COVID forces Haim Gozali, Israeli MMA fighter, out of retirement

Gozali, who was the first Israeli MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter to do battle at Madison Square Garden, will make his bare-knuckle fighting debut on February 5 in Tampa, Florida.

HAIM GOZALI will make his debut fighting with his bare knuckles on February 5 (photo credit: Courtesy)
HAIM GOZALI will make his debut fighting with his bare knuckles on February 5
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There will be blood.
Haim Gozali, 47, hopes that most of it will belong to his opponent.
The Israeli mixed martial artist, who is 47 and grew up in Bat Yam, retired from that sport. He brought Bellator (from the Latin word for warrior) fights to Israel and served as a promoter, but he had a security business that he said was destroyed by COVID lockdowns.
Gozali, who was the first Israeli MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter to do battle at Madison Square Garden, will make his bare-knuckle fighting debut on February 5 in Tampa, Florida at “Knucklemania” as he takes on John McCallister, 37 of West Virginia at the Jenkins Arena. They will battle at the heavyweight mark of 200 pounds.
“I had a security company in Israel for the past 15 that made a lot of money and everything was cool,” Gozali says in a phone interview from Long Island where he is now training. “I retired in 2019. Then COVID came and my security company, which did a lot of bars and clubs in Tel Aviv, closed. So it was a difficult, difficult year. The other business is Bellator, I was the producer and promoter for the MMA company, but that was also closed. So you have to find a door to open. I found myself needing to make money. 
“Everybody is doing stuff online, but I have to go old-fashioned and do the only thing I know how to do – work with my fists – so I decided to do bare knuckle. But to do this with no gloves, this is hardcore. This is the real thing.”
Gozali is now living with his son Aviv in Long Island, New York. Aviv, a submission specialist is 5-0 in Bellator fighting and is only 20. He called his father “a little bit crazy” for taking on the new sport but said he was thankful from what he learned from him.
Gozali, who owns a 12-6 MMA record, said the training is easier because he only has to do boxing and cardio and he doesn’t have to do wrestling or any ground work. He brought his coach along. He said in MMA he had to cut weight to fights at 170 pounds or less.
“Now I don’t have to do that and I just put on a mask and go to the Israeli supermarket and get whatever I want,” he said.
Gozali said he hopes to win the fight but might have a problem signing checks.
“I think 95% of the fighters break their hand because the head is stronger than the hand, so I’m taking a risk,” Gozali said. “But I need to make a living in these crazy times.”
Asked if he is afraid he will kick his opponent by muscle memory, he said it would not happen because of the training. 
GOZALI SAID he is happy with the organization in those getting the vaccine in Israel. His father and mother-in-law have gotten a vaccine. He hasn’t but he thinks he got the virus last June. He had no symptoms but said he took an antibodies tests that showed over 78%. 
“They [the doctors] told me I got it strong and should have been sick but I didn’t feel anything.”
He said that he has a karate background so he’s used to punching without any kind of gloves so he will be prepared. There will be regular boxing rules without gloves. The ring is a circle and there will be five two-minute rounds. McAllister, (0-4) declined to comment for this article.
“I didn’t even ask who I’m fighting,” Gozali said. “At my age, I don’t care.”
The 4th degree Jiu Jitsu black belt said he is focused and ready, adding that after getting stabbed while working as a bouncer, nothing scares him.
“I have Israel behind me so of course I’m gonna win,” he said. “I like a challenge. This is something different and dangerous. But I’m gonna fight with a Jewish spirit.”
He said some have sent him hostile online messages that say “F-Israel” but he doesn’t let it bother him. 
He said when COVID restrictions loosen he may bring bare-knuckle fights to Israel and promote them.
Once restrictions ease, will Israelis have the stomach or the taste for it or be grossed out?
“Israelis like to see fights and this is something new,” he said. “It’s more aggression and people have been sitting home a lot.”
Dr. Rick Weinstein, a New York orthopedic surgeon who has worked WWE matches with a fighter called “The Undertaker” and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as well as boxing matches with Roy Jones Jr., said that while he has never worked bare-knuckle boxing, he expects it to be bloody and he has two pieces of advice for the fighters:
• “Don’t fight,” he said. “Older fighters have a slower response time.”
• In addition, he said one should punch at the chin or the side of the head because that will offer the best chance of not breaking one’s hand. He said a key to fewer injuries involves good matchmaking where both fighters have a similar skill level.
“In terms of total danger, you’ll see acute injuries like cuts and things that need immediate treatment in bare-knuckle boxing, but in the long term it may be the safest. When boxing with gloves you could get hit in the head 200 times; in bare-knuckle MMA, they’re not punching to the head as hard as they can. Here, after five or six punches, someone’s gonna break a hand or get knocked out.
“I think Israel will be vaccinated by the end of the summer and be the first country that can do anything,” he said. “I hope my opponent and COVID will both be knocked out.”
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