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Standing side by side, legs spread apart as their outstretched arms lean against the top rope of the boxing ring, Elad Shmouel and Ran Nakash survey the Tel Aviv gym with eager eyes. They and a dozen other boxers and kickboxers are taking a break from their half-hour sparring sessions, their T-shirts completely soaked with sweat.
"You see them standing there?" asks Ra'anan Tal, proprietor of the ICM gym and manager of the 16 pugilists and kickboxers taking a breather. "Everyone else is tired, and needs a break. Not these two. They're in good condition. They wanna keep fighting."
Last Friday night they went at it again, both fighting at the Blue Horizon arena in Philadelphia. Not major fights, not top card, just another bout. Nakash took the decision over American soldier Sam Brown 4-3, coming off his 2nd tour of Iraq, in a six round war of will.
Like all the young Israeli boxers here in Tal's stable, Shmouel and Nakash harbor dreams of fighting for the title, any title. Unlike the other fantasists, however, they have a real chance.
"At the moment, Elad is ready to go as an eight-rounder, but we still want to do a few more six-rounders, say three-four-five more, then definitely he's gonna become an eight-rounder," Tal told ISRAEL21c. "He's still young, a great prospect, 20-years-old, still a soldier in the army. We are in no hurry.
"Ran, on the other hand, is 28-years-old, and we can put a little more pressure on him because he has had many kickboxing fights, and he is an excellent, excellent, professional boxer at the moment, with an 9-0 record and five KOs. A great fighter."
Tal is not just boasting like every proud manager who blusters, playing the part of half pitch-man, half impresario. Watching the two fighters spar in the ring - Shmouel, a junior-welterweight (140-pound weight limit), and Nakash, a heavyweight - one can see clearly the difference here in the gym: these boys know what they are doing. Feet moving, head weaving, slipping punches left and right, Shmouel and Nakash have the presence and the punch to impress.
For Shmouel, it started when he was a youngster and dabbled in martial arts. When he was 15, "I wanted to get into some kind of sport I could grow with, and maybe make a professional career out of," he said.
Shmouel learned, he trained, never fought as an amateur, and five years later is now 17-1 with eight knockouts, ranked 225 in the world out of 1,125 junior welterweights.
"The good thing about me is that I'm real young for professional
boxing - I'm only 20 and I've got almost 20 fights, and that's a lot," Shmouel says.
Nakash, is 8-0 with five knockouts, and ranked 401 in the world out of 1,100 heavyweights. Starting at age 10, he too began with martial arts, switching to boxing two years ago for the same reason as Shmouel: to make money to supplement his day job. And not any day job -Nakash is chief commander in the Israeli army in charge of instructing Krav Maga, the original Israeli close-quarter combat and self-defense system.
For his professional fights, Nakash receives $700-$1,000 for a fight. "It's not a lot, not yet, not yet. But it's not for the money. Money is good, it's nice, but it's something that comes from the inside. I like to fight, I love the ring, I love the excitement before the fight, in the fight, I love to win, so all of this is boxing."
The problem for both fighters is the lack of interest in Israel. There are a lot of martial arts fans and participants here, but boxing lacks both. The consequence for all the boxers working out here at the ICM gym is the lack of professional sparring partners with whom to train. Most often, they travel to Europe to get in the training rounds.
Two other well-known Israeli fighters, middleweight Yuri Foreman (23-0-0) and heavyweight Roman Greenberg (26-0-0) - two of the top three Jewish boxers today - both left Israel to live and train, Foreman to New York and Greenberg to London.
Slowly, though, the situation is starting to change. In 2000, Tal and Shlomo Niazov founded the Israel Professional Boxing Organization (IPBO) in Ra'anana. Niazov, 45, is a former junior-welterweight who represented Israel in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the first Israeli Olympic boxer.
The two of them run Combined Martial Arts (CMA), which operates 12 gyms in Israel where some 500 people come to train in all kinds of martial arts and boxing. The cream of their stable, without question, are Shmouel and Nakash, and a woman flyweight named Hagar (Shmoulefeld) Finer.
Shmouel and Nakash have fought a few times in the US, where Tal works through matchmaker Don Elbaum in Philadelphia. Manager and matchmaker are both smart, knowing that bouts featuring Israelis provide a good drawing card for the fans.
"They really like it," says Shmouel, who is known there as "The Kosher Pit Bull" for his aggressive style of fighting. "It's very exciting, because they don't get to see a lot of us. There are a lot of Jews in boxing, but there are not a lot of Jews boxing, so it's pretty nice. They just like my style, because I got a kinda Philly style - I like to rough 'em up, move forward, I like to brawl - and the fact that I'm a Jew and all that, the crowd really likes me down there. So I became a crowd favorite back in Philly - without being from Philly!"
The third top-ranked Jewish boxer in the world, welterweight Dmitriy Salita, says it's good to see fellow Jews in the ring. "I know that Roman Greenberg and Yuri Foreman are also products of Israeli boxing, and they are very successful," says Salita. "There is definitely some talent in Israel, and I think with a proper business plan and backing, that talent can be brought to the States and developed."
Tal is doing everything he can to make that happen. He says that people are amazed to hear that there is a sport like boxing in Israel, because they know how tough things are.
"And to develop a sport, with people who can go all the way - especially in boxing - is something unique," said Tal. "So it's opened their eyes, and they ask many questions. But I guarantee, we need two more years, and a little bit more experience, and everybody is going to know the name Elad Shmouel and Ran Nakash." (ISRAEL21c - www.israel21c.org)