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Bellator 180: Israeli ‘Batman’ prepares to fight in Madison Square Garden

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Haim Gozali takes on Ryan Couture in Bellator 180 in Madison Square Garden, Gotham City, er, New York.

Haim Gozali versus Zane Clerk
Bellator Israel

Most fans don’t know him, or likely haven’t even heard of him before. First name Haim, Last Gozali. Haim – pronounced Chaim – is common in Israel and means ‘Life’ in Hebrew. Gozali, uncommon, is the diminutive of ‘Chick’ – the bird kind. It’s a comically incongruous last name. This Chicky is bald, wide, stubbled, scarred, tattooed, his nose squeezed off-center to the left, his sneer is in fact a smile.

Gozali used to operate a club security group in Tel-Aviv. They stabbed him once – well, once seriously, in 2005 – he still doesn’t know whom, or won’t tell. He started fighting MMA before it was called MMA, at least not in Israel; back when it was just free fight, with open palm strikes and no weight-classes or much in the way of records. In 1998, in his first official fight, he took on and lost to UFC champion-to-be Carlos Newton. In 2006, on two days’ notice, he took on up and coming grappling ace Ronaldo Souza, but got choked within a round. In 2017, at 44, he’s 7-3 in proper MMA, with all fights, W's and L's, ending in round 1.

Gozali doesn’t use a nickname – everybody just calls him Gozali – but if he had one, it probably would have been Batman. The superhero is the MMA fighter’s fascination, and lightly-taken alter-ego. Gozali collected enough Batman comics and paraphernalia to fill up a most of a room in his house in Bat-Yam – a southern Tel-Aviv city that used to be a bit of a rough neighborhood. He also has enough Batman tattoos to cover a good part of his skin, with the bat-sign prominently carried across his chest.

Batman quit the nightlife. No longer working security, Haim Gozali now works for Bellator MMA as a promoter in Israel. He also has a contract to fight for them, with one international bout guaranteed. He won his first Bellator match in the opening fight of the organization’s first Tel-Aviv event, with a heel hook against late replacement and pro-MMA debutant Zane Clerk. He then asked Bellator’s chiefs for the biggest venue possible and the biggest name possible.

He got Madison Square Garden, New York City, and the legend Randy Couture. Well, not quite Randy, but his son, Ryan.

Ryan Couture is 10-5 in MMA (2-2 Bellator), and has dropped his last two. But you’ve likely already heard of him before.

Strikeforce Challengers
Ryan Couture
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“I heard him talk on the MMAjunkie radio show,” Gozali said. “He talks nicely, with respect. What will I say? I’m going to murder him? Get on with it, let him step up to the cage, do whatever he wants.”

Haim Gozali lives about 7 miles away from me, and I run into him once in awhile, here and there. But we are having this conversation by phone. He is presently in Manhattan, getting ready for the fight. I try to prod some trash talk out of him, looking to make an attention grabbing headline out of a prelim matchup. I remind Gozali that Couture recently said his last two fights left a bad taste in his mouth, and he’s eager to get in the cage with Gozali and make these memories fade.

“They might fade because Couture will have a new loss to remember now. I couldn’t care less. A fight’s a fight for me. I win, I win. I lose, I lose – I fought. For me it’s not about fading out old memories, cutting out, who cares really.” But that’s as far as Gozali will go. Soon enough it’s back to, “I respect him. I heard all his interviews, and he didn’t badmouth me once. He spoke with honor, and I can’t badmouth someone who didn’t badmouth me.”

Bellator’s first card in NYC will be headlined by Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva and air on PPV; Gozali and Couture will headline the prelims. Ryan, 34, the son of the famous UFC hall-of-famer, has had a more modest career than his father. The younger Couture had a good run in the amateurs and then in Strikeforce, but ended a brief UFC stint with two losses in two fights.

He signed with Bellator and won his first two bouts in the first round. But, 2016 saw Couture getting knocked out by Patricky Freire and armbarred by Goiti Yamauchi, hence the aforementioned bad taste.

“The armbar he got caught with in his last fight is the way I do it, one-to-one,” Gozali said, referring to the Japanese fighter's winning submission hold from a very high guard.

