The white gloves fly, delivering a hard blow to his opponent's head. Spinning at breakneck speed, the lithe figure in flame-decorated trunks kicks hard, thrusting a foot into the bigger man's shoulder blade. But in 12 hours, Uriel Ben-Hamo, reigning Israeli kick-boxing champion, will be in a completely different setting: Jerusalem's Magid Mesharim Yeshiva, studying with his hevruta partner, Shai.
Later on in the day, he'll join his brother Hovav to study the laws of becoming a scribe (sofer stam). The hand that slams into an opponent in the ring tonight learns how to delicately form the letters of holy scrolls tomorrow.
And oh yes: Ben-Hamo - who looks like a slip of a thing until he hits the practice mat at the Team Cogan gym in Malha and starts kicking up a storm - has a dream: "to stand with the championship belt around my waist" when the international Thai boxing championships are held in Bangkok on November 27. For now, however, it remains a dream, as Israel's champion and Team Cogan seek a sponsor to help defray costs for participation in the event.
THE SPIN kicks and fist thrusts are all in a night's practice for Uriel, who doffs his tzitzit and sweatshirt for training gear - tonight just gloves and shin guards, but sometimes protective headgear as well. Bare-chested after removing a T-shirt plastered in Thai, the 58-kg. whirling dervish of devastation sometimes shows up in black hat and suit, arriving from yeshiva aboard his Yusong 125-cc. motorcycle, which he insists also helps him "let go" a little.
Because even as a little kid, Uriel was a handful, his father Haim explains in a phone interview. "As a child, I had plenty of difficulties with his teachers... he didn't like to sit and study, he was a little hyperactive." Tonight, with thrusting, calculated, violent kicks, the 18-year-old is ready to beat the daylights out of his opponents. But it was his father's conversation with a group of rabbis that set him on the path of mixing learning and leg thrusts.
"I asked my father about getting involved in martial arts," Ben-Hamo, wrapping his hands with tape before inserting them into the gloves to avoid injury, says. "At first he tried to ignore me, because it's not something that's so acceptable in the haredi world. But after he consulted with rabbis, he said I could sign up, because they told him that I needed to let off some steam."
"I saw that his head wasn't really only in his studies," says his father. "He was attracted to sports, but as a haredi person, I feared it would take him out of the yeshiva framework... When I saw that he was really insistent, I didn't want to go against his desires, so I consulted some rabbis about what to do. I brought up his continuing to study while also finding an outlet for his soul and his wishes. They told me there was no problem. I came back to Uriel and told him I didn't have any problem signing him up for a sports class on the condition that it did not interfere with his other studies, and he promised me that it wouldn't.
"I didn't even know what sport he was getting involved with... I just sent him to a class, and after two years, he came back Israeli champion," his father says with a laugh.
BLAME IT all on Bruce Lee if you like, someone you wouldn't have thought the young Ben-Hamo would've discovered growing up in a typical Shas-oriented haredi family in Jerusalem, with whom he still lives, one of nine children.
Ben-Hamo remembers his first encounter with a Bruce Lee film that he watched with a friend on computer as if it were only yesterday. "As kids we loved Bruce Lee... it was electrifying... he would drop somebody with every blow, it was deadly, fast... I enjoyed him."
Besides, "I always saw myself as an actor, which I really want to be, with God's help - a superstar, famous, the world champion, from a very young age," he says, recounting how at 10 or 11 he'd go "out into the woods near my house and do sit-ups and push-ups."
Then one day he saw a sign in Katamon advertising: "Martial arts, Bruce Lee-style." With his father's blessing now, off he went, collecting Bruce Lee T-shirts and spending two years with Boaz Bar learning martial arts before deciding at 16 that "I wanted to go into ring fighting... In martial arts, there are no bouts, while in ring fighting, you can advance," he explains. "Beny Cogan is known for his work in Thai boxing... I went to talk to him and he saw how much I really wanted to do this, and he said: 'Let's move him up the ladder.' So he started having me take part in bouts."
"He wiped out all the boxers in his category over the past two years," says trainer Cogan, who runs Team Cogan, the Malha academy where Ben-Hamo works out, of his protÃ©gÃ©'s performance in Israeli kick-boxing and Thai boxing. Thai boxing is somewhat similar but has its own rules. There's an obviously close relationship between the two, and Cogan is fully aware of the potential his haredi protÃ©gÃ© has, but also of the polish he must acquire to succeed on the international stage.
"He's very devoted and dedicated, he gives everything of his energy. And not everybody's like this," says Cogan. "He developed very fast - usually it takes somebody else about seven years to get where he's gotten. He's very gifted. He has a lot of patience and can concentrate for a long time - like a yeshiva boy who studies and studies. His devotion and dedication to the sport and training, combined with his physical gifts, allowed him to become Israeli champion very quickly."
Cogan's also not at all surprised Ben-Hamo comes from the yeshiva world, which he says only makes him a better boxer. "Yeshiva life gives you a lot of tools," says Cogan. "If you study in the yeshiva regularly, it gives you the ability to work harder and be very, very serious... think about everything, analyze, ask questions, learn better technique... It comes from that other world."
JEWS WERE fighters in the past, even gladiators under Roman rule. So Ben-Hamo doesn't find it at all strange to combine his two worlds. "Someone looking at it from outside might not be able to understand, but as someone actually doing it, there's no problem," he says, pausing a moment on the practice mat between sparring sessions before delivering a jolting knee to his opponent's side. Twisting, twirling, throwing jump kicks, he quickly vanquishes his foe.
"I get up every morning for yeshiva, study until about 2, then study laws of the scribe. Then I go home to eat and rest a bit and wait for the evening, so I can start training. Sometimes I train twice a day, immediately after yeshiva and then at night, sometimes quite late, but that's usually before a competition. It's become routine to me," he explains.
