night he shared double billing with his son.

“Is this it?” the announcer, maybe anticipating a dramatic announcement of a reversal, had asked.

Haim Gozali laying down his gloves and ‘Batman’ mask as he prepares to retire from professional fighting (Photo: Bellator MMA)
Haim Gozali laying down his gloves and ‘Batman’ mask as he prepares to retire from professional fighting (Photo: Bellator MMA)

“That’s it, guys,” was the definitive response from Haim, a 170-pound welterweight. He stepped forward, leaned down and placed his gloves upon the mat in the traditional retirement ritual of the MMA fighter and alongside them added a personal touch: a mask of Batman, his alter ego. The senior Gozali’s MMA career ends with a respectable 12-6 record.

With “Uf Gozal” still playing, the zaken, old man Gozali embraced the gozal, boychick Gozali, Aviv, who won’t even turn 19 until Nov. 30. The old bird tilted a water bottle for the babe to sip. 

In the cage, as in life, Haim is understated and brooding. Aviv, who sported a pink suit as he entered the arena with Haim three hours earlier, is brash. Whatever the announcer has just asked Aviv is irrelevant.

“Yo, Israel, gimme some noise,” Aviv, now sporting a 4-0 record, roared. “Soon, you’ll have your first Israeli world champion, so get ready for it. I want to fight Ryan Couture, who beat my father twice. I want to take revenge.”

Almost on cue, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” rocked the arena. Aviv lifted Haim, so the roars for his son became his own parting cheers before the Gozalis made their way together out of the cage.

* * *

MMA isn’t so much a sport as a conglomeration of sports brought together in ancient Greece and the Orient and revived in modern times in Brazil and later the United States. Its disciplines–Brazilian jiujitsu; Muay Thai, a combat sport combining boxing with kicking and kneeing developed in Thailand; kickboxing; and wrestling—are diverse and demanding. Champions typically follow one of two templates: They master the interplay and transitions between the different styles, a fluid approach exemplified by retired UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, who used sharp boxing to set up his wrestling takedowns and vice versa; or they are specialists who become so proficient at a single aspect of the craft that they can neutralize all the other techniques. It’s the latter path that Aviv Gozali has followed so far as a Brazilian jiujitsu prodigy whose lightning-fast submissions have prevented his opponents from setting up their own offense.

An MMA match is quick compared to boxing, running a maximum of three five-minute rounds. (The Tel Aviv program crammed 21 fights into five hours.) Its spectacle draws much from boxing: Fighters compete in an open cage at the center of the arena that’s akin to a boxing ring; the gladiatorial feel; the pizazz of the tags “ultimate” and “extreme” fighting; the sizzle of ringside announcers’ hyping each match’s opening and closing; the sex appeal of ladies garbed in skintight leotards bearing placards announcing the upcoming round number.

To Aviv Gozali, the draw is more primal.

“I like the adrenaline and the blood,” he said following an early-November workout. “When you cut your opponent, or my opponent cuts me, it’s in the cage. Let’s give the fans the blood, which they want to see. They pay a lot of money to come, and we need to give them a show.”

Asked what he knew about his upcoming opponent, Zaka Fatullazade, Gozali ramped it up a notch or 200.

“I don’t care about him. I only care about making him suffer in the cage,” he said. “I’m going to be ruthless. I’ll put him on the ground. I’ll kill him. If the referee won’t stop it, I will. I don’t care.”

Aviv Gozali in his walkout to the cage before his fight (Photo: Bellator MMA)
Aviv Gozali in his walkout to the cage before his fight (Photo: Bellator MMA)

It’s reasonable confidence for a teenager who signed a six-fight deal with Bellator in 2018, before ever competing in MMA, someone who first trained in boxing and wrestling just two years ago after tiring of jiujitsu, even though he’d won a European juniors’ jiujitsu title. But he tagged along for Haim’s MMA training, caught the bug and now he’s gunning for the championship.

Antonio McKee is a believer.

McKee first saw Aviv in 2018, when the latter accompanied his father to BodyShop Fitness, McKee’s gym in Long Beach, California, for Haim’s workout ahead of a fight in Los Angeles. Aviv also slipped on some gloves.

Aviv “was tough,” said McKee, and “then I found out he was only 17. I said, ‘This kid is going to be a monster.’ I watched him train with my men and said, ‘If he can get some coaching behind him, he’ll be a world champion.’”

Now, McKee is Aviv’s coach.

McKee, 49, knows something about father-son MMA dynamics. He’s fought in MMA the past 20 years and now coaches his son, A.J., a 24-year-old featherweight with a 15-0 professional record. The two McKees are both signed to Bellator and fought on the same card near Los Angeles in September.

McKee figures that Aviv, now fighting at 155 pounds as a lightweight, could earn a title shot by early 2022.

“You’ve just got to love a fighter for being confident. It’s hard to argue he’s not on that trajectory,” Green said of Aviv’s post-fight championship boast. “He’s very, very young—one of the youngest MMA fighters out there. Undoubtedly, he’s got huge prospects. He’s got a few hurdles to go, but all signs are good. It would be a good thing to have a champion from a new country.”

In Israel for their November fights, Haim and Aviv enjoyed more father-son time than usual, given Haim’s training in New York and Aviv’s being based much of the year in Los Angeles. One recent afternoon had them together … but not so much. Aviv returned from a workout to the 19th-floor apartment in Bat Yam overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that Haim shares with his fiancée and her 13-year-old son. They exchanged a few words before Aviv closed his door to catch some z’s.

Haim, fresh off his own workout, was just getting going. He downed a protein shake, shook vitamins into his hand and swallowed them—he still needed to drop 11 pounds to make weight a week hence—then headed out for fight-related errands. First, to Ramat Gan to pick up hundreds of tickets from an events company, where he spoke by phone with a wealthy acquaintance who ordered 50 floor seats at 1,000 shekels (nearly $300) a pop. Then, to a Tel Aviv gym to film a promotional video that had Haim knocking out a food vendor; Haim followed the director’s instructions with a demeanor indicating he’d rather be elsewhere. Next came an appearance at a youth center. That night, he and his fiancée scouted wedding halls.

Small talk, at least under pre-fight pressure, isn’t for Haim. He tends to “keep his distance” before fights, Haim’s cousin, Alice Menashe, said at the arena. That was less the case ahead of Haim’s swan song, though. Menashe chatted with him at a relative’s bat mitzvah party and several other get-togethers in just the previous week. The clan is tightknit, she explained, with everyone living in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv.

Moments before the Gozalis entered the cage, Menashe pointed to Haim’s mother, Rivka, and his kippah-clad brother, Roi, a few rows away. Rivka’s parents had reached Israel from Iraq. Haim’s paternal grandmother, Alice, walked all the way from her home in Aleppo, Syria, to Israel in 1942 while carrying an infant son.

“They came because of Zionism,” Menashe said.

* * *

Israel’s women’s scene is far less developed. Asked before a workout at Moshik Box, Keidar’s gym, how many Israeli women are active in MMA, Rubin evinced disdain.

“You’re looking at them,” she said of herself, continuing to tape her hands.

The Moscow-born Rubin, 29, lives with her husband, Yigal, and their 3-year-old son, Leo, near the gym, but spends two weeks a month at her mother’s apartment in London for its proximity to better training.

In Oklahoma in August, Rubin became the first Israeli MMA fighter to earn a title shot. She lost to Canada’s Julia Budd, then again in Tel Aviv to Ireland’s Sinead Kavanagh to fall to 6-2. Both Gozalis attended her most recent win, in Ireland; Aviv also flew to Oklahoma to cheer her on.

“I couldn’t have been where I am without Haim. He’s pushing the sport [in Israel] to the next level. I think Aviv has a big future ahead of him,” she said.

Rubin and Haim first crossed paths about a decade ago, when she worked as a bartender at The Cat & The Dog, a Tel Aviv nightclub where Haim provided security services. Rubin earned a degree in interior design and did some modeling, but was unsure of her career path. A modeling agency sent her to a gym to add muscle. That’s where she was exposed to MMA. It was love at first sight.

The allure was “everything: the adrenaline, the show, the technique, the art,” she said. “MMA allows me to be exactly who I want to be at that moment.”

And what’s that?

“A really bad animal,” Rubin said. She wasn’t chuckling.

Rubin has a husky and a pit bull at home, but as a self-described loner she most identifies with wolves. She adopted the nickname “Big Bad.” Ahead of their Dublin bout, Belgian opponent Cindy Dandois tweeted that she wasn’t afraid of the big, bad wolf. Rubin played along, wearing a wolf’s mask at the weigh-in.

“I decided that it is me,” Rubin said.

Aviv goes by “The King,” one of the monikers taken on by his father as Israeli MMA’s elder statesman. Haim often wears a custom-designed black baseball cap featuring a gold G and a tilted crown.

Except for his feet and a rectangular patch of skin running from his nipples to the top of his gym shorts, nearly every speck of real estate on Haim’s torso and limbs is filled by tattoos, most of them depicting his alter ego, the solemn defender of order in the chaos of Gotham City. There’s a partially clothed Batman, a fully Caped Crusader, a black-yellow Batman logo, two enormous Batman head shots, a spread bat, a flock of fiery bats and a Batman with a Jewish star. Other superheroes—Superman, Batgirl and Wolverine—also are depicted. Then, there are Japanese letters spelling AVIV, AVIV in English, a ninja, a lion, Jim Morrison, a samurai, Japanese good-luck masks, Shogun Assassin, the last seven words of Israel’s national anthem, numerous Jewish stars and the latest tattoo: a goateed Haim.

“I do it for me. I don’t care about what anybody else thinks,” Haim said. In his previous home, he designed a room resembling the Bat Cave. He estimates owning 1,000 Batman action figures.

Haim got the nickname because his work in the security industry was late at night, he wore black and he dealt with some unsavory characters—gangsters, druggies, drunks and goons—who patronized his clients’ bars. The business’ nocturnal nature freed his daytime for training.

In competition, he suffered a back injury requiring surgery. He’s taken his lumps outside the cage, too. Haim said he’s been knifed five times in the line of duty. He displayed his right forearm, where he underwent five operations to mend a stab wound in 2005.

Being tough may explain the tattooed GOZALI ARMY running in English across the front of his legs. The army, though, is being partially decommissioned, with Haim about to start a desk job representing Bellator in Israel. As the Tel Aviv arena emptied following the bouts, a cluster of pre-adolescent males and their chaperones wearing Haim’s black shirts headed into the night.

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].