Twenty one-year-old Israeli boxer Merhav Mohar: “I’m a very proud Israeli.”To most people, Israeli sports fall into two primary categories: soccer and basketball. But boxing? That seems like something that nice Jewish boys just don’t do.
Yet a recent performance in Los Angeles by a formerly unknown 21-year-old Israeli Army Sergeant from Kfar Saba by the name of Merhav Mohar, has placed boxing squarely on the Israeli map.
After obtaining a week’s leave from his commanding officer, at the end of March, Mohar slipped unobtrusively into Los Angeles for the biggest fight of his career.
Sponsored by legendary boxer Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, the 147 lb welterweight surprised the 6,000 strong crowd at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles by knocking out his US opponent Eddy Cota Oacheco in the fifth round of their six round bout.
The fight was also televised on HBO, providing Mohar with some much-needed publicity.
With the sweat barely dry from his brow, there has been immediate talk of promotions and more fights. And the win in LA has secured Mohar’s future, as he will now embark on a professional boxing career in the US.
However, Mohar says that while his victory in LA is a fantastic opportunity for him personally, it’s also a victory for Israel – providing him with an outlet to show Americans that there’s more to Israeli life than what they see on the news.
“I want to take my Israeli flag – my Magen David – and represent Israel,” he says. “I want to show people that it’s important to me as an Israeli and as a Jew to show people worldwide that there is so much more to Israel; be it culture, nightlife, or sports. And that Israeli sport isn’t just soccer and basketball.”
Nevertheless, he says, “It would be unfair to call me a pioneer [in boxing]. But I can definitely say that I am part of a group of boxers and managers and trainers that are now taking the professional sport in Israel to new levels.”
Mohar says that during his weeklong trip to LA, he came to realize that people really don’t know what’s going on in Israel. “All they do is talk about what they see on the news. This guy came up to me and said, ‘You’re a boxer from Israel? What’s in Israel? Isn’t it just desert?'”
Those kinds of comments alone are enough for Mohar to make sure he stands tall and educates the world about Israel and his strong Zionist values.
Born in Israel, his family moved to Kenya when he was small, but returned home when Mohar was 12.
“I’m a very proud Israeli,” he says. “I come from a family of Holocaust survivors and my dad’s parents founded the Givat Haim Ichud kibbutz (just south of Haifa). They were literally the first two people there. And my mother’s father – Hagai Eshed – and his brother – were very big reporters. Both were editors with Merhav and Davar. So I have a very big Zionist heritage behind me. And I’m very very proud to have the honor to take this heritage with me wherever I go.”
Returning to Israel from Africa as a 12-year-old, Mohar met a friend who took him to a gym called ‘Combined Martial Arts’ that taught Karate and kickboxing. Mohar began studying Karate, going on to win six Karate championships in Israel and earning a black belt.
“After that, I looked for a tougher sport,” he says, “and moved into kickboxing.”
Kickboxing took Mohar to tournaments all over Europe where he never conceded a single fight. “So I went looking for a tougher, more visible, more rewarding sport,” Mohar explains, “and that’s how I moved into boxing three years ago.”
Mohar realizes that in order to advance his career he will eventually have to move to America, but says that when he does it will only be for a short, necessary period of time.
With six months of his army service still to be completed, Mohar says he is committed to his country and will not attempt to be relieved of his duties early – even though that’s probably something he could do.
“I have a team of soldiers under my command and I want to get back to them as soon as I can,” he says. “And I have a very important job there right now. I know that eventually if I want to get ahead with my career I will have to move to LA, because that’s where things are happening. I can only reach a certain level in Israel because professionally it’s slow, and if I want to be a big name in the world I will have to train with bigger people and fight bigger people. So professionally, I might move here for a very specific time period.”
However, he says that staying in Israel is “the most important thing for me. I know I could live a very easy, comfortable life in America. But I would never give up Israel.”
And that, says Mohar, is what it’s all about for him. “Terrorism is everywhere these days. And I’d much rather live for my country [Israel]. But if I have to die, I’d rather die for my country, in my country, rather than leaving and moving to the United States and living a nice life.”
Mohar is adamant that it’s possible to be a professional boxer and not have to live in the US the whole time. In the meantime, he’s riding high on his latest win and the knowledge that he can shape the perception of Israel in the eyes of Americans.
“I really want to take the focus away from the politics,” he says. “There’s enough people in the world – Israelis and Jews who are ambassadors of diplomacy. I just want to be an ambassador of sports and goodwill, so that people can say, “Here’s an Israeli who’s not a warrior, he doesn’t kill people, he’s just a straight up guy.'”