by David P. Greisman
The word is used liberally in boxing circles. Two fighters swapping leather are said to be going to war. A boxer who soaks up punishment and seeks to return it is celebrated as a warrior. Pugilists battle in the middle of the ring. Some even say they are willing to die for victory.
The word is used regularly in the course of Israeli history, which through 60 years of statehood has seen battle after battle, bullet after bullet, bomb after bomb. Military service is mandatory.
Ran Nakash, 30, is the head of the Israeli Defense Force’s krav maga school, teaching the martial art to students who will then be instructors to the country’s soldiers. Elad Shmouel, 22, is fresh out of his three years in the military, service that saw him on the battlefield during the Second Lebanon War.
Both are fighters, men who put down their guns and put on their gloves.
Nakash and Shmouel fight tonight at the Legendary Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, an arena in which each has appeared several times before, an arena more than 5,000 miles from home. They are the latest Jewish fighters to compete in the Sweet Science, following a line that includes former champions Benny Leonard and Barney Ross.
There was no Israel when Leonard and Ross fought. Decades later, Nakash and Shmouel hope to become the first champions from the land of Zion and Jerusalem, to be two true stars of David.
“Since the 50s, we haven’t had such brilliant representatives going for boxing, but now we have Ran Nakash and Elad Shmouel,” said Ran Taal, who manages both. “We really feel like fighting for the Jewish community, because we know there is a thirst to have somebody represent them in boxing.
“Both of them are very special, because they train very, very hard,” Taal said. “Everybody trains hard, but these two train much harder than anybody else. It’s really easy to work with them because they really want to learn and go forward with their careers.”
That next step forward can be seen online tonight on gofightlive.tv. The card, which starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time, features Nakash, an undefeated cruiserweight who has knocked out 12 of his 16 opponents, against Ryan Carrol, an Ohioan with a record of 7-1 and four wins coming by way of knockout. Shmouel, a junior welterweight, is 18-2 with nine knockout victories. He will face Khristian Geraci, 4-5-1 (3 knockouts).
“I’ve never seen him fight,” Nakash said of Carrol. “But you’ll know after the first round.”
Only four of Nakash’s opponents have ever seen the last round. He has run through the usual level of opposition put in front of a developing prospect.
Nakash has been a professional boxer for less than three years, but his combat career goes back two decades. He picked up muay thai kickboxing at 10, competing in the sport for 17 years, traveling to Thailand and Europe.
“I wanted to move on,” he said. “There’s no place to go in kickboxing.”
But boxing has the big fights and the big venues, Nakash said. It drew him in.
“With kicking or without kicking, I love to fight,” he said. “I had the experience in the ring. It’s not that I started fighting at the age of 27.”
And yet boxing is “a whole different story from kickboxing,” Nakash said. “It took me some time to realize that in boxing you have less tools. Here, you have only two hands. The fight is more complicated.”
Shmouel, meanwhile, is learning on the job, a prospect who turned professional without any amateur career whatsoever. He was merely 16 when he first got paid to go rounds, taking a decision over another boxer who was making his debut.
Each of his first seven fights had only been scheduled for four rounds. In his eighth, he would go 10, coming up short on the scorecards. He recovered with 11 straight victories, matches that came while Shmouel was actively serving in the military.
“I saw battle,” Shmouel said of the Second Lebanon War, a 2006 conflict in Lebanon and northern Israel between the Israeli military and fighters from the militant and political group Hezbollah, a group the United States has labeled a terrorist organization.
“It wasn’t the nicest thing to see. But in a way we were kind of used to it,” Shmouel said. “I already had, once or twice in my life, seen suicide bombings, bodies flying. It’s sad to say, but it’s kind of a normal life. It sounds very frightening and all, but [serving in the military] is a great thing because it matures you and makes you much more serious. You can look after yourself. It makes you very disciplined. It helps with my training and in life.”
Back to boxing, Shmouel was one half of a war – there’s that word again – in 2007 against Lenny DeVictoria, a bout Shmouel lost by sixth-round stoppage. It was the last time he appeared in the ring, and Shmouel, who describes himself as a “slugger, 100 percent,” said it is characteristic of what fans should expect of him.
“I got that Philadelphia style in me,” he said. “I got a big heart, like a fighter from the 1950s.”
And he is back in Philadelphia, done with his military service, though he is still required to return should he be called back. He’s had more time to train, to get ready for yet another appearance at the Legendary Blue Horizon.
Nakash and Shmouel have, in a way, been the backbone of Israeli boxing for several years. Since July 26, 2003 – the day Shmouel made his professional debut – there have been 21 boxing cards in Israel, all but one including Nakash, Shmouel or both.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Shmouel said. “We’re friends. We live not far from each other. I see him more than I see my girlfriend. We train together.”
And the two who are like brothers have become regulars in the City of Brotherly Love. Nakash has fought seven times there, while Shmouel has stepped between the ropes there six times, according to BoxRec.com.
“We’re doing big things here in Philadelphia,” Shmouel said. “You can’t ignore it.”
Boxing is a sport in which ethnicity can play a part in fandom, in which Mexicans flock to see Mexican fighters, in which the Polish population comes out in droves to see Polish pugilists. There is an audience for Jewish boxers, too.
“It’s a big, big honor for me to represent the Jewish community and Israel,” Shmouel said. “There aren’t any Israeli fighters, true blue and white, fresh off the army. Ran is still in the army. It’s a big honor to just put that flag up and go up with it in the ring.”
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. He may be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]