Israeli MMA athlete Natan Levy training in Israel in 2022. (Aviv Tal)
Israeli MMA athlete Natan Levy training in Israel in 2022. (Aviv Tal)
Interview'I think most Israelis could do well in this sport'

UFC’s only Israeli fighter believes all Jews ‘should know how to defend themselves’

Natan Levy made headlines for telling Kanye West to ‘come find me, bro’ in post-fight press conference earlier this month, but says the message was ‘a firm warning, not a threat’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Israeli MMA athlete Natan Levy training in Israel in 2022. (Aviv Tal)

Natan Levy doesn’t lose many fights. The 31-year-old mixed martial arts athlete has a record of emerging victorious from the ring – or, more specifically, the Octagon.

That’s why the Israeli fighter – who is signed with Ultimate Fighting Championship, the most prominent MMA promotion company in the world – made headlines and raised eyebrows earlier this month after he was asked at a post-fight press conference about recent antisemitic behavior by Kanye West.

“I think life is too short to hate, so to all these hateful people: sucks for you, I pity you,” Levy told reporters. “And other than that – Kanye West, if you got a problem with me or my people, come see me bro.”

Levy noted at the time that he receives plenty of online antisemitism, but it only makes him prouder of his heritage.

“I am Jewish, it’s what I am, it’s what I was born. I’m very proud of it, and I will fight for it, I will fight for my people, in the Octagon or wherever need be. And I will not stand for antisemitism, I won’t stand for any racism.”

But speaking with The Times of Israel, Levy said his comments were not intended as a threat to West or a call for violence.

“I didn’t call out Kanye for a fight, I didn’t threaten Kanye, I didn’t say, ‘Hey Kanye, I’m aiming for you,’” Levy said in an interview last week. “I said, ‘If you have a problem, come see me.’ It’s a firm warning, not a threat.”

Levy spoke to The Times of Israel just a few days after he emerged victorious from a UFC fight against Genaro Valdéz in Orlando, Florida. The victory gave Levy his second consecutive win in UFC, and brought his overall professional MMA record to 8 wins and 1 loss.

“It feels awesome,” he recounted. “When you put in a lot of work for years… when it pays off like that big time with a huge performance against the highest-level opponent, it really means your work is paying off.”

MMA began in the 1990s as a theoretical matchup between the various martial arts, but with the establishment of UFC in 1993 became known as a “no-holds-barred” fight with few rules and significant bloodshed. That distinction saw it banned in more than half of US states, but over the years UFC introduced a series of rules banning certain more dangerous and violent moves, and dividing fighters into weight categories.

Those reforms allowed the sport to inch toward mainstream acceptance, and today UFC – helmed by its colorful president, Dana White – is a multibillion-dollar industry. The combat sport still has a nasty reputation, seemingly justified since bouts not infrequently end with an opponent unconscious, and questions about brain damage have mounted in recent years.

Nevertheless, he said, he believes Jews around the world should be well trained in the art of self-defense.

“I think every Israeli, every Jew around the world should know how to defend themselves,” said Levy. “Not just a couple classes when they’re young – they should do years of serious training… stay healthy, be able to defend yourself against any attacker, I think that’s super important.”

A new Israeli tradition?

Levy noted that martial arts, in particular judo, have become incredibly popular among Israeli youth, as the tiny country racks up Olympic wins in the sport. More recently, he said, he has seen a growing interest in MMA in Israel as well.

“I think it has become more popular, and I think most Israelis could do well in this sport,” he said. “I think we do well in combat sports – we’re a tiny country but we still get medals in judo, taekwondo.”

The intensity of MMA is not for everyone, he pointed out, “but I do think if you’re going to be a combat-sport athlete, you might as well do it on the biggest stage, where your potential to make money is the highest.”

As a kid growing up in Israel, Levy began studying karate and was quickly hooked, devoting himself to training several hours a day. At 18 he flew to Japan to study intensely, ultimately earning a black belt in the discipline.

“It became my life… doing everything I can to become the best,” he recalled.

But he was still drawn to MMA, watching bouts and dreaming of taking part: “I knew about it and I really wanted to do it one day.”

After returning to Israel from Japan, Levy opened up gyms and was teaching martial arts to children.

“I really enjoyed teaching people, giving them the tools that I got from martial arts,” he said. “But I still watched MMA, and one day I just decided that I really wanted to do this crazy MMA stuff, and I closed my gyms and moved to Vegas.”

Israeli MMA athlete Natan Levy training in Israel in 2022. (Aviv Tal)

Levy said he was drawn to the sport because it combines many different elements of martial arts with significantly fewer limitations.

“You can use any martial arts you want, you can use any move you want,” he said. “For me that’s what it’s about – it’s about challenging myself, but also in a free environment, where I can be creative and do different things than if I was only competing in one martial art.”

‘It’s the hardest sport in the world’

Levy said while his family is concerned about the potential for long-term damage, he is careful to protect himself.

“Of course they’re scared of me getting hurt, I’m conscious about getting hurt – it is a difficult sport, it’s the hardest sport in the world — physically harder than any others,” he said. “I don’t want to take too much damage, that’s why I work hard on my defense, I use my karate footwork, I move my hands like in boxing – [I focus on] all these defensive moves, not only offense.”

Israeli MMA athlete Natan Levy in Israel in 2022. (Aviv Tal)

Levy said his next professional fight is likely to come in February, once he has given his body some time to recover from his most recent bout before returning to train.

The Israeli athlete, who married his wife, Dana, in 2019, has been living and training in Vegas for nine years, where UFC is headquartered. But his beloved home country is never far from his thoughts.

“I love Vegas, it’s a great life, as far as training goes it’s perfect… but Israel is home, Israel is where I want to raise my kids and grow old,” he said. “I definitely think I’ll move back eventually – but right now I want to focus on my career, so I need to be here.”

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