While not nearly as popular as basketball, soccer, tennis or most other sports in Israel, mixed martial arts continues to grow in popularity.
What do U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli fighter Haim Gozali have in common?
Both have experienced MMA (mixed martial arts) at New York City’s legendary Madison Square Garden. While Trump enjoyed the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) event on a recent Saturday night (Nov. 2) from the spectator side of the octagon (ring), Gozali has twice fought in it. The 47-year-old and his son, Aviv, 18, are mixed martial-arts fighters and will be fighting on the same MMA card on Nov. 14 as part of Bellator 234 at Tel Aviv’s Menora Mivtachim Arena.
While not nearly as popular as basketball, soccer, tennis or most other sports in Israel, mixed martial arts continues to grow in popularity. In a phone interview with JNS from his home in Bat Yam, Israel, Haim Gozali observes, “In 2016, no one in Israel knew about MMA. Now, young fighters have a future.”
Gozali notes the steady rise in attendance at MMA fights in Israel. “The first year, 6,000 people came, then 7,000 the next year, then 9,000.” He proudly reports, “Now, when I walk on the streets, people know me and want to take a selfie!”
After three sellouts in Israel, Bellator MMA, which hosts events around the world in such locations as England, Japan, Ireland, Italy, and Hawaii, California and Connecticut in the United States, returns to Tel Aviv for matches that will feature the heavyweight main event between hard-hitting Sergei Kharitonov and former No. 1 contender Linton Vassell. The evening will also feature lightweights Roger Huerta vs. Sidney Outlaw, and Austin “The Gentleman” Vanderford vs. Grachik Bozinyan. Haim, a former Border Police officer, and Aviv will also fight that night.
‘I grew up in this world of MMA’
Haim Gozali has been fighting professionally since 1998. He got his start at an early age.
“When I was a kid, I watched ninja movies and wanted to BE a ninja,” he relates. He started taking karate lessons and saw his first UFC fight in his 20s. “I have to do that!” he recalled and began training with Renzo Gracie in the United States in 1995. Gozali, a welterweight with an 11-6 record (10 submissions, 1 knockout), became a fourth-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt under Gracie. Gozali stands 5-feet-and-11-inches tall, weighs 170 pounds and is nicknamed “Batman” because of his collection of Batman comics, paraphernalia and tattoos.
He and Aviv train at the Body Shop in Los Angeles and also in Israel. Haim reports that his son started learning at the age of 3. Aviv began to show interest in the sport when he saw people come to train in the home gym with his father. “I put him in judo at age 3, and he started fighting at age 5.”
Aviv acknowledges the memory, adding, “I basically grew up in this world of MMA.”
Aviv (nicknamed “The King”), a lightweight at 6 feet and 155 pounds, made his MMA debut in November 2018 and has a 3-0 record. Each of his first three victories has come by way of first-round submission. He most recently defeated Eduard (“The Hunter”) Muravitskiy in August just 11 seconds into the fight; the submission is the fastest in Bellator MMA history.
Haim enjoys fighting and playfully notes, “I will do it until they tell me they have to bury me!” He says he is proud to represent Israel, saying, “I go with the Israeli flag everywhere.”
He has been warmly welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was the first Israeli to fight in Madison Square Garden. “All the legends—[Muhammad] Ali, [Mike] Tyson, [Rocky] Marciano and me, Haim from Bat Yam, got to fight there.”
He considers this an important part of his legacy. In addition to fighting, Haim also works for Bellator, where he scouts out and signs new fighters, as well as produces matches in Israel. He also heads the Renzo Gracie Israel Academy in Bat Yam.
Haim says he feels fortunate to be able to spend so much time with his son. “We mostly live together. And it is nice when a father and son do and love the same thing.”
Aviv agrees, saying, “To train with my father, it’s the best feeling in the world. To learn from him and to laugh with him during training gives me a lot of confidence and a lot of small things to improve that no one can see.”
He adds that he’s excited to fight on the same card as his father—and confident, too. “I fought with my father in the same card last year, but this time, both of us are going to win! He’s 47, and this is his last fight now, so I’m continuing the legacy.”