An Israeli Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) champion who fights for the American Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returned to Israel on Sunday to join his IDF unit in the Gaza Strip.
On Saturday night, Noad “Neo” Lahat, from Alfei Menashe, Israel, faced Steven Siler in a featherweight bout in San Jose, California. The next morning, he was on a plane back to his native Israel to volunteer for reserve duty alongside his comrades in the Paratroopers Unit.
Lahat, 30, began to train and compete in the Bay Area after his army service. In March, he fought in a UFC match for the first time, against the Brazilian Godofredo Pepey, losing after he was knocked out by his opponent. His Saturday night match against Siler ended in a victory, but was overshadowed by Lahat’s preoccupation with his family in Israel and his comrades in the Gaza Strip.
After the fight, he announced that he would be going home to fight — this time on his own turf.
“It was so hard,” he said of the fight in a post-match interview with MMA Weekly. “In the last two months, I didn’t even sleep for one full night. I was waking up every hour to check my phone, to see if I got messages, to see if my family called me, if my friends from the army called me.”
Admitting that he hadn’t slept for more than two hours straight in the weeks before the match, Lahat said he would go to the gym “dead tired,” driven only by the knowledge that he had to train for the big fight.
“It was the worst fight camp I ever had, by far,” he said. “The worst two months I ever had.”
Though Lahat, who has been training since he was five years old, said the gym provided a welcome distraction from the news from home, he added that there was “no doubt” in his mind that he would fly back to Israel after the match to join his reserves unit.
“Just the thought of my grandma — she’s more than 80 years old — and she has 15 seconds to run to get shelter. My grandma. And I’m here, safe? It’s messed up, it shouldn’t happen, I should be here helping them,” he said.
Despite his family’s entreaties that he should stay in California and make them proud, as soon as his unit was called up to fight in Gaza, Lahat decided to take the first plane out — but not before winning his match against Siler.
Now, he plans to take on Hamas.
“Obviously, I’m in good shape,” he quipped in his post-match interview, adding that he had taken extra precautions during the match to avoid sustaining injuries that would prevent him from fighting in Gaza, such as broken bones.