Ready to rumble

The yuppie crowd at the Tel Aviv port is all smiles and chitchat, downing cocktails and dancing in the rundown piers turned trendy entertainment district. They have no clue.

It’s a comfortable late October evening, blessed with a light sea breeze that lures couples in station wagons down to the shore. A handful of tourists listen attentively to their guide as he issues safety instructions for their Segway stroll around the compound, whose industrial warehouses have been
converted into art studios and cafes.

Striding past the genteel visitors are packs of muscular young men in tight T-shirts, moving quickly and purposely toward Hangar 11. That’s the building throbbing with the thunderous drone of angry music. The one where someone, rest assured, is going to end up bloodied.

It is here that Israel’s biggest mixed martial arts
event to date will take place. The fight night, the
fifth in the budding Desert Combat series that
originated in Beersheba, is about more than just 14
men squaring off in seven no-nonsense fights. It is
about a sport that is breaking box office records
around the world as it breaks stereotypes about its
brutality, and whether that sport can flourish – or
even survive – here.

The first thing that stands out about Desert Combat 5
is its audience. About 90 percent are men, many of
them martial arts or fighting sport practitioners.
It’s a sure bet that the crowd is in better shape than
the fans of soccer, the country’s most popular sport.

For all the testosterone flowing through Hangar 11,
though, it’s a friendly crowd – much less
confrontational, for example, than the rowdy young men
who are guaranteed to show up at major sporting events
in America’s top leagues. There, fans of rival teams
can easily goad each other into fistfights. Here,
though, there is seemingly no animosity outside the
ring. Guys who know each other from the mixed martial
arts (MMA) scene are greeting each other with big
smiles and hugs, not challenging each other like the
scripted feuds of professional wrestling.

Make no mistake, though, everyone has come to see lots
of fighting, so when the lights dim and the Rocky
theme comes blaring through the speakers, they howl
because they know they’re about to get it.

Alon Pdut, tonight’s ring announcer/master of
ceremonies, gives the crowd a dramatic welcome, and a
rousing introduction for the fighters of the first
match of the evening. It’s a 68-kilogram matchup
between Nathan Ovadia and 17-year-old Vitali Ivanov, a
squat, solidly built up-and-comer with a 3-0 record.

As each one approaches the ring, the doctor ensures he
has his mouth guard and protective cup in place, then
smears some Vaseline over his eyebrows to reduce the
risk of cuts. In their respective corners, each one
loosens up (and lets off some nervous energy) by
hopping up and down and shaking his arms.

Playing the part of ring girl is a tall, skinny blonde
from the former Soviet Union who struts around the
ring in what amounts to little more than a glorified
rubber band, holding up a big card with the number one
on it in case anyone didn’t know which round it was.

After a meeting in the center of the ring to receive
referee Emmanuel Cohen’s instructions – a rundown of
which blows are illegal and a reminder to defend
themselves at all times – the fighters face off and,
with the sound of the opening bell, rush toward each
other.

So far, this is all the same as the standard boxing
event. But when Ivanov storms in and is met by
Ovadia’s attempt at a guillotine choke, the
differences become apparent.

MMA IS, AS its name suggests, a combination of
fighting styles and rules. Not only are punches and
kicks allowed, but takedowns and submission holds are
as well. Originally meant to answer the question of
which fighting system was most effective, these fights
have encouraged competitors to look beyond one
particular style of fighting and develop a
well-rounded skill set mixing striking arts (such as
boxing or Muay Thai) with grappling techniques (such
as judo, Brazilian jiu-jutsu, shootfighting or sambo).
Smaller, lighter gloves mean punches have a greater
impact, and shorter bouts with penalties for inaction
make for quick, intense matches.

Plainly said, the formula works. When the action
between Ovadia and Ivanov slows, the referee orders
the two to stand up and face off again from the center
of the ring. Suddenly, during a furious exchange of
punches, Ovadia lands a haymaker, and the young Ivanov
crumples to the mat as if his legs were made of crepe
paper. Just like that, the fight is over. Ivanov is
out, his trainers rushing in to attend to him.

