Days after stepping into the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s famed octagonal cage in San Jose last month — and winning to improve his professional record to 8-1 — Noad “Neo” Lahat boarded an airplane for his native Israel.
Just like that, he was departing his training academy in San Jose, leaving his home in Silicