Israel Goes To the Mat For Peace

By Aimee Berg

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.