Ovadia, an underdog despite his advanced martial arts
training and experience as an IDF hand-to-hand combat
instructor, is ecstatic over his decisive upset
victory. He jumps into the arms of his coach – and
then, just as quickly, turns back to check on his
defeated opponent, helping Ivanov regain his
composure.

In the mid-1990s, the early days of MMA in North
America, the sport was only loosely regulated, making
it a more vicious, everything-goes gladiatorial
spectacle. Since then it has undergone refinements
meant to enhance the sporting aspects and limit the
street-fighting aspects of matches, gaining more and
more mainstream acceptance along the way.

The end of the Ovadia-Ivanov fight, then, presents the
two images that MMA fans and promoters say define the
sport today: stunning action and mutual respect and
concern among the fighters that are unmatched by the
mainstream boxing world.

The second fight, pitting Dave Markelson against the
much older Tzahi Halifax, shows what happens when a
fighter fails to bring a broad enough skill set into
the ring.

Markelson is tall and lanky, Halifax short and stocky.
At first glance, it seems natural for Markelson to
attempt to use his reach advantage to keep Halifax at
bay. Right away, though, Markelson ‘shoots’ toward his
shorter opponent, attempting to upend Halifax and slam
him to the mat. Halifax counters easily, stymieing
Markelson with a sprawl and then a clinch. He moves
from there to a jump guard that turns immediately into
a guillotine choke hold that puts tremendous pressure
on Markelson’s neck. After some 20 seconds during
which it appears Markelson will have to ‘tap out’ and
surrender, he somehow manages to escape the choke and
survive the round.

Round two follows the same pattern, Markelson again
shooting for Halifax’s knees and Halifax responding
with a guillotine choke. Again Markelson withstands
the pressure and wiggles free. Loose choke holds are
usually to blame in this situation, but Halifax’s are
tight and, judging from Markelson’s grimaces, painful.
How many guillotines can one neck take?

The answer comes quickly. After Cohen stands the two
in the center of the ring following a lengthy
stalemate on the ground, Halifax lands a hard right
that wobbles Markelson. Halifax jumps on his opponent
and gains the advantage of a full mount position, from
which he tries yet another guillotine choke. The third
time’s the charm, as Markelson finally submits with a
tap on Halifax’s shoulder.

Looking at this matchup before the fight, the outcome
seems almost a mistake. Didn’t Markelson realize he
had a huge reach advantage? Didn’t he know he was
allowed to punch and kick?

‘He doesn’t know how to strike, all he knows right now
is Brazilian jiu-jutsu,’ explains the ring doctor.
‘That’s what’s so great about MMA. If all you know how
to do is to strike, or if you only know how to
grapple, you’ve got no chance.’

Speaking of no chance, that’s what Venus Kamal has in
the third fight of the evening. Roby Mund, who started
producing the Desert Combat events not long after
making aliya from Romania nine years ago, is making
his debut in his own league against Kamal, who, truth
be told, looks like he doesn’t belong anywhere near
the ring.

The action in the 78-kg. bout begins with a whip-like
kick from Mund that lands with an audible snap on
Kamal’s left thigh. Kamal tries to overwhelm Mund with
a flurry of sloppy, slapping punches to the head, none
of which makes any significant distance past the hands
of Mund. The promoter-turned-fighter proceeds to slam
Kamal to the mat and rain down a series of blows on
his head. Referee Cohen, mercifully, stops the fight
before any real damage is done.

For Mund, it’s the second success of the evening. With
some 1,600 people in attendance (some paying as much
as NIS 150 for a seat), he has already seen Desert
Combat’s attendance grow by several hundred since the
previous event, in June. Mund hopes some of those
numbers will grow, thanks in part to the more than
20,000 who already pay the NIS 4.90 monthly
subscription fee to watch Israeli, American and
British MMA fights on Ego Total, the all-fight cable
TV channel.

WITH THE NEXT fight at Hangar 11, the audience gets
its first taste of the four quality overseas fighters
brought in for the event. Mamour Fall of Paris is
making his MMA debut, and with a major advantage over
the more experienced Israeli Oren Levin in height and
reach. It’s an impressive premier.

Early in the first round, Levin tries a jump guard,
but he’s too slow and he’s leaning too far back. Fall
punishes him with a big right hand to the mouth. Then
he starts to walk away as if to let Levin return to
his feet. It’s just a ruse, however; Fall spins back
at Levin, who is caught by surprise, and absorbs
several blows to the face. Fall’s expression reads
‘fresh as a daisy,’ while Levin’s says, ‘What the hell
am I supposed to do?’ In the second round, the Israeli
is really in bad shape. His thighs are bright red from
the kicks Fall has delivered while Levin was lying on
the mat. Blood, loosed from his lip by a rapid-fire
connection of Fall’s punches, is dripping freely onto
his chest. Another flying knee sends Levin back into
the ropes, and it’s a wonder he’s even standing.

But Levin refuses to go down. The crowd, amazed by his
courage if not by his skill, chants Levin’s name. It
has an effect, too – not enough to save Levin from the
Frenchman’s continuing onslaught of fists and knees to
his head and body, but enough to keep him on his feet
until the final bell, in an act of undeniable mercy,
rings out.

There are still three fights left. Like diners making
their way through a meal, the crowd is eager for the
next course. On the menu: Roy Pariente vs. Traian
Carciuc of Romania in a battle of 85-kg. fighters.

Roy, 24, is following in the MMA footsteps of his
brother Ido. Together, the two are pretty much the
biggest names in Israel’s young MMA scene. The younger
and bigger of the two brothers, Roy may have an even
brighter future in the sport. As if to prove this, the
prospect from Kfar Saba who boasts a record of 13
wins, with only one loss and a draw, overwhelms the
powerfully-built Romanian in little over a minute.

Working his way into full mount, Pariente unleashes a
‘ground and pound’ – pummeling the foreigner with a
series of fists to the face that makes him tap out.
Pariente celebrates his victory by jumping into his
brother’s arms at ringsideÉ and then turning around
and high-fiving Carciuc with both hands. (Ever see
that at a boxing match?!)

The atmosphere goes from invigorating to infuriating
with the next match, which pits veteran Israeli
fighter Moshe Kaitz against Johnny ‘Pocket Tyson’
Frachey of France.

That the two couldn’t be more dissimilar is apparent
immediately. The compact, thickly muscled Frachey
makes a lively and playful entrance into the ring,
while Kaitz, tall and thin, makes his way there slowly
and solemnly. At the sound of the first bell, Frachey
charges aggressively, while Kaitz is tentative and
retreating. Even his strikes seem more desperate than
determined, whereas ‘Pocket Tyson’ looks like he’s on
the hunt.

At every opportunity, Kaitz tries to take the fight to
the ground rather than stand and trade punches. It’s a
strategy he has tried before, with only limited
success.

Frachey, who took the fight on four days’ notice and
is unfamiliar with Kaitz’s style, seems content to
slam his opponent to the mat over and over. Kaitz’s
ground skills are good enough to neutralize Frachey
for much of the fight, but not good enough to score a
submission. So the action slows to a painfully dull
pace, and audience members plead with the referee over
and over to stand them up.

(During this less-than-riveting action, a member of
the Pariente support team trots over to the ring
doctor to ask him to look at Roy’s hand. Pariente
broke it, he says, during his fight, and the bone is
sticking out of the skin. ‘Apparently,’ the doctor
says upon returning from wrapping up the hand, ‘that
Romanian has a very tough forehead.’ Roy refuses
emergency room treatment, however, until the
conclusion of his brother’s bout at the end of the
evening.)

In the third round, Kaitz lands a punch to Frachey’s
face and then, inexplicably, lies down on the mat.
Although he is hoping that the Frenchman will follow
him down and make a mistake that will lead to a
submission, the audience is hoping for some ‘real’
action. As Kaitz begins to absorb numerous punches to
his ribs, the crowd actually cheers and starts rooting
for ‘Pocket Tyson.’ He may be a French guy beating on
one of their own, but at least he’s eager to swing his
fists.

The judges award Frachey the fight, unanimously
scoring all three rounds in the Frenchman’s favor.
Afterward, he thanks the crowd for cheering on a
foreign fighter and bids them farewell with a loud
‘toda.’

NOW, WITH just one fight left on the card, the crowd
is eager to see a rocking brawl. Fortunately, Mund has
saved the best for last.

For his opponent just like the audience, Romanian Gica
Apostu is an enigma. No one really knows anything
about him. But the moment Apostu steps into the ring,
he puts his perfect 8-0 record on the line.
Apparently, the Desert Combat 73-kg. championship belt
is worth the risk. His introduction and walk to the
ring is reserved, focused: all business, without the
marketing.

Ido Pariente’s entrance, meanwhile, is a show-stopper.
When his introductory song starts blaring, ‘The Hebrew
Hammer’ doesn’t enter the hall so much as explode into
it, teeth clenched and fists flying, with a murderous
gaze in his eyes. The crowd eats up every second of
it. Here, finally, is a guy who knows how to tap into
his rage.

To be certain, Pariente is full of motivation for this
match. Fighting on the same card with his brother for
the first time, defending his title against an
undefeated challenger, the pressure of meeting his
home crowd’s expectations and coming off a stinging
loss in Los Angeles are all fueling Ido’s competitive
fire.

He steps to the center of the ring for a classic,
snarling staredown with Apostu, the two men’s faces
pressed against each other with eyes fixed piercingly
ahead in an attempt to intimidate each other. The
crowd, already on its feet, lets out a ‘whoooooooop!’
in anticipation of all-out war.

At the opening bell, Pariente storms forward to meet
his opponent like a man possessed, but a strong right
from Apostu slows his charge. Two more hard rights
that land with a thud drop Pariente on his behind. Now
he knows at least this much about the Romanian: The
dude packs a punch.

Out of necessity, Pariente turns to his Brazilian jiu-
jutsu skills, putting Apostu in an ankle lock. The
foreigner rolls over and over to relieve the pressure
on his ankle, and before long Cohen stands the pair up
again. Pariente drives his knee into Apostu’s stomach
and slams him onto the mat, sending the crowd onto its
feet.

This match is being fought at a much higher level, and
the audience knows it. This is the kind of fight worth
paying for; this is the kind of fight that could help
the sport grow. Now, no one expects Desert Combat to
rival Las Vegas-based UFC, which is bringing in
hundreds of millions of dollars. But if Israeli MMA is
to take off – if it’s going to attract more fans,
including some of the trendy sushi eaters out in the
port – it’s going to need exciting fights from skilled
artists. And it’s going to need a homegrown hero.

In the ring, Ido Pariente is doing his best to provide
both. Slipping behind Apostu, he thrusts his arms
around the Romanian’s neck in a choke attempt. When
Apostu rolls from his stomach to his back, Pariente
maneuvers into full mount. Apostu deftly grabs
Pariente’s head and pulls him close, making it
difficult for the Israeli to maneuver, and the sound
of the bell ends the threat.

In the second round, Pariente takes Apostu down and
softens him up with some punches and knee strikes from
the side mount position. When he spins again into full
mount, half the people in the crowd are standing on
their chairs. ‘Come on, Ido!’ they yell. ‘You’ve got
him now, Ido! Treat him to some punches!’

A few Romanian immigrants in attendance try to
distract Apostu with some choice words in his own
language, but the fighter is steadfast and focused,
showing a ground defense formidable enough to
frustrate Pariente. Again, though, the Israeli manages
to move into full mount… and again, the bell
prevents him from exploiting the advantage.

As the third and final round begins, the fight can
still go either way. Pariente’s wrestling has slowed
the Romanian, whose right fist has been making
Pariente regret keeping his left hand too low in
defense. Another mistake like that could decide the
match.

In standard local-boy-makes-good fashion, though,
Pariente swoops in for a double-leg takedown and
quickly moves into his third full mount of the match.
He goes to work on Apostu, punching his ribs to get
him to drop his hands away from his face so that
Pariente can drop a few punches in there, too. Apostu
has no choice but to roll onto his stomach, a
dangerous move that allows Pariente the opportunity
for a choke.

The Romanian, desperate to survive the encounter,
thrashes furiously. But Pariente maneuvers masterfully
and quickly locks his opponent in a devastating choke.
With everyone in the house on their feet and cheering
the impending submission, Apostu taps out.

Pariente runs to the opposite side of the ring, climbs
to the top rope and salutes the crowd that is
screaming his name. The furious glare that Pariente
has worn all night melts into a wide-open smile as his
coach and training partners carry him around the ring
on their shoulders, and his championship belt is
returned to his waist – where it will sit, at least
until March, when Desert Combat returns.

(BOX #1) Glossary

Brazilian jiu-jutsu – the common term for a style of
grappling, developed by the Gracie family from Brazil,
which stresses mastery of submission techniques as the
best way for a smaller fighter to defeat a larger,
stronger opponent.

Clinch – when both fighters clutch at each other in
the stand-up position, almost like a hug. The clinch,
which is meant to prevent an opponent from striking,
usually leads to a takedown.

Flying knee – a leaping strike, leading with the knee.
Ground and pound – wearing down an opponent with a
series of blows to the head and torso, usually from
the full mount position.

Guard – a defensive position on the ground. In ‘full
guard,’ the fighter on his back neutralizes his
opponent by keeping the other fighter’s torso locked
between his legs. ‘Half guard’ only secures one of the
opponent’s legs.

Guillotine – a choke hold from a headlock, usually
applied from a standing position, when the fighters
are facing each other.

Jump guard – a takedown performed from the clinch,
where one fighter jumps up and wraps his legs around
his opponent, pulling at the torso downward and
drawing the opponent to the ground. Usually employed
to counter an opponent’s superior stand-up abilities
and attempt a submission hold.

Mount – an advantageous position in ground fighting.
In side mount, the fighter controlling the situation
is perpendicular to his opponent, usually leading to
strikes to the midsection. In full mount, the fighter
on top is positioned on his opponent’s torso, making
it almost impossible for the defender to deflect
punches to his face. From the rear mount, a fighter
will usually seek a choke.

Shoot – a dive toward an opponent’s legs or waist, in
an attempt to knock him down.

Sprawl – a defense against the shoot in which the legs
are splayed wide to maintain balance and leverage.

Strike – any kind of punch or kick, with the fists,
elbows, knees or feet; usually delivered from a
standing position, but also often an important part of
ground fighting.

Submission hold – any of a series of joint locks or
chokes that force an opponent to ‘tap out,’ i.e.
submit, or risk injury.

Takedown – toppling one’s opponent to the ground. A
double-leg takedown involves wrapping one’s arms
around the opponent’s legs and sweeping them out from
under him; a single-leg takedown accomplishes this
through the control of either leg.

Tap out – tapping either the mat or one’s opponent to
signal submission, ending the fight.

(BOX #2) ‘I’m not a psychopath’

Haim Gozali looks like the kind of guy you want to
avoid. His thick arms are covered in tattoos of ninjas
and dragons. His expression is almost contemptuous,
it’s so aggressive. His legs shake with a nervous
energy, as if sitting in front of his apartment were
not relaxing but torturous. What he’d rather be doing,
his whole body seems to scream, is hitting somebody.

This is what most people expect from a mixed martial
artist. They expect the kind of guy who served in the
Border Police, a guy who competes in karate, Muay
Thai, submission wrestling and vale tudo (‘everything
goes’) tournaments. A guy who worked as a bouncer to
pay for his training. A guy who stays home in worn
down Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, without work thanks
to lingering effects of a stabbing. Gozali, after all,
is all these things.

What most people don’t expect from MMA fighters is a
gracious host, a soft-spoken and patient father who
reminds his seven-year-old son to dress nicely, be
respectful of guests and play quietly, so as not to
disturb the neighbors. The kind of guy who trains
young fighters for free. A guy with nothing to prove
out on the street because he’s already proved it in
the ring. Gozali is all these as well.

Even more of a shock to the stereotype is Kfir Eitan,
the 25-year-old heavyweight champion of Israel’s
Desert Combat league who is benefiting from Gozali’s
tutelage. Eitan, 10 years younger than Gozali, sports
no tattoos. He has no goatee. He has no menacing
physique. What he does have, is a degree from the
Technion and a good job in the hi-tech industry.

‘I’m not a psychopath,’ says Eitan, rejecting the
image that too many Israelis he’s encountered still
have of fighters. ‘I just happen to be involved in a
sport that’s a little violent.’

To be fair, ‘a little violent’ is an understatement.
MMA is not for anyone who isn’t comfortable with the
possibility that a fight could mean a trip to the
hospital – even for the winner. But even with all the
punching and kicking going on inside the ring, the
sport sees fewer injuries than ‘soft’ pastimes such as
soccer and skiing. Most importantly, no fighter has
died or suffered lasting brain damage – unlike boxing.
Sure, Eitan admits, ‘it takes balls to get into this.’
But it takes brains, too. ‘MMA is like an endless
puzzleÉ They call it the chess of the fighting world
for a reason.’

As a sport, MMA is many times more complicated than
boxing. A fighter has to be prepared to defend himself
not only from punches, but from kicks, takedown
attempts and a seemingly endless array of painful
joint locks and dangerous choke holds as well.

Ask just about any MMA fighter today and he’ll point
to the first tournament of the Ultimate Fighting
Championship in 1993 as the experience that forever
changed the way they conceived of fighting. For the
first time, with almost no rules and no time limits,
practitioners of karate faced wrestlers. Judokas faced
boxers. Grapplers faced kickboxers. And everyone faced
the startling realization that what they were doing
was not good enough.

Watching 80-kg. Royce Gracie, member of a family of
fighters who developed what is now commonly referred
to as Brazilian jiu-jutsu, dismantle opponents almost
twice his size with a mix of strikes and complex
submission holds opened the eyes of thousands of
fighters. Today, anyone who hopes for any success in
MMA bouts has to come prepared with a well-rounded set
of skills that includes all these things.

David Binyamin, a 39-year-old MMA fighter and coach
who trains some of the country’s most accomplished
fighters, recalls the first UFC tournament as a
watershed moment. That was the day that Binyamin, a
fourth dan in karate and member of the national team
in that art, decided to be ‘a student of reality
rather than a master of illusion.’

‘I said to myself, karate is very tough, and very
aggressive, but here’s a guy [Gracie] who tears up
karate- style strikers. From that moment on,’ Binyamin
says, ‘I began unceasing studies, even traveling
overseas for private classes. I was like a vacuum. I
tried to learn in every way possible.’

At first, says Binyamin, people didn’t want to hear
about mixed martial arts. When he switched over to the
method, half the students in his karate class left.

‘They didn’t understand what you could do with these
techniques,’ he says. ‘In time, though, came more and
more awareness as, in more and more competitions,
karate and kung fu guys ended up on their backs,
submitted.’

On one hand, MMA is meant to be rougher and tougher
than boxing. But the ability to defeat an opponent by
submission means that, in theory, an MMA fight can be
won without even throwing a punch.

‘In my last fight,’ says Binyamin, ‘my opponent was 15
kilos heavier than me, but not as skilled. I decided
to fight a ‘peace fight’ – I would win, I decided,
without throwing a punch. I said to myself, I’ll
submit him, then help him up and be friends with him.
And that’s what happened. Afterward, his coaches
thanked me for not busting up his face, though I could
have.’

In Israel, fighters have until now made very little
money from their fights. Binyamin, who works as a high
school literature teacher in addition to his martial
arts classes, says he puts in endless hours of running
and training just because he loves getting into the
ring. Sometimes, he says, he goes from school to
training his fighters, getting home only after
midnight.

‘It’s not a regular life, that’s for sure,’ says
Binyamin, who has shown up to his literature class
with a black eye on more than one occasion.

Ido Pariente, one of the brightest stars in Israeli
MMA, has struggled to make his way in the sport. He
takes as many fights as he can overseas, where purses
are higher than they are here and where exposure at
one event can lead to an invitation to another.

‘Every fight I get to do abroad is half conniving,
half begging,’ Pariente says in Tel Aviv ahead of the
Desert Combat 5 event. ‘It’s a way of developing the
sport here, too. The younger fighters who are coming
up now and starting to get their chance, I opened the
door for them.’

Pariente, 30, pays the bills by training some 70-80
students, overseeing a handful of clubs. Like the rest
of the local mixed martial artists, he knows that if
big money comes at all, it will come to the next
generation of fighters.

For now, most fighters seem content enough with the
thrill of the fight. What they are all truly aching
for, though, is a breakthrough.

As Gozali explains, with his Star of David tattoo
rippling as he flexes his forearm, ‘I don’t even want
money. I want coverage of our sport. How much soccer
can people watch, anyway?’

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