Thirteen-year-old Noah Kales, standing about 4’10” and weighing just 82 pounds, is small for his age by a considerable amount. This fact, combined with his overwhelming shyness and cute, prepubescent voice, can cause people to underestimate him, especially when it comes to athletics. Noah, who lives with his mother and father in the North York section of Toronto and is now studying for his bar mitzvah, is a six-time Ontario provincial jiu-jitsu champion. He has been dominating his age and weight class ever since he took up the sport, at age 6.
“He’s a beast,” said Igor “Mamute” Caetano, a professional mixed-martial arts fighter and black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) who is head instructor of a rival Toronto gym. “Everybody that faces him just gets killed.”
In Ontario, Noah often goes entire tournaments without being scored upon. To find worthy competition, he must venture outside the province—to Ottawa, Quebec, or the United States. Last spring, after breezing through a qualifying tournament in Montreal, Noah earned a birth in the World Jiu-Jitsu Children’s Cup in Abu Dhabi, held under the patronage of His Highness Gen. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the U.A.E. Armed Forces.
Noah’s former instructor, Fernando Zulick, a BJJ black belt who’s known as Gringo, warned Noah that fighters from the Persian Gulf and Middle East possess a major advantage with the local judges, and that it’s best to end matches quickly before any decision can come before them. Noah—fighting inside a massive, state-of-the-art sports complex named after the royal family—disposed of opponents Mohd Hameed Husain (Bahrain), Sleem Alshami (Jordan), and Gabriel Fincato Loureiro (Brazil) with submission holds to take the world title.
Back in Canada, he was named Toronto’s “Athlete of the Week” by City News, which sent a TV reporter to Noah’s gym. Noah demonstrated moves on her, and she interviewed a young fighter who said of Noah, in a monotone, almost possessed voice: “He’s really fast, and he could just take over you.”
In competition, Noah’s matches follow a pattern. He starts out opposite his rival, his knees slightly bent and palms facing the mat, and slowly creeps forward. Once on the ground, his preferred method of submission is the armbar. He can achieve this result from different positions—including the mount or the guard—and through a host of advanced maneuvers. In the rare event that a fighter scores a point on him, spectators are flabbergasted. When this happens, an opponent can usually return home with their head high, knowing that they have achieved a moral victory.
I first learned of Noah Kales after happening upon a picture of him online in the Canadian Jewish News. It showed Noah atop a podium in Abu Dhabi, dressed in a red-and-blue kimono and with a gold medal around his neck. Below him on each side were shorter podiums on which his just-vanquished opponents stood. On the far left side of the frame was a man who looked like a sheikh from the United Arab Emirates’ royal family.
I also discovered a You Tube video titled “Amazing Kid Athletes” showing Noah, at age 8, handling a succession of opponents, some of whom sobbed after he beat them. The song “Wanted Dead or Alive,” by Bon Jovi played in the background. In the final scene, Noah’s father Sheldon, a gritty former boxer with a smooth, bald head, sat grinning on a couch, asking Noah questions.
“In the last six matches, nobody has scored a point on you, right?” he says, speaking to Noah slowly and clearly, in the delicate tone of a parent seeking a very specific answer from his child.
“In the last two tournaments nobody has scored a point on me,” Noah answered, in a high, squeaky voice. His tone wasn’t arrogant but matter of fact.
Last summer, I contacted Sheldon Kales in hopes of meeting Noah and seeing him fight. In his Canadian accent, Sheldon told me that the 2015 World Cup qualifying tournament was scheduled for early October—on Yom Kippur—and that if Sandy Koufax couldn’t pitch in the World Series on the Day of Atonement, Noah would not be competing in the qualifiers. But the provincial championships were approaching, and he invited me to come watch.
Early one Friday evening in late November, I stepped into the Action and Reaction Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Toronto’s North York neighborhood, where Noah was doing some light training in advance of the tournament that Sunday.
Sheldon, the former CEO of Security Devices International, a technology company that develops nonlethal weapons, was hanging out on the side with some other parents. The gym was outfitted with a red-and-black mat; from the rafters hung the Brazilian and Canadian flags. Noah was running around with the other kids, laughing and kicking a soccer ball.
Once training began, Noah turned serious. The kids were paired up and rotated sparring partners. BJJ is a martial art in which fighters try to control an opponent through body positioning, timing, and leverage. Focused on ground fighting, it was adapted from Japanese judo in the early 20th century and popularized by the Gracie family of Brazil.
Noah was deliberate and precise in his movements but taking it easy on his opponents. He spoke to them quietly, giving them pointers and being careful not to injure anyone. (One was a girl, with whom he was especially gentle.) Gringo, who is tall and wears a buzz cut, made the rounds, providing tips to some of his students, but never to Noah.
Afterward I sat down with Gringo, who’s from São Paolo and is founder of the Gringo Jiu-Jitsu Association, perhaps the most successful BJJ school in greater Toronto.
As soon as Noah joined his gym three years ago, Gringo told me, “You could see that he was different.” His speed was unmatched, Gringo said, but it was his quick retention of new concepts and work ethic that set him apart: “He’s not the kind of kid who needs to do something over and over,” Gringo told me. “You show him once—he gets it.” And when he trains, “he doesn’t waste time. If he can only stay here for an hour, he’s going to make the best of that hour.”
Gringo explained that because of Noah’s size, sometimes he gets bumped up a weight class or two. In fact, the previous weekend, Gringo pointed out, Noah won a tournament against opponents weighing nearly 100 pounds.
In the past three years, Gringo recalled Noah losing just two fights. In one of those, the Pan-Am Kids Championship in California, Noah was winning but got disqualified for illegally slamming his opponent.
Gringo said that he’d be at the provincials on Sunday but would likely be focusing on other students. “Noah doesn’t need a coach at the tournament,” he told me. “The chances that he’s going to screw up that fight are minimal.”
After Friday’s training session, Sheldon invited me to dinner at his in-laws’ house in Thornhill, a quiet suburb at the northern edge of the city. When I arrived, the family was already gathered around a long dining room table. The home’s interior was decorated with family pictures and framed art pieces of blessings and sayings in Hebrew and English. One read, “May this home be a place of happiness and health, of concernment, of generosity and hope, of creativity and kindness.” Another one had flowers on it and in Hebrew gave thanks to the best grandma and grandpa for their good advice, hugs, patience, stories, and unconditional love.
At the table’s head, closest to the kitchen, sat Noah’s grandparents, who have Eastern European accents. To their left were Noah’s cousin, Matthew, and uncle, Dr. Eyal Bodenstein, a psychologist from Israel. A place had been set for me between Dr. Bodenstein and Noah’s other college-aged cousin, whose girlfriend was also there.
Directly across from me was Sheldon, who wore a black T-shirt that said, “Gringo Jiu Jitsu—Fernando Zulick,” and Noah’s mother, Dr. Tally Bodenstein-Kales, who’s a child psychologist. Sitting between them was Noah, perched onto a seat much shorter and narrower than any other dining room chair.
I was immediately encouraged to eat. “Louie, have some challah!” someone said. “Try the hummus!” said someone else. I dipped pieces of challah—which was fresh with a sweet crust—into hummus and egg salad. Conversation was boisterous and included many strong opinions and arguments, including a heated debate as to whether the Concorde airline disaster in 2000 resulted in mass fatalities.
Noah sat silently but looked content. I asked how he first got involved in BJJ. “I’d never heard of this jiu-jitsu thing,” Tally said. Unlike most Canadian kids, she explained, Noah didn’t like hockey, but she and Sheldon wanted him active in a sport. After learning about jiu-jitsu from a client, Tally signed Noah up.
“And you liked it, didn’t you?” she said to Noah.
Noah smiled and nodded. “And I got good at it,” he said.
“Where did he get his athletic genes from?” I asked.
In addition to Sheldon, who won a USA Ringside World Championship as an amateur, I was directed to Noah’s grandfather. His family fled Poland for Russia when he was a young boy, then went to Siberia, before settling in Israel. There, he married, served in the Army, and had children, including Noah’s mother. In 1977, he immigrated to Canada.