A competition was exactly what Ben-Hamo had when he came up against the junior European champion Murad Artsulaev, a Russian, in May in Liepaja, Latvia, in the European championships. While there was initially concern the match fell on Shabbat, Uriel consulted with his rabbi and the two figured out the time difference for the beginning of Shabbat in Latvia, allowing for him to participate. But first he performed his own pre-fight ritual, which is just a tad different from the traditional Thai boxing, known as Muay Thai, pre-fight dance called "Ram Muoy" he has shunned, as he was told some elements of it are forms of "idolatry." So he did his own special pre-fight ceremony.
"When I get into the ring, I come in wearing tzitzit. I immediately inspect the four corners of the ring and say Shema Yisrael at each one. Even before that, I say a few psalms," he explains. In the days before he has bouts, he says, he tries to "focus more on my davening" and makes a donation to charity in whatever city he's in, "so that with God's help, I don't get injured and my opponent does not get hurt, and I will win."
It just missed working against the more experienced Russian, who won on points in a very close fight, according to Cogan, and the top Thai fighter who visited Israel, with Ben-Hamo losing on points there, too. Now he wants another chance.
HE ADMITS it's been a different kind of learning experience than the one he takes on at yeshiva. "The first time you're in a bout, you feel pressured, like all the lights are on you, people are yelling your name... There's the announcer and you're all nervous - you don't know what will be, if you'll succeed... But then you go through a few fights, see there's no problem and it becomes like a training session... no pressure, and it's fun."
And he enjoys the traveling, even if it means bringing along an entire suitcase of food to Latvia, where he knew he wouldn't find kosher provisions.
Says Cogan: "He stays the same Uriel - the same yeshiva boy... humble. He doesn't let the national titles or trips or interviews go to his head."
What does Ben-Hamo so enjoy about the sport? "The elbows, the dangerous knee blows... sometimes there are knockouts. People just take a hit and go to sleep... I've already delivered one like that in Ra'anana. It's fun, but afterward I went over and asked his forgiveness, because it was a fellow Jew. If it had been the Russian, I wouldn't have asked forgiveness," he says with a laugh.
Ben-Hamo insists he doesn't live "in two different worlds... it simply gets out my energy, and believe me, when I train, I come to yeshiva the next day with more desire to study, because I did what I wanted to do - it gives me satisfaction."
Studying to be a scribe has also helped him in the ring. He says it's taught him "patience. Sometimes in training you feel like you're not getting anywhere. You ask yourself: Why do I need to know these techniques? The same thing with sofrut... Sometimes I have no patience; I say I'll go work at a pizzeria. I don't have the strength to sit. But with patience, everything comes eventually."
His rabbi, Shlomo Sananes, "sometimes asks me how my training's going," he says, and he and Shai Ben-Hamo, his hevruta partner at the yeshiva but not a relative, sometimes discuss his bouts, but only after studying. "When I come in to study with him, he's totally into the studying, and it's important to him to just sit and understand what we're learning at the time," says Shai. Sananes refused to be interviewed about Ben-Hamo.
Shai agrees his study-mate's chosen the right direction. "There were days when I saw he really wasn't focused on his learning, and I found out afterward that either he had a bad workout or he hadn't worked out at all. On days when he had a good workout, he came with his head open to studying. It was much better quality... For him, this is definitely the right path."
Uriel insists that a good training session makes it possible for him "to study with happiness and enjoyment, and feel that I've gotten my daily level of satisfaction. When I don't work out, the learning just doesn't go. And when I work out, and know that today I studied well at yeshiva, then I have more of a desire to have a good workout. So the two go hand-in-hand very well for me... If you look at the big picture, the bouts strengthen me spiritually, because I take on these things beforehand and then go fight. So slowly I also become a better Jew."
"Listen, I wouldn't take a guy out of yeshiva and tell him to start doing Thai boxing instead. Because studying Torah is definitely more important, there's no doubting that," says Ben-Hamo candidly. "But because it was hard for me to sit and study all day, and I felt the need to let off steam, I decided I wanted to do Thai boxing... When I walk into the yeshiva, I clear my head, because I've come to study, not to think about the bouts - yeshiva is yeshiva. Everything has its time and place."
But once he's in the ring, he says, "I turn on the switch and attack and attack and attack my opponent, without mercy."
HIS FATHER, it seems, has made his peace with his son's avocation, which he says "gave him what was missing in his life." He admits it's "a bit hard for a father to encourage a kid to fight like that... so I ignore it, even though I know about it. His friends tell he me when he has bouts, but he doesn't tell me about it because I think he's embarrassed, and I don't ask.
"If we had opposed him, he might have rebelled, and left religion. I'm just happy that he stayed in the yeshiva framework and didn't end up in places like some of his friends whom I feel badly about, and is in a warm, loving home - that's my achievement. Sport's his thing. It doesn't mean anything to me. For me, it's enough that I know he's happy."
While Uriel says he will eventually do the army - his father was an officer, he says proudly - for now "I want to invest in myself the time one can invest, and see good results... later on I'll do the army."
As for the future, "my trainer is already saying to me I should open my own gym to train others. But I told him no, I want to be good... Perhaps in the future I'll take him up on it and begin to train others."
"If you invest your time and you succeed and see that it helped, there is a God who heard my prayers," says Ben-Hamo of the unusual path his life's taken, walking up to the training center. "I want to be an example to the Jewish people that fighting can be healthy and good, and a model for the Torah side, too."
Meanwhile he's looking forward to more opportunities to represent the State of Israel at international competitions. "It's a great feeling," he says of the experience in Latvia and elsewhere. "If I had won, it would've been even better, but that's what God wanted. But maybe I'll take the world title, and then Israel will be famous, too."n