If you are a fan of mixed martial arts (MMA) or simply appreciate a great sport, you’ve likely noticed MMA’s surging popularity.
Recently, an increasing number of Jewish fighters have been making a name for themselves in the ring. These up-and-coming fighters are challenging stereotypes and — in the words of Israeli MMA fighter Shimon Smotritsky — demonstrating that “Jews are more than just lawyers and accountants.”
Here are some of the standout Jewish fighters who are making an impact, displaying their Judaism proudly on and off the mat. Unpacked spoke with three out of these four fighters, and their comments are below.
Read more: 8 Jewish athletes to keep tabs on in 2023
Natan “Lethal” Levy is currently the only active Jewish fighter on the UFC Roster. For those unfamiliar, the UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, is the leading mixed martial arts promotion company in America, organizing professional MMA competitions worldwide.
As of 2022, it’s also the largest MMA promoter globally, hosting events in numerous countries and managing 12 weight divisions (eight for men and four for women).
Levy boasts a record of 8 wins and only 1 loss, with a UFC tally of 2-1, competing in the lightweight division (155 lbs).
Born in France and raised in Herzliya, Israel, Levy began his martial arts journey with Kung Fu, earning a black belt by 17. He moved to Japan at 18 to continue his Karate training, achieving another black belt.
Upon returning to Israel, he opened up a martial arts dojo in Tel Aviv. By 22, he started his journey toward professional MMA, which is now his career. This path has led him to significant success, overcoming numerous challenges inside and outside the octagon.
Levy is also a vocal Jewish activist, frequently calling out antisemitism. Recently, he made headlines for calling out Kanye West following the artist’s antisemitic remarks. “Kanye, if you have a problem with me or my people, come see me,” Levy said in a video, which was picked up by TMZ.
Additionally, Levy gained a lot of buzz for confronting a neo-Nazi sympathizer online, leading to a physical confrontation. Captured on video, you can see that Levy obliterated the Holocaust denier with nearly no effort at all. The fight went viral with over 250,000 views on YouTube.
Levy’s Jewish pride is undeniable — visible in his activism, his fighting spirit, and his cultural advocacy.
You can learn more about Levy by listening to the “Soothing Semantic” podcast: “Natan Levy – An Israeli MMA Fighter Joins The UFC”:
Boasting an impressive 8-1 victory with six of those victories coming from Technical Knock Out/Knock Out (TKO/KO), Ilay Barzilay is a force to be reckoned with in the MMA scene. This proudly Jewish Israeli fighter is undefeated 3-0 in his professional debut and has two astonishing sub-25 second finishes.
Nicknamed “The Hype is Real,” Barzilay is swiftly advancing toward the UFC. His recent victory in the Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) over James Pleasant by a split decision is a testament to his skill and determination.
The LFA is a prominent MMA promotion company in America. As one of the higher-level feeder leagues for the UFC, it is often seen as the penultimate step to the major leagues.
At just 22, Barzilay is a standout athlete in the lightweight division (155 lbs), currently ranking #76 out of 327 in the US West Pro Lightweights.
Born in Israel, Barzilay began his martial arts training early and now lives and trains in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he is the #1 Amateur.
Barzilay is known for his jujitsu — he was a second-place world champion and a European champion before turning 18. He loves to pressure his opponents but also has an extensive grappling and striking skillset.
In an interview in September 2023, Barzilay shared his perspective on what it means to him to be a Jewish fighter:
“For me, as a Jewish fighter and Israeli fighter, I feel like I need to represent my country and Jews all around the world in the best way. I’m inspired by the history of Israel and all the wars until today, and I need to fight just like my country until the very end. It inspired me for every fight I have until today and I need to continue fighting just like my country and Jews worldwide.”
Ilay Barzilay is certainly one to watch, as his star is on the rise in the world of MMA.
Nili Block, often hailed as Israel’s Muay Thai queen, has been training and competing in Muay Thai and kickboxing tournaments for over a decade, starting at just 10 years old.
Block’s accomplishments are remarkable: she is a 6-time Muay Thai world champion and a 4-time European champion, with a recent win in Thailand judged by decision.
Watch Block’s fight in Thailand here:
Asked about how Judaism interplays with her fighting career, Block said, “My Jewish essence is what keeps the fire burning inside me to go out, fight, and win.”
She began her training after moving to Israel from America at a young age.
Block shared that fans are often surprised to learn she represents Israel. She feels that breaking preconceptions about Jewish Israelis is part of her impact, showing the world a Jewish and Israeli woman who embodies positivity, talent, and kindness.
Beyond her athletic prowess, Block’s life as a bilingual, dual citizen of Israel and the United States, having been raised as a Modern Orthodox Jew, adds to her unique narrative.
At the start of her career, she would bring her own food with her while traveling internationally for competitions and tries to be conscious of navigating the complexities of Shabbat in professional sports.
Having started her career as an openly observant Jew, she felt pressure to uphold this persona for many years.
Slowly, she realized she had changed internally and accepted that she didn’t need to carry on this persona for the media. Today, she is still a dedicated Jew and makes a conscious effort to go to Chabad on Friday nights while traveling and observing Shabbat in her own way.
Block is not just showcasing her fighting chops but also demonstrating that it is possible to be an observant Jew and excel as a professional MMA fighter. Her mindset, dedication, and training suggest that she will continue to inspire and break barriers.
Shimon Smotritsy secured a significant victory in August, fighting under FuryFC, an MMA organization that partners with the UFC to scout talent.
This win is a crucial step in his ascent toward the UFC, the top fighting league. Known as “The Assassin,” Smotritsky holds a 10-2 record, with his only losses occurring in the highly competitive UFC contender series.
Smotritsky’s fighting style is characterized by rapid, powerful strikes and a proficiency in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, though he is versatile and adept in all aspects of combat.
When asked about what drives him forward during fights, Smotritsky stated, “I am a Jew and it only motivates me to be a better fighter because there are not many Jews in the MMA world. I want to prove to the world that Jews can also be the best in sports and especially in combat sports, and not just financial advisors, doctors and lawyers.”
Originally from Holon Israel, Smotritsky competes in the welterweight class (170 lbs) and is currently the 45th ranked of 1091 active US Pro Welterweights.
If you watched the video above where Natan Levy fights a Holocaust denier, at around 7 minutes in, you will see Smotritsky taking over in the ring.
He concluded by saying: “Don’t talk S#%$ about Jews baby.” Smotritsky is not just a formidable competitor but also a proud Jewish fighter to keep an eye on.
Originally Published Nov 13, 2023 01:16PM EST