Israeli UFC fighter headed home after Saturday bout 'to protect' his country

Israeli UFC fighter headed home after Saturday bout 'to protect' his country

A 15-hour flight awaits Noad Lahat on Sunday morning, only hours after he faces Steven Siler on Saturday in a three-round featherweight bout at UFC Fight Night 12 at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.

Little good will come of the trip, but Lahat, 30, has few options.

He's headed to war, to join his countrymen in the seemingly never-ending struggle to defend Israel.

He was born in Alfei Menashe, Samaria, Israel, and has lived his entire life in the country except for those periods since 2009 when he's lived in San Jose during his mixed martial arts training camps.

His preparations for the bout with Siler, though, have been more difficult than normal. He doesn't want to be in the gym. He doesn't want to be in the U.S. His heart and mind are thousands of miles away, on the other side of the world, where his countrymen are fighting the Palestinians in Gaza.

"It's been really hard," Lahat told Yahoo Sports. "I've been on my phone all the time, checking messages, checking the news, stuff like that. The only time I get some peace and get to isolate myself from all of this is when I'm in the gym training.

"When you're sparring, you have to be focused, because the other guy is coming for you. I've been training with Josh Thomson as he gets ready for his fight. He doesn't care if I'm distracted or not focused. He's coming to take my head off."

Noad Lahat works out with Cain Velasquez during a media day workout at the American Kickboxing Academy. (Getty)
Noad Lahat works out with Cain Velasquez during a media day workout at the American Kickboxing Academy. (Getty)

Athletes in all sports accept some level of risk, and in a sport where the object is to punch or kick the other person in the head, the level of risk rises greatly.

But it's nothing new for Lahat, who shortly after his return to Israel will rejoin the military to take part in the conflict with the Palestinians.

He was born and raised in Israel and so he has gotten used to the havoc and chaos that permeates life in his homeland.

He's used to the sirens that periodically shriek to warn of incoming bombs or imminent attacks, urging civilians to flee for shelter.

He's accustomed to bombs exploding in crowded city streets and seeing friends leave to go to war but never return home.

Lahat speaks bluntly but matter-of-factly. It's a part of a Jew's life to fight and defend the homeland, he said.

"I hear it a lot, especially when I'm here in California, because people don't understand how we have to live," he said. "Life here is very good, you know? It's a good life. What do you worry about? Do you worry about paying your mortgage or making the payment on your car? That's not real life. People here in the States, they don't understand real life. Americans are fortunate. In the rest of the world, real life is totally different.

"You don't have to worry about driving in a certain [area] because that population there is hostile. We live knowing we are never safe. You live your life and go about your business every day, but we know [an attack] could come at any point. Everyone has someone or knows someone they've lost [to war]. Everyone. When something happens to one of our soldiers, the whole country feels it."

His parents are both generals. His older brother has been in the military service, as has his sister. His younger brother is preparing to serve.

He understands that by leaving the U.S. and returning home on Sunday, he's putting himself into grave danger. But he never gave a second's consideration to staying in California and waiting out the conflict before returning home.

"The only way we are a safer, stronger country is for us all to be united and fight together to protect our country, and so that's what I'm going to do," Lahat said.

Noad Lahat (L) fights with Shad Smith on Aug. 9, 2013. (Getty)
Noad Lahat (L) fights with Shad Smith on Aug. 9, 2013. (Getty)

His father's family, he said, had lived in Yemen for 1,000 years. In 1948, he said his father's grandparents were murdered in their homes simply because neighbors were angry at the Jews. So, Lahat's grandparents scooped up their children and trekked through the desert to return to Israel.

"They ran through the desert to get back home [to Israel]," he said.

At the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, where he trains, he frequently practices with Khabib Nurmagomedov, a Muslim from Dagestan.

They're friends, despite their differences. He posted a picture on Twitter of himself training with Nurmagomedov and immediately faced questions.

"The guy said, 'How is it that you and a Muslim are training together?' " Lahat said. "I said, 'We punch each other really hard. I punch him really hard in the face.' I love him. Every time he comes here to fight, I help him like a brother.

"I don't care what your religion is, I don't care what color you are. For me, none of that really matters. I don't even care about your political views. But if you come against my country, then you're going to have trouble. As long as you're a good person, I don't care. I have Arab friends in Israel. It's not that we have to fight them just because they're Arabs. It's like when the U.S. was at war with the Japanese, the Germans, other Europeans, whoever. You didn't hate every Japanese person."

Lahat said he doubts the Middle Eastern conflict will ever end. He just hopes for what he calls "a cold peace," when the rival nations aren't actually in combat.

But he said because Israel has been under siege for so long, every Israeli understands his or her duty.

"That's what I was saying before about people here [in the U.S.] not really understanding," he said. "It could be calm. It could be peaceful. But at any moment, that could change and we need to be ready to stand up to protect our country at any cost. It's a part of us we all understand and accept."

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