“I didn’t look at his fights before accepting the match,” he said. “They gave me a list of names, I didn’t know anyone. I saw his name, the only one I knew was his.

“It looked interesting to me, probably on account of his father. Although, I don’t know how similar he and his father fight. They don’t even resemble one another in there. I’m telling you, really, the first time I saw his fights was two weeks ago, when they sent them over from Ego-Total [Bellator’s broadcast channel in Israel, R. G.]. Before that my trainers scouted him and guided me accordingly," Gozali said. "Normally I won’t watch the other guy’s fights at all. Look, I think we’re pretty much alike, we both do our work on the ground. I also think that’s the reason Couture took the fight, that he believes he won’t get beaten up on the feet.”

Over his career, Haim Gozali has fought at 170 lbs and up. Ryan Couture has never punched-in above 156, and this will be his welterweight debut. Couture told MMAjunkie that he doesn’t think size will be a factor in this fight; and anyway, he walks around at about 178.

“I also don’t believe size will matter," Gozali said over the phone. In the background someone dropped a set of barbells, people were talking, possibly in Russian. "I walk around at 183, cut 13 pounds – it’s not going to be torture or anything. We’re practically the same weight. But don’t forget that he never fought in this weight, and I’m coming from 220 – I was 212 last summer.”

Ryan Couture also recently admitted that one of his gripes in training is when heavy fighters get top position. But it’s not something Gozali thinks will factor in.

“In our case I don’t think that he’ll have this problem. I can fight from the bottom, from the top, anywhere. I’m letting the fight flow. I have my game-plan, he has his – I don’t know how they’ll fit together. At the end of the day we’re both grapplers. That’s also why he took the fight. At first they said ‘no’ because my weight, but then they obviously saw my fights and that I don’t pose too much of a risk standing up, that he won’t get absolutely knocked out – some submission hold at worst. He counts on it that he’s a better striker than I am, even though I don’t think so so much.”

He does have a crazy reach on him, it says 76 inches on 5’10”.

“I don’t know how accurate these things are,” Gozali said. “Because they also say I’m 6’2”, and I’m 5’11.”

“Ryan Couture is a very tough guy,” Renzo Gracie said, in a recorded WhatsApp audio message. The New York-based Gracie is Gozali’s Jiu-Jitsu coach. “Ryan Couture comes from a generation of fighters like his father. A very tough guy, and one thing that caught my attention on Ryan Couture is he looks more like a Jiu-Jitsu fighter than actually a wrestler like his father. It’s going to be a really interesting match, but I believe Haim has everything to do well and come out victorious in this match. His ability to fight from bottom, to fight from the top, and he hits very hard. Ryan Couture is a worthy opponent and a great chance for Haim to test himself.”

As a young boy Haim Gozali saw “American Ninja” and his life was forever changed. He started out his martial arts journey in Shotokan Karate, and tried out Muay Thai and Ninjutsu as a teen. It was only in 1995, after he finished his mandatory military service — he was a vehicle sergeant in the Border Patrol — that Gozali fell in true love. It was Jiu-Jitsu, and it was maintained by correspondence; Gozali getting to know the style through Gracie video cassettes, and trying it out at his home gym against whoever was willing. In 1996 he flew over to NYC to train at Renzo’s, returning in 1997, this time to stay with Renzo Gracie until 2000.

In 2004 Gracie handed Gozali a black belt, making him the first Israeli-born fighter to receive the degree in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Gozali, who competed in ADCC in 2005, is currently a 3rd Dan under Renzo, the highest ranked black belt among Israeli-born BJJ practitioners (Brazilian-born Israeli Ricardo Bubman holds a 7th Dan).

But the ADCC’s weren’t the only major event in Haim Gozali’s life in 2005. After finishing a shift as security at a club in Tel-Aviv, he heard noises coming from behind a set of locked doors. He decided to check it out, opened the doors, and found the steel lock laying on the ground. As he knelt to pick it up, someone stabbed him in the right hand and temple.

While recuperating, Gozali started organizing local grappling competitions, eventually establishing the Israeli Abu-Dhabi Combat Club qualifiers – the only functioning Abu-Dhabi venture in Israel that I’m aware of (although I bet there are more).

So, Haim, a little trash talk?

“I’m more adult now, in the brain, and he seems like a good person to me. Some trainers at Xtreme Couture are friends of mine, and I still want to go train there one day.”

Inside the International Fight League
Renzo Gracie
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

His long stint at the doors of Tel-Aviv’s busiest clubs has made him pals with some local celebrities – and Bellator made some noise locally when it visited Israel late last year – but he has yet to find any of that notoriety for himself. Although, the Israeli community in New York did make him a guest of honor in the Israeli Independence Day parade – which for traditional security reasons took place a month after the Israeli Independence Day.

Still, Haim Gozali is well established in his home town of Bat-Yam, and the small MMA circles of Israel. He builds his hunger in self-exile, far away.

“The loneliness is the thing that drives you crazy the most,” he said. “All my life I’ve been together. I’m here for two months, living alone, I’m not used to it. Do my own cooking, washing, downloading movies for myself.”

He misses his wife, Irena, and his son Aviv ("Spring," like the season), now 16 and becoming a training partner. Gozali got to New York in early April, and set up shop at his cousin's empty apartment in Brooklyn. Two to three hours of train rides each day: to Renzo, Fight Factory, Brooklyn MMA, the gym, carrying heavy equipment, he’s into the third heavy bag after two tore down. The 18-years-married man doesn’t eat if he forgets to defrost his dinner, and calls Irena for tips on salmon and quinoa. He tried eating out, gained five pounds, and servers looked at him weird when he asked them for weighed portions. June has been easier, once Aviv arrived, and someone arranged accommodations for them in a Manhattan hotel. And training also started to calm down too.

“I’m working with John Danaher on the ground, Daniel Gracie in MMA, Roman Roytberg, Renzo is going to be in my corner, Ido Pariente bought himself a ticket and will come over for the fight. I’m training here with Renzo’s team, they’re all competing Brazilians, and the dream they all have is getting to the UFC, or Bellator where I am at right now. It’s not easy to train with a bunch of 24 year olds who don’t see nothing, and just want to get your spot. For me it’s the end, for them it can be the beginning.”

“I’ve been to Israel a few times,” Renzo Gracie said. “They’re fighting people. They put their hearts and they’re amazing fighters. Haim is not exception for that rule. Bellator was there, it was a success, the arena was packed, and for sure it will grow a lot and we will see a lot of champions produced in Israel, and I believe among those we’re going to hear the name of Haim as a great instructor.”

On the phone, Gozali said that Madison Square Garden is a win by itself.

“But the things I’m going through here, they don’t exist. With all due respect to the fighters and training back home – at Renzo’s I’m fighting for my life. It’s not the technical level. It’s young guys, it’s more air, they’re sharper, they’re faster. The thing I’m doing here, I don’t know if I can do it again after this.”

Haim Gozali, Zane Clerk, John McCarthy
Haim Gozali at Bellator 164
Bellator Israel

The 44-year old's WhatsApp avatar has usually been Batman-related, but now it is John McCarthy lifting Gozali’s hand in the air after his Bellator 164 win in Tel Aviv. You can see that Bat-sign tattooed on Gozali’s chest, and again on a Gozali Fight Team t-shirt in the background, donned by a kid relative. Growing up, the idea of fighting in the country’s biggest indoor arena, Yad-Eliahu – or Menora, as it is now called – was about as realistic as becoming Batman. Now Haim Gozali from Bat-Yam is about to fight in Madison Square Garden. What’s left? Vegas?

“Who knows?” Gozali said, in an instant forgetting his weariness of training alongside Brazilian youths. “Now it’s Madison Square Garden, 44 years old, in front of thousands. This is the biggest fight in my career. You don’t have it to be against the UFC champion of the world in order for it to be the biggest fight. I want to thank Bellator for even putting me in this fight, I personally know guys that offered themselves for free. Now it’s something else completely from before. Here I am the underdog.” A Tapology site survey initially gave Gozali a seven percent chance to win.

“Today I went up to thirteen percent, you understand? I want a fight that I can say, ‘That’s it, I don’t want another one after this.’ I care less about winning and losing and more about knowing afterwards that I gave it all and I fought. After that I don’t mind lying down in a hospital for a month. What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the worst that can be with a man with gloves in a cage fighting with me? Anything he can give, I can give too.”