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How Israeli MMA fighter Natan Levy went from teaching martial arts to competing in the UFC

Levy spoke about his journey into professional fighting during this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast.”

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Natan Levy of Israel reacts after his victory over Mike Breeden in a lightweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 30, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

From a young age, Natan Levy was a fighter — not in the schoolyard or locker room, but through his love of martial arts. At age 15, Levy began practicing karate and kung fu, achieving his black belt at age 18 while training in Japan.

Levy took that passion to the mat, teaching the next generation of Israeli fighters to build strength and confidence through martial arts. To relax, he would watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship, staying up well into the night to catch the matches live from his hometown in Herzliya.

Those matches, coupled with the knowledge that his viable competition days were slowly waning, pushed Levy, at 21, to go pro. 

“I said [to myself], ‘Either I can stay a martial arts teacher now until I’m old, that I can always do, but I only have a short window if I want to do [mixed martial arts] and compete. I gotta be young, I gotta be strong to do it, and I will be much better of a teacher, when I do get back to it, from my experience as a fighter,’” Levy recalled during a recent interview on Jewish Insider’s podcast. So he packed up and headed to Las Vegas in pursuit of that dream.

Levy, now 31, went undefeated as an amateur fighter before going pro in 2018. In 2021, he joined the UFC, becoming the only Israeli in the league at the time. Today, his pro MMA record is 8-1-0  and he’s ranked the 77th best lightweight MMA fighter.

In December, Levy called out rapper Ye — formerly known as Kanye West — in response to antisemitic comments the artist made on radio host Alex Jones’ podcast, saying, “If you got a problem with me or my people, come see me, bro.”

During his conversation with co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein, Levy discussed his journey to the UFC, what it’s like being a professional MMA fighter and his thoughts on Joe Rogan’s recent comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

Below are excerpts from the conversation.

A day in the life of Natan Levy: “It’s a mix of martial arts. If you do this sport, you got to train in many different disciplines. You got to do boxing, jiu jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling, and then you got to do all the physical training: running, sometimes you swim, strength training, conditioning, all that stuff. So it’s very hard to build a perfect schedule, but basically, [if you’re doing] less than two or three training sessions a day, you’re not going to get enough in the week to be proficient in all these styles.

“For me, I got to do different sports, one is wrestling, one is boxing. Let’s say a wrestler would have to wrestle at least once a day and the rest would be extra; I can’t just wrestle once a day and leave it at that, I got to box too, I got to strike, I got to spar. So a lot of training sessions, it’s a large load, that’s why you also got to do recovery, ice baths, sauna, massage, physical therapy — all that stuff is very important, because if not, our body’s going to break down. And of course, other than that, I have a family life. My wife, I try and get a date in every day with her, at least to get a coffee or something, or spend some time together. I do some public speaking. I go to schools and speak to kids or do podcasts or interviews. I always try to, you know, promote my message…But basically the biggest thing [is]training and then resting.”

The benefits of learning martial arts: “I think it’s a life changer. For me growing up, I was very insecure on one hand, on the other hand, I would never back out from a fight, and I had many fights growing up. And I think instead of being on two extremes, martial arts, it truly gave me the balance, not wanting to fight, but you know, if I needed to, I had the tools and I would only fight to defend myself. I think that’s a big thing. Especially today, you know, I recommend to any Jewish kid, any kid around the world, to do martial arts. Not only will it prevent you from being bullied, but also prevent you from being the bully.

“People who bully, usually, they are hurting as well. And not that it’s magic, it fixes everything, but martial arts really, like I said, it brings you balance. It creates a lot of camaraderie in the gym, on the mat. On one hand, you get stronger and you get more confidence. You can see it when you land a punch, when you land a kick, on a heavy bag or on a sparring partner. You can tell you become stronger. You know you’re skilled. On the other hand, there’s always somebody on the mat that could kick your ass. It develops humbleness. So you know you’re strong, but you know there’s always somebody maybe stronger and you shouldn’t be looking for a fight.

“It requires discipline: being on time, doing what the teacher [or] the coach says. A kid that is coachable, a kid that can listen, that can accept somebody being above him, telling him what to do, sometimes we need that in life. We need to, from a young age, hold our ego on a leash. You know, you don’t want to get the crazy ego. I think martial arts keeps your ego in check, keeps you in check. But on the other hand, when you build mastery in one field, that is punching, kicking or throwing…whatever it is, when you develop this mastery in one field, you actually realize that you can develop mastery in anything else you want in life.”

What he’s learned from being in the UFC: “Fighting is all about learning. You can learn from your losses and you can learn from your wins, better [to learn] from the wins. You know, my first fight in the UFC, I think as far as losing, it was a very close fight. I accept that I lost. When I came out of the cage, I was on one side very disappointed, but on the other side, I saw that I belonged and I felt like no matter how hard you train, no matter how much success you have outside the UFC, you know that when you get in there [you’re] gonna be fighting the best fighters on planet Earth. Just being in there and getting that kind of nod when it’s a close decision, like, ‘Hey, I belong,’ maybe I didn’t get the win, but I’ll get the next one, and there are no more doubts.”

On Joe Rogan’s defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar: “I posted a video about it. Basically, you know, I think he’s defending her. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I am a listener of his show from time to time and I think he’s the first one to say that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and I think it was right on with this one. He had no idea what he was talking about. He was spewing what I think is hate propaganda. I don’t think that was his intention, but as far as saying the Jewish people are so into money, it’s like saying that Italian people love pizza. No, it’s not the same. Six million Italians were not killed because they love pizza. It would be more aligned with saying that Italians are lazy, or thieves or crooks or anything like that would be more of a comparison, but you wouldn’t say that, so why say the other one?”

Bonus lightning round: Favorite martial arts or boxing movie in English? “‘Kickboxer’ is great. ‘Rocky’ really inspired me, I think, from a young age to pursue, you know, like I said, I wasn’t even training, but I thought I was going to be a boxer. No need to train, but I’ll be a boxer. One movie that I think is very underrated is, you know, ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ Favorite Yiddish, Hebrew or Arabic word or phrase? “I don’t know. I teach all the Americans ‘yalla.’ Everything is yalla, yalla.” Favorite Jewish food? “Maybe shakshuka or jachnun, some breakfast stuff.” Favorite venue in Vegas? “There’s a lot of spots, but I think one that is special to me is the Thomas & Mack arena. This is where I had my first amateur fight ever.”

Levy’s next fight in the UFC will take place in Las Vegas on April 29, against Pete Rodriguez.

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