Aviv Gozali’s 11 second submission win at the Bellator 225 prelims seemed to divide MMA’s social media in even half. The Israeli prospect’s heel-hook over Eduard Muravitskiy was either the most awesome thing since Jorge Masvidal flattened Ben Askren in 5 seconds – albeit on a smaller magnitude, or it showed of lack of sportsmanship, as the young Gozali neglected to touch gloves before diving for the knee blender.
Even though it was only a prelim match against a journeyman, everybody who saw that quick win took note, for better or worse. The slick leg lock roll was shared by Bellator’s own social channels and quickly picked up by prominent outlets such as CBS Sports and ESPN MMA.
Lightweight Gozali is now 3-0 in MMA, with all wins via first round subs and inside the Bellator cage.
“We’re having a bit of a Facebook war right now” Aviv’s father Haim Gozali tells BloodyElbow, originally in Hebrew. “Aviv touched gloves, he hasn’t touched gloves.”
He and his son are relaxing a bit together in Brooklyn, New-York, before each heading back home, Aviv west to Los-Angeles and him east to Israel.
“Get on with it. So I posted a video for them, that shows that he did touch gloves, right before the bell. To shut them up”.
Gozali is also a fellow Bellator fighter, still taking on on-comers at 46, but his son gets most of the spotlight now.
Aviv Gozali would bask a little in the positive attention he’s currently getting, while his dad keeps getting upset with the negative chatter. The pair started training together when Aviv was born, at first in Jiu-Jitsu, and then in MMA too. Haim also sent Aviv for a little Judo, helping his son to steer clear of less useful martial-arts choices he made as a child, before he helped pioneer Israel’s Jiu-Jitsu and MMA scene.
Eventually, Haim spent the late nineties at Renzo Gracie’s gym in New-York, and it was the Jiu-Jitsu master who in 2004 promoted Gozali as the first Israeli BJJ black belt. When Aviv first toddled on the mats at their house in Bat-Yam, Israel, around that time, Gracie became somewhat of a Jiu-Jitsu godfather for him. This past Saturday, following Aviv Gozali’s landmark submission win, Renzo Gracie handed the 18 year old a Jiu-Jitsu brown belt.
Aviv is the youngest fighter on Bellator’s roster; the first to be born in the current millennium. Haim Gozali is Bellator’s oldest active fighter, and he also serves some managerial duties for them at his home country.
“He’s a kid. And he doesn’t get upset about anything. He doesn’t care”, Gozali senior says. “I get upset, about one thing. I have a problem when an Israeli says these things. When Maradona scored a goal with his hand, I haven’t heard one Argentinian ever complain. Never mind all the usual bullshit – ‘he’s dad is working with Bellator, it’s all fixed beforehand’”.
When it comes to fighting professionally, a lot of people talk the talk. In Israel, far away from the big MMA stables and promotions, some would fight one or two times so they could say they were fighters, a few might even get a win on a big stage — say when Bellator comes around, annually. But a very dedicated few will actually transfer their whole life away from their friends and family to a foreign hub suited to support the launch a serious pro career.
Haim did it some 30 years ago, as did Israelis Roy Neeman (full disclosure, the writer trains at his gym in Tel-Aviv), Ido Pariente, Noad Lahat, Lev Magen, and more recently Natan Levy and now Aviv Gozali. Departing the country at 18, he first obtained a discharge from the mandatory army service for Israeli citizens this age.
“(I) got it on account on me leaving the country at this stage, and also representing the country this way — which is important to me, the most important to me,” Aviv said. “Once I put the flag on my back I get a confidence boost, and I feel pride and conviction.”
Haim then helped his son him set up at Antonio Mckee’s Team Bodyshop in Los-Angeles – where the veteran camped to fight in Bellator 192. There, Aviv took on the alias “The King.”
“It was hard at first, and I still miss my friends and family, but I got acclimated, and my English is really good”, Aviv Gozali says, before moving on to more existential matters: “My wrestling is getting better on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the team here are wrestlers originally. This last camp was mostly wrestling. You know, A.J. McKee, Joey Davis – who is 133-0 in wrestling, which is insane”. Another teammate is ‘Baby Slice’ Kevin Ferguson Jr., and they all came to watch Gozali’s last fight.
“I’m already returning to L.A. this week to start training for the next fight, in Israel in November. I’m training there until mid-October and then moving my camp to Israel and will train with dad.”
His dad will also fight on Bellator’s upcoming, and now yearly, Israeli visit. This is supposed to be Gozali Sr. last time out, although he said that before.
Gozali isn’t the first MMA fighter to cancel retirement plans, but he says this time he doesn’t have a choice as he signed a desk job with Bellator that requires he doesn’t fight for them. He also mentioned he’s interested in fighting bare-knuckle after his MMA career is over.
With all wins coming by early submissions, Aviv Gozali’s striking is mostly unseen. He says viewers will might catch some of it in Israel, but also, that you don’t replace a winning horse.
“My striking feels good,” Aviv Gozali says. “I work hard and getting better slowly. You don’t become a striker in a day. It’s a process. But right now, even, I have no problem spending a fight on my feet, I just at this time prefer the ground.”
The father and son already fought once on the same card together, at Bellator 209, which was Aviv’s pro-debut. Aviv won via a submission in the prelims, and Haim lost a decision to Ryan Couture in the co-main. This time, they’re both slated to fight on the main card, and the older Gozali is hoping to leave the cage this time with his hands raised. No opponent is yet set for the retirement match, but he “asked for someone famous.” He says his son doesn’t have an opponent in sight for that card yet either – but it won’t be someone famous for Aviv, not this time, not yet.
The four-year roadmap
“My plan is to be the youngest champion in Bellator’s history”, Aviv says. “The youngest ever right now did it at 22.”
The young prospect is referencing former Bellator champ Joe Soto, who took the organization featherweight title in 2009, aged 22 and 3 months.
“So I have about 4 more years,” Aviv said. “I don’t care who you put in front of me to fight on my way there. I’ll fight all of them, all comers. I’ll beat all of them”.
“You see, that’s a kid talking,” Haim reacted. “For all he cares you can put ‘Pitbull’ in front of him tomorrow. That’s why we’re here. To build him”.
“But I really don’t care”, Aviv says. “What? It’s true”.
“See? still a kid. No, we want a long career, not a short career. Aviv is just starting, this is the beginning of the road, he still has a lot of road to traverse” the 46 year old prize-fighter said. “A lot of people in Israel don’t understand this road, the proportions, what is a young fighter, a prospect, and what he has to go through and build into, yes? They want a fight with the top-10 right now. No. Wait.
“The goal is to get the farthest – and not too quick. All those who want too quick – I won’t let him do it too quick. I won’t let him leap blindly. He’s 18, you have to realize this. At his age, people are still fighting amateur, and he jumped straight in one of the world’s biggest promotions. So we’re building him slowly with Bellator, and then he’ll do the things everybody expects of him and will break skulls to get into the top-10.”
The 11-second heel-hook
“I’ve been working on this move for a long time, almost a year,” Aviv is talking about the rolling heel hook that got him the win and the media.
“I worked a lot with John Danaher in New-York, a lot on leg locks, and I saw the roll on TV many times, and I said – I’ll do that too. I thought of going for it on my first and second match, but I haven’t felt confident enough”, Aviv says. “This time, I planned on breaking the time record. I knew my opponent, I saw he took 2nd place in the world in Combat Sambo, a few years back. It was a 165 catch-weight and he’s naturally bigger than me, and I saw he wrestles in his fights – I said that if I won’t do it I will probably stay standing with this guy.
“The proof is in the dressing room, I came up to [Bellator’s official] Mike Kogan and asked him what’s the current fastest submission, he said ‘I think 15 seconds’. I told him I’ll break that. I told him what I was going to do, and he said that if I wouldn’t manage to pull it off I’ll spend the whole round on my back. I told him I’m fine with that.”
Gozali Jr. grew up grappling with the best grapplers he could find. They weren’t always the top guys in the world, but they were always the best around, and some of them were world level.
“I’m already a different fighter than when I got here”. He says. “Now my Jiu-Jitsu is also different fighting off my back. We put in there some improvements on a stupid level with Antonio McKee. I have no problem fighting from my back”.
“I showed him in the dressing room”, Aviv’s father now says. “If it gets mixed up, what to do. And it did, and he did it. I don’t know if it might be the world’s quickest leg lock ever. Also, if you pay attention, the stoppage is 8 seconds in, and not 11, but it takes a little for the guy to press the stop button.”
Haim still has a score to settle with his son’s detractors. “So we proved that it was sportsmanlike. Because he did shake hands. We had a goal here – to break the record. And afterwards he went straight to the opponent’s corner”.
“When he was with the doctor backstage, I came up to him and said I’m sorry he got injured, and thank you for taking the fight,” Aviv says. “You know, in the cage, I don’t think I’ve seen he reached his hand, I was concentrated on the leg”.
“I don’t think anyone extends his left hand like this,” Haim says. “He’s not a leftie, and I haven’t seen someone walk to extend his left hand. I think he was caught off guard and threw a hand up. But nevermind – there was the handshake before, and there was the submission after, and now everyone can talk nonsense”.
After his fights, Aviv ‘The King’ Gozali started walking the crowds in a suit and sunglasses, looking cool, taking pictures with on-comers, taking a page off the guys who molded MMA stardom — his own probably starting to outshine his father’s.
“I’m not envious because his success is like mine as well” the father says. “No one here even knows we’re father and son, we’re hanging around people think we’re friends, brothers. We built everything together and now we’re also working at it together”.
There are a lot of obstacles on that long road to contendership. There’s a fine line between hyping the fans and falling for your own hype. ‘The King’ will have to make sure the media game doesn’t hurt his fighting game, before he reaches the crown.
“Wearing a suit after the fight doesn’t affect your training. Daily you’ll see me in flip-flops and shorts”. Aviv Gozali now says. “Girlfriend? What girlfriend. My girlfriend is my gym. I live alone. All I care about is training. Train, come home, train, home, train, home – every day the same. I don’t need to discover L.A., I already discovered L.A. when I was a child. Now it’s time for L.A. to discover me.”