“What sport did you play?” I asked the grandfather.
“I was a champion in bike racing!” he said. “I was, oh boy—I was soooo gooood! It was just the exercise. I used to make 300 kilometers!”
“Louie, this is the trophy,” Tally said. Someone had gone into another room and grabbed the cycling prize, which looked like an ancient goblet. Tally handed it to me, and it came apart in three pieces, metal clanging as I struggled to keep it intact. It had some Hebrew engraved into it.
“What year is this from?” I asked.
“First Temple Period,” said Sheldon.
The year was determined to be 1952. We had noodle soup and then a main course featuring chicken. There was also tzimmis, which I was implored to eat.
It was Matthew’s 12th birthday, and a discussion ensued about whether to dim the lights as part of the celebration.
“In my youth we didn’t have dimming lights,” Noah’s grandmother said.
“They used to not have lights at all,” said his grandfather.
A chocolate cake was brought out, and everyone sang Happy Birthday. Matthew blew out the candles and there were numerous kisses and “Mazel Tov’s!” I was handed a big slice, which I ate.
“Louie, do you want to try an apple strudel?” Tally said. “My mother makes a very good apple strudel.”
The grandkids went off into the den, which was decorated with a framed picture of Noah accepting his gold medal in Abu Dhabi. I remained with the adults in the dining room.
“Is Noah always this shy?” I asked.
“What you see is what you get,” Sheldon said.
“Often times his competitors see him and think, ‘Oh, well, this is going to be an easy fight,’ ” Tally said. “And Noah unleashes and before they know it they’re down and usually in an armbar.”
Tally looked at me. “You want to feel an armbar?” she said. “Noah, come here for a minute.”
There was a pattering of little footsteps and Noah appeared. “Yeah?” he said.
“Louie wants to know what an armbar feels like,” Tally said. Noah offered a shy smile and shrugged.
I followed Noah into the living room. The family moved in close. The grandmother was summoned from the kitchen to come watch. Noah lay down on the area rug, facing up, and told me to climb on top of him. I thought of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer dominates a youth karate class.
I knew this demonstration would end badly for me. But with an advantage of over a foot and a half and more than a hundred pounds, I couldn’t imagine how.
All of a sudden I felt a tiny foot digging into my hip, a leg wrapping around my head like a snake, and a flat board—which I later learned was Noah’s flexing stomach—pressing against my right elbow, bending it so awkwardly that it began to give. Frantically, I tapped the carpet. The family erupted into laughter and cheers.
I slowly picked myself off the floor. “What just happened?” I said.
“It was with the legs!” his grandfather cried.
“I can do it quicker in a match,” Noah said.
Sheldon concurred. “That would happen in, like, one-tenth of a second,” he said.
We relaxed on the couch, and I asked Noah about his chances on Sunday. “I’m feeling confident,” he said, “’Cuz one guy in that division—his name is Mateo. He’s been trying to beat me for a couple years or something. I think he went to a new club and it has a lot of good training. He fought me twice after that, and the last time I submitted him in, like, 10 seconds.”
I stayed until past midnight. (Noah had run out of steam well before then and had been unsuccessfully lobbying his parents to go home.) His grandfather was still going strong, however. He led Noah and me into the basement to show us an old rotary phone. Noah said he’d already seen it, but the old man insisted, and looked on with delight as Noah gave it a whirl.
Before everyone left, I thanked Noah’s grandparents and said, “Your home is so lovely.”
“We are blessed,” his grandmother said. “Because we have an open house, an open heart, and everybody is welcome.”
Everyone exchanged Shabbat Shaloms. The grandparents planted kisses on Noah. And everyone wished him luck for the big tournament on Sunday.
Mateo Valles, who is Noah’s age, is slight with black hair. He’s artistic and enjoys performance art and break dancing, said his father, Edgardo, who’s from the Philippines. He’s also cerebral, with a talent for math and science. He’s the youngest of four children.
In his many matches against Noah, Mateo has never won. That includes the 2012 and 2013 provincials, in which Mateo took silver to Noah’s gold. Whenever Mateo enters a tournament in which Noah doesn’t compete, Mateo usually prevails. But when facing Noah, he is typically placed in an armbar seconds into the fight and submitted. This used to make Mateo cry in frustration, but eventually he came to accept it. Often, he thought about quitting.
Not long ago, Mateo’s dad took him to the Mamute Mixed Martial Arts Academy, one of the Toronto area’s top MMA schools.
“We have to beat this kid one day,” Edgardo told the instructor, Professor Igor.
Under Igor’s direction, Mateo’s first few matches against Noah ended badly. But rather than give up, Mateo upped his training to six times a week. Slowly, his confidence grew.
Then, in October, Mateo’s parents had a baby girl—Mateo’s first younger sibling. At two days old, the infant died. Mateo left the gym. Described by his father as “an emotional kid,” Mateo was deeply affected. But the tragedy brought the family closer together. Mateo returned to the mat in time for the provincial championship.
The tournament was held in Barrie, a city of forests and bluffs about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. It was midmorning on Sunday when I arrived at the site, a high-school gymnasium. It was a loud and chaotic scene. Covering the center of the gym was an enormous mat divided into six fighting areas. Each had a referee and table with a scoreboard. Children were locked in ground combat—limbs twisting, squirming, and contorting; hands grabbing, faces grimacing. Coaches sat on chairs beside each table, shouting instructions at their fighters like “Take his back!” and “Hold the position!”
There were both boys and girls divisions, and ages ranged from 5 to 15. (The adult tournament had taken place the previous day.) The coaches and refs were bulky men with tattoos, as were the medics, who stood alert nearby and ventured onto the mat with toolkits and concerned looks whenever they saw a fighter crying. (Which occurred often, especially when a child had just lost or was about to lose.)
Separating the mats from the crowd were police-style barricades. Parents leaned over them with cameras and iPads, whistling and hollering. The rest of the gym was full of goateed, barrel-chested fathers a few decades past their physical primes. They were being followed around, hugged and climbed on by kimono-clad boys and girls; even the most brutish-looking dads reciprocated the affection.
Four fighters—Noah, Julian, Jordan, and Mateo—waited their turn for the 80-pound Gi Colour Belt championship. (There were two titles: the Gi, in which fighters wear kimonos, and the No-Gi). Mateo, dressed in a black kimono and yellow belt, was nervous. His father told him it was OK—that no matter what happened, he was proud of him.
Noah, meanwhile, was pacing nonstop. Wearing a blue kimono, orange belt, and red flip-flops, he shuffled in circles, strategizing and trying to soothe his nerves. He stopped next to his mother, who was standing against the barrier. Noah said something to her, and she rubbed his head. She pointed out to Noah a man wearing a T-shirt that said:
Win If You Can
Lose If You Must
But Never Quit
The four fighters were now called onto the mat. The referee was a hulking guy with a shaved head and cauliflower ears who looked like an assassin out of the Bourne movies. He wore all black.
Noah’s first fight was against Julian, a blue-eyed redhead wearing a red kimono. It wasn’t easy, but Noah won. Mateo defeated Jordan by submission. That meant that the next fight, Noah against Mateo, was likely for gold.
At the start, they stood facing each other. Mateo had a several-inch height advantage. The fight quickly went to the ground. Noah attempted some armbars, trying to end things early. But this time, Mateo was prepared. The two grappled for a while, neither able to manage a point. A murmur went through the crowd: This was a different Mateo.
Noah was in for a tough fight. But he wouldn’t be kept down for long. Lying on his back, he executed a sweep—inverting their positions and ending up on top—while locking Mateo in an armbar. The ref awarded Noah an advantage point for the armbar—which Mateo shook free from—but none for the sweep, which should’ve netted Noah two points.
Noah entered the final minute ahead by one advantage point and was still physically on top of Mateo. But Mateo’s legs were blocking Noah—a superior position known as the guard—giving Mateo multiple attack options.
Noah, not content with a slim lead and determined to force Mateo to submit, wanted to pass Mateo’s guard and re-establish a dominant position. Urged on by Gringo (who’d become increasingly animated as the fight progressed), he tried to move past Mateo’s legs. Thirty seconds remained. Professor Igor became desperate. “Mateo, now hand over his head! Up over!” Igor begged. “Do the sweep! Mateo, do the sweep up over the arm!”
The ref was mostly blocking my view, but I could see legs kicking and then the crowd roared.
“Beautiful, Mateo!” Igor screamed. Mateo was on top of Noah. The ref held up two fingers towards Mateo’s side.
The clock ran out. The ref took Mateo’s hand and raised it in victory. Tears of joy cascaded down Mateo’s face.
Noah walked back to his side, looking stunned. Gringo pleaded Noah’s case to the referee, who simply shrugged and shook his head.
Soon after, Mateo clinched the gold medal and was mobbed.
“I feel like my goal has been accomplished—like forever!” Mateo said.
“What was the move that won it for you?” he was asked.
“Whatever it was, I thank God for it,” Mateo said.
Igor was also overcome with emotion. He described the moment as “the biggest accomplishment for me as a coach” and likened it to himself winning a world title.
Up in the stands, Noah sat beside his mother, his head on her shoulder.
But it wasn’t over for Noah. He also had a chance at the No-Gi title. “How will Noah respond?” I wondered. Suddenly, there was a deafening siren. People clasped their ears and filed out of the gym. Once everyone was outside, word spread that some kid had pulled the fire alarm. It began to rain. Noah and his parents drove off.
They’d gone out to get Noah a bagel. Once everyone re-entered the gym, Sheldon and I took a walk through the school’s hallways.
“Noah’s been losing a little bit of interest in the sport for quite a bit actually,” Sheldon told me. He said that Noah now prefers hockey, relegating jiu-jitsu to just twice a week.
“He had a run,” Sheldon said wistfully, as though Noah were about to retire. “He learned a sport, it kept him out of trouble.”
Sheldon expressed frustration and disappointment that the referee didn’t award Noah points that would’ve given him the win.
“I’m competitive myself—that’s the problem,” Sheldon acknowledged. “I don’t like to lose. My wife is fine—she doesn’t care. Win or lose. It’s just about playing the game and that’s OK. ‘Cuz it’s about participating and she’s right. She’s got it right.”
Noah returned to the mat in late afternoon. Mateo looked loose and confident, air drumming to rock music, flailing his fingers and hopping around. Noah was pacing. At one point, they crossed paths. Noah put his arm around Mateo in a half hug, a show of respect.
In his first match against Jordan, Noah seemed lighter on his feet and more explosive than earlier in the day. Jordan had no chance. Noah rapidly entrapped him in an armbar, and the referee stopped the fight. Mateo also won his first match easily.
Word of Noah’s earlier defeat having spread, a big crowd gathered for the Noah/Mateo rematch.
As the fight began, Noah had a focused, fiery expression. But Mateo was matching his intensity. They struggled on the ground, neither allowing the other to acquire an advantage.
“This is better than Pay Per View,” a parent said. Sheldon stood in the corner against the wall, looking nervous.
Finally, Noah took control. Gaining a few points here and there, he built a comfortable lead. In the final minute, he placed Mateo in an armbar. This time, Mateo couldn’t escape. The referee called the fight. Noah pumped his fist. The official raised Noah’s arm in triumph.
Later, Noah defeated Julian 13-2. The gold medal was his.
These days, Noah is busy preparing for his bar mitzvah, and is about to start eighth grade.
Since my trip to Toronto, Noah has gone undefeated, including wins over Mateo in the Ontario Open and the Ascension Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championship.
His ultimate goal is a black belt, although he’ll have to wait at least six years for that, since the minimum age is 19.
He’s started training in Muay Thai, another martial art. When he grows up, he wants to open his own MMA gym. He also wants to be a comedian.
Sheldon told me that losing to Mateo in the provincials stung Noah, but that it was a learning experience. He also believes it was destiny.
“He couldn’t go on forever beating the same kid,” Sheldon said. “If there’s anyone to lose to, that’s the kid that should’ve won. And there will be many others. Trust me. Many others.”
Louie Lazar is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and the Jerusalem Post.