Knockout! The Israeli kickbox champ who is also a Torah scribe

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.

He will be in Jerusalem's Magid Mesharim Yeshiva, studying with his learning 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.

He longs 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 58kg whirling dervish of devastation sometimes shows up in black hat and suit, arriving from yeshiva aboard his Yusong 125cc motorcycle, which he insists also helps him "let go" a little.

Even as a little kid, Uriel was a handful, his father Haim explains.

"As a child, I had plenty of difficulties with his teachers," adds Dad. "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," says Ben-Hamo, wrapping his hands with tape before inserting them into the gloves to avoid injury.

"At first he tried to ignore me because it's not something that's so acceptable in the charedi 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."

His father says: "I saw that his head wasn't really only in his studies.

"He was attracted to sports, but as a charedi 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."

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 charedi 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," he says. "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 recounted 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".

He explains: "In martial arts, there are no bouts, while in ring fighting you can advance.

"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.

"He said, 'Let's move him up the ladder'. So he started having me take part in bouts."

Trainer Cogan, who runs Team Cogan, the Malha academy where Ben-Hamo works out, says of his protégé's performance in Israeli kick-boxing and Thai boxing: "He wiped out all the boxers in his category over the past two years."

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 charedi protégé has, but also of the polish he must acquire to succeed on the international stage.

"He's very devoted and dedicated," says Cogan. "He gives everything of his energy. And not everybody's like this.

"He developed very fast - usually it takes somebody else about seven years to get where he is.

"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."

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 2pm, then study laws of the scribe," he says.

"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."

While Uriel says he will eventually do the army - his father was an officer - he says: "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."

Of the unusual path his life has taken, Uriel says: "If you invest your time and you succeed and see that it helped, there is a God who heard my prayers.

"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.

"Maybe I'll take the world title, and then Israel will be famous, too."

He enters the ring wearing tzitzit

URIEL Ben-Hamo wears his tzitzit whenever he enters the ring.

"I immediately inspect the four corners of the ring and say Shema Yisrael at each one," he says. "Even before that, I say a few psalms."

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 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.

The more experienced Russian won on points in a very close fight. Ben-Hamo 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 and people are yelling your name," he says.

"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 travelling, even if it means bringing along an entire suitcase of food to Latvia, where he knew he wouldn't find kosher provisions.

Says his trainer Beny 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," he says. "People just take a hit and go to sleep. I've already delivered one like that in Ra'anana.

"It was fun, but afterwards I went over and asked his forgiveness because it was a fellow Jew."

He adds with a smile: "If it had been the Russian, I wouldn't have asked forgiveness."

Ben-Hamo insists he doesn't live "in two different worlds . . . it simply gets out my energy".

He goes on: "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 has taught him patience.

"Sometimes in training you feel like you're not getting anywhere," he says. "You ask yourself, 'Why do I need to know these techniques?' But with patience, everything comes eventually.

His rabbi, Shlomo Sananes, sometimes asks how training is going.

And he and Shai Ben-Hamo - his study 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.

Shai agrees his study-mate has chosen the right direction.

"There were days when I saw he really wasn't focused on his learning and I found out afterwards that either he had a bad workout or he hadn't worked out at all," he says.

"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."

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph