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 ringsideâ€¦ 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.
'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 puzzleâ€¦ 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?"
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.