Israeli MMA fighter’s future looks bright with the modern-day Maccabee

With new UFC contract, 29-year-old Natan Levy reflects on journey from France to the octagon

NATAN LEVY is proud to represent Israel and will become only the third blue-and-white athlete to reach the UFC, mixed martial arts’ most famous competition. (photo credit: Courtesy)
NATAN LEVY is proud to represent Israel and will become only the third blue-and-white athlete to reach the UFC, mixed martial arts’ most famous competition.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mixed Martial Arts fighter Natan Levy is a modern-day Maccabee.
Just last month, the 29-year-old Israeli, a rising star in the MMA world, earned a contract with the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) after defeating Shaheen Santana on short notice in Dana White’s Contender Series. Levy took the bout on just one-day’s notice and put Santana to sleep in the promotion that allows up-and-coming fighters the chance to punch their ticket to the big show – and that’s exactly what Levy did.
In honor of Hanukkah, Levy spoke to The Jerusalem Post about how he became the third-ever Israeli in the world’s most popular MMA series and his inspirational rags-to-riches story to the ring (or octagon, as the MMA fighting arena is called).
“It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to say that I’m a UFC fighter,” said Levy via Zoom. “I was fighting for my contract, but I believed that I was going to get it. It feels amazing and I worked so hard and so long for this. But this is only the beginning and there’s a lot more good things to come with hard work ahead, dedication and sacrifices to be made.”
Due to the pandemic, Levy explained that although he took the fight on very short notice, which was a bit of a shock, that is the current situation that many athletes are facing and it’s a matter of always being ready to go.
“I was very surprised, but since COVID-19 has started fights on short notice are much more common than they used to be. I was offered some other short-notice fights beforehand and I said yes but they didn’t happen for one reason or another. This time it clicked, but you have to be prepared for the opportunity. I’m always training hard and getting in shape and I’m always ready, as if I’m fighting the next week. This time I jumped on it.”
Levy began competing professionally in the sport a bit late, but he feels that there is an advantage in that.
“I feel like a young fighter, but my age may be advanced. However, in MMA experience and knowledge is such a big part and it’s something you accumulate with time, so age is a bit more forgiving than other sports. I started a little late when I began karate at the age of 15 whereas most would begin at the age of five. I started competing in amateur MMA fights at 24 while some would be starting at 14 or even younger. I turned pro at 26 and now I’m 6-0. It’s kind of amazing, I wish I had more fights, but I had to wait and I can’t complain as everything led to this.”
The UFC is the most well-known of MMA promotions, but there are many other smaller competitions around the world that fighters compete in. However, to make it to the top Levy made sure to have a road map and a plan that would give him the opportunity to get to the peak of the mountain.
“I always had a plan and I listened to my head coach. A lot of people told me that I just take the opportunity in front of me and fight for another organization and I always said no. I knew what I wanted and people thought I was too stubborn. But I wanted to go to the big league and the big show with the best fighters in the world. I’d rather fail trying than to take anything less. I had been fighting for Legacy Fighting Alliance, which is a big feeder for UFC and I knew this was my path until I got a UFC contract.
“My wife and I always joked that the UFC would be something in the future, but now the day is here and it doesn’t even make sense. It felt very natural that I belong and I knew I would win and get that contract. Everything was clicking and my big plan was playing out.”
Born in Paris, Levy’s parents were divorced and at a young age he moved got Israel with his mother and siblings.
“I was a problematic kid getting into a lot of fights, not doing well in school and having very low self-confidence. With time I tried various martial arts, but I didn’t have the drive and dedication to stick with it and I always quit. At about 14 or 15 I really wanted to do it seriously and become more confident and stronger. Karate ended up changing my life. At 18, I flew to Japan and trained there and got my black belt. I opened up a school in Israel that was very successful.”
In 2013, Levy dropped everything to fly to the United States to try and fulfill a dream and of expanding his base and become an MMA fighter.
"I would watch fights at home and I wanted to take part in them as well and I knew it was now or never. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived, but I made a connection with a cousin of a friend who was a coach by the name of James Gifford, AKA Jimmy Giff. He trained some world champions and I had no business even meeting him but I did.
“When we met, I was just some crazy Israeli karate guy who showed up in his gym and he wanted me to show him what I could do and he took me under his wing. He saw I was very raw, but he thought that there may be a diamond under the rough. He brought me to a great gym in Las Vegas and I began working with some great coaches. I am proud to be able to show what they taught me and represent them well.”
Levy now adds his name to a very short list of Israelis who have featured in the UFC and he doesn't take the responsibility lightly.
“There are a few pioneers who competed in the sport before there was MMA in Israel and who went to the US and Brazil to learn the trade. Back then no one really knew what MMA was. Today, they are considered legends even though they didn’t make it too far. Motti Orenstein was a UFC fighter before there were even gloves or many rules. Noad Lahat had four fights in the UFC and now I’m the third – just like Deni Avdija who is the third Israeli in the NBA. I’m going to do my best to represent myself, my team and my country.”
Representing Israel is of the utmost importance for Levy and understands the enormous responsibility as well just like the Maccabees did as they rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, “For me to fly the flag is a big deal and I don’t take it lightly. Jews always say that a long time ago we unfortunately couldn’t defend ourselves and had to be saved by others. Today we have the Israel Defense Forces and we are a strong nation. We have both brains and brawn, don’t mess with us, we can fight back. This is a big thing for me.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]