8 min read
The French Israeli fighter discusses his values, Jewish identity, and what representing his country means to him. An Aish.com exclusive.
Last month, 29-year-old Natan Levy broke into the lucrative world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest stage for mixed martial arts (MMA) where contenders fight until one either succumbs to a knockout or submission.
Born in France, Levy holds an Israeli flag before and after his fights and makes sure to show the cameras the huge Star of David emblazoned on his shorts.
“Many Israelis are proud of being from Israel,” he told Aish.com in an exclusive interview. “But I wasn’t born there and I don’t take it for granted that Israel is my home.”
“I want to be the best I can be. Representing Israel gives me strength.”
France to Israel
Born in Paris, the youngest of three brothers, Natan Levy’s involvement in martial arts goes back to his early childhood enrolling in a Taekwondo club in Paris when he was just four years old. “I don’t remember whose idea that was,” he gives a smile. “My father is also involved in martial arts, but I bet it was mine!”
His parents divorced the same year and Levy's mother gave her sons the choice of where they wanted to live: to stay in France or to move to Israel. “We all chose Israel. Even at that age, we loved Israel. We grew up with a very strong Jewish and Zionistic education.”
Arriving in Israel, he moved to the coastal city of Herzliya and growing up was teased at school for his strong French accent. “I stood up to everyone and was fighting all the time.”
With time, he made good friends and grew to love his new home.
“Most Israelis don’t know anti-Semitism like the French do. When I would visit my cousins in France, they would tell me how other kids would bully them and push them around. I would say, ‘Where are these kids? Let’s go teach them a lesson!’ It’s one of the reasons I love Israel so much, it’s home. It’s not perfect. You can get bullied there, but no one bullies you for being Jewish!”
“With age I cooled down a bit. Martial arts helped me challenge my aggression and focus it into something more productive.”
It was only at the age of 14 that Levy really began training seriously, learning kung fu and karate. “I would train three hours a day. My school work suffered, but every passion comes with a cost.” Three years later he had already gained a black belt in kung fu.
When he was 16 he flew to Japan for a few weeks to train in karate and began teaching and training younger kids in Israel, many from difficult social or economic backgrounds.
“I was earning a little money and really enjoyed giving other kids confidence and helping them boost their self-esteem.”
By 18, Levy entered the world of mixed martial arts, incorporating techniques from boxing, wrestling, judo, jujitsu, karate, Thai boxing, and other disciplines.
Levy made plans to return to Japan. His talent and drive to succeed caught the eye of his trainer in Herzliya who agreed to accompany him. He paid for their flights using his bar mitzvah money. “I think my parents would rather I would have used it for a degree, or even just a Playstation 2!”
Put up in the homes of martial arts coaches in Japan, Levy and his coach went in search of a jiu jitsu master who been profiled by National Geographic. “We headed to his dojo where he trains and asked him to accept a few tourists. He turned us down but we went back a week later and begged him to take us.”
Their persistence paid off. Levy spent three months mastering jiu jitsu and earned a black belt in karate. “Japan is a different culture. Students are teachers; they all have black belts. When you approach a teacher, he tells you to learn from his student.”
Three years ago and with a third degree black belt in karate, Levy decided to move to Las Vegas to train and compete at the highest level.
Training nine hours a day, he is totally dedicated to perfecting his skills and strength. Living in the suburbs of Las Vegas, he married his Israeli wife Dana in April 2019. Now ranked 30 in his featherweight division from close to 400 fighters, Levy is the only Israeli contender in the UFC.
With his wife, Dana. The couple were married in April 2019.
Jewish in Las Vegas
Levy and his wife make efforts to keep themselves connected and have formed a community with some of the other Israelis in Las Vegas. “One is a boxer, one is a wrestler, and some MMA guys I’ve met through training.”
“I’m connected through Jewish traditions. We hang out together and see each other for Friday night and holiday meals, one of us makes kiddush.”
Proud to be Jewish. Lighting Hanukkah candles with Israeli friends in Las Vegas
It’s not easy for Levy to be so far from home. “I miss Israel, my family, my mother, father, nephews, all of my good friends, and I miss hummus!”
“I would love to be back in Israel for Pesach this year,” he says. “It’s a big deal for us. All the family gets together.” He had to stay in Las Vegas last Passover due to Covid. “We spent Seder night here with a few friends; it’s not what I’m used to. For us Pesach is family time. No one’s missing!”
Despite living in Las Vegas, Levy is not tempted by the casinos and nightlife. “It’s very easy for me. It's just not something I want to do, it’s never been me. Sometimes I don’t feel like training, but I still get up and go to the gym. If I need to unwind or relax, I go hiking, or I go to the lake. What starts sweet becomes bitter and what starts bitter becomes sweet. Going to the casino, playing video games and eating ice cream starts sweet and ends bitter. Going to the gym, putting in effort, starts bitter but ends sweet. In the end you have to keep a good healthy balance.”
Levy’s success, spirit and pride for his country, have made him an address for many Jews battling anti-Semitism around the world.
“I get a lot of calls and messages. When someone tells me they are Jewish and that I have given them extra confidence or belief in themselves, it means a huge amount to me.
“Representing the Jewish people is a big driving force. Being Israeli and being Jewish gives me power, I’m not just one more American fighter. I am the only Israeli who is fighting on the biggest stage, and I connect with everything my people have been through.”
“I have never taken living in Israel for granted.”
“It’s a very humbling sport. Guys walk in thinking they can destroy their opponents and it doesn’t happen. Sometimes you are the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. Every time you beat someone you are crushing their dreams, and that is not an easy thing to do. It comes down to respect. I train very hard and I respect every opponent and think he can beat me. I try to not to develop a delusion of invincibility; that helps keep me strong.”
Levy is ranked 30th in his featherweight division from around a league of 400 fighters.
“It’s also about self-control,” Levy explains, “Karate is partially about killing the ego or at least subduing it and keeping it on a tight leash. There are guys I see who get angry and frustrated and throw their gloves to the floor, cursing and shouting. I tell them, ‘If you can’t control yourself in the gym, how are you going to control another person in the cage?’”
For Levy, life is all about the pursuit of perfection and this is true in the gym, the wrestling mat and also at home.
“I make mistakes and sometimes do the wrong thing, but my wife and I are best friends and we understand that we are always working on ourselves to improve. It is the same with everything in life, we are always making mistakes, but you can’t beat yourself up too much.
“As much as I always want to win, it’s important not to have an all-or-nothing approach in life. I tell myself, ‘If I lose this one, I’ll come back.’”
He adds with typical warmth, “Even if I do lose, there’ll be another opportunity and I’ll still get to come home to my wife.”
Photo Credit for top graphic: Rudy Plaza