Haim mighty

FROM taking up fighting at the age of seven to becoming the first Israeli to compete in the world's most prestigious submission grappling tournament, mixed martial artist Haim Gozali has always done his talking with his fists.

And having recently been approved as the Abu Dhabi Combat Club president for Israel, he is set to make his third trip to compete in the invitation-only ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships in Barcelona later this month.

He said: "Before 2005, there had never been an Israeli competing in the championships, which all the best fighters from around the world take part in.

"So I sent in an application and told them I had won a couple of big tournaments in the US and they approved me.

"I was received the same way as all the other fighters - everyone there is treated equally.

"One of the fighters I wrestled was former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez. I lost in the last minute, although he was 30 kilos heavier than me."

He added: "I believe taking part in competitions like this to be a direct example of how, through the medium of sport, two people from quarrelling nations may get together and participate in something creative rather than destructive.

"Coming from Israel, I have seen first-hand much violence, yet through sport, Jews and Arabs can get together, compete, and leave the mats as friends when we both live in a situation where the world knows us as enemies.

"Through sport I believe we can pave a way to co-existence where we notice one another as competitors and friends rather than enemies."

Born in Bat Yam in 1973, Haim started training in karate at the tender age of seven.

"I was a young boy and loved watching ninja movies," he said.

"I had a gym next to my house, so I started training there and, by the time I was 17, I had earned my black belt."

After leaving school, Haim joined the army as a commander on border patrol, stationed in Jerusalem for three years.

He said: "Sure, my training in karate was useful in the army, although everybody in the army does hand-to-hand combat training.

"It was 1991-92, the time of the first intifada, so of course I saw a lot of action.

"After the army, I competed in - and won - the Israeli Karate Championship in 1994.

"At the time, karate was the biggest combat sport in Israel, although these days it is jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts."

As well as being Israeli karate champion, he was also the top vale-tudo (Portuguese for 'anything goes') fighter.

He added: "I had a number of mixed martial arts fights in Israel, but they were always very small with very few people there.

"They were mainly underground fights for money and we would just wear jeans - they weren't illegal because there was no law for it.

"I never lost a fight in Israel, although there aren't really any big-name fighters there."

In 1995, Haim travelled to the US to train with Renzo Gracie, of the fearsome Gracie family, the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

"My cousin lives in New York so I went to stay with him," said Haim.

"Of course I knew about Renzo Gracie and his family's reputation, but he is one of the best guys in the world.

"The training was very hard work because Renzo is a champion and with his students he is like their best friend."

He continued: "He always wants to explain everything and help in any way he can. I've met a lot of trainers over the years, but none like him.

"Every year, I still go back to the US for a couple of months to train with him and we keep in touch via email and telephone."

These days he is the sole representative of the Renzo Gracie Association in Israel, having received his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in 2005, but not before gaining years of experience competing in fighting tournaments across the US.

"They were mainly grappling or small mixed martial arts fights that I was competing in," he said.

"The main difference between fighting in the US compared to in Israel is that in Israel no-one is professional.

"But in the US, everyone trains properly and there are tournaments every week, so the standard is much better."

Haim's accolades include twice winning gold at the PAN-AM Submission Grappling Tournament, a bronze at the North American Grappling Association championships and a bronze at the Gracie Invitational, Europe's second largest Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament.

He was also a gold medalist at both the European BJJ Championships Grapplers Quest and at the World Jiu Jitsu No-Gi Championship.

He said: "I don't get nervous beforehand - to me, they're just fights, which I've been doing all my life.

"I used to work as a bouncer at a night-club and always had people coming up to me for a fight - one time someone even threw a grenade at me.

"But when you're in a ring, there are rules and a referee, so it's not a problem.

"When I win, I feel on top of the world, but when I lose I don't feel bad, I just go home and think about where I went wrong."

After becoming the ADCC president for Israel, Haim organised the first ADCC championship in Israel, which he described as "a huge success" and saw more than 100 fighters compete to win tickets to the ADCC European trials in Sweden.

He is now planning the next ADCC championship in Israel on November 14.

"I promise by the next World Championships in 2011, there will be another fighter from Israel competing," he said.

"I'm training with a couple of fighters and am going to make sure they are fully prepared."

The ADCC World Championships will be held on September 26-27 in Barcelona.

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph