In 2005, Haim Gozali became the first Israeli to compete in the Submission Wrestling World Championships, an event created in 1998 by Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates to determine which combat-sport athletes had the best grappling skills. It is held every two years and is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Combat Club.
In his debut, Gozali faced a tough draw in the over-99-kilogram division and lost in the first round to Ricco “Suave” Rodriguez, a former Ultimate Fighting champion from New York.
This year, when the tournament comes to the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., May 4-6, Gozali will compete in the under-87-kilogram division. Again, he will be the lone Israeli to join 79 men from various martial-arts backgrounds to compete in a series of 10-minute matches en route to a 20-minute final with hopes of claiming first-place prizes worth $10,000 (minimum) in each weight class.
In contrast to mixed martial arts, there is no striking (kicking, punching) in submission wrestling — just grappling. Unlike Olympic-style wrestling, choke holds are allowed. It also permits most of the chokes, arm locks and joint locks that are forbidden in judo.
“The sport has evolved greatly,” said tournament director Guy Neivens, “and now you have to cross-train in two or more [combat] sports to be good in submission wrestling.”
Like most athletes who excel at submission wrestling, Gozali is a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu (the discipline considered most similar to submission wrestling). He is also an Israeli champion in karate and vale-tudo (Portuguese for “anything goes”) fighting.
Gozali discovered submission wrestling in 1993, at age 19, when an acquaintance brought him a videotape of no-holds-barred fighting. Inspired, he moved from his home in Bat Yam, Israel, in 1995, to Brooklyn, where he lived with his maternal aunt while training in Manhattan with the world-renowned Renzo Gracie, whose grandfather created Brazilian jujitsu.
After two years, Gozali returned to Israel, where the sport still draws little attention and its obscurity creates difficulties for him as an athlete.
“For Haim to improve technically, he needs to train with people at least as good as him or better,” said Gozali’s conditioning coach, Israel Halperin. “We don’t have anyone who’s even close.”
With few sparring partners and no sponsors, Gozali considers himself to be self-taught and self-financed.
Gozali works five overnight shifts a week as a bouncer at three night clubs in Tel Aviv. He lives with his mother in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, along with his wife and 6-year-old son. Coach Gracie advises him on the phone, and when Gozali has a chance to come to the United States, Gracie doesn’t charge him for his time.
“He definitely has potential,” Gracie said. “And he’s improving. The first time I saw him, he was very quiet, but every time he came to train he pushed himself harder than anyone else. He needs to develop a strategy to score points. He needs time because of the lack of partners in Israel.”
Gozali says his dream is to fight in the octagon cage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the best-known forum for mixed martial arts in North America.
To reach that step, Gracie said, “He needs eight or nine months in the U.S. training with me and sparring with the greats. People do this full time here. He should be alongside these people.”
Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club is glad to have him compete at its premier event.
“ADCC is for all countries to participate, and I feel the sport can assist in bringing countries together,” Sheikh Tahnoon said in a statement conveyed through a spokesman.
Gozali agrees. As a former Israeli soldier, he was assigned to patrol old Jerusalem where tension between radical Arabs and Jews was palpable. “Through sport, I believe we can pave a way to co-existence where we notice one another as competitors and friends,” he said.
Aimee Berg is a Manhattan-based writer who often covers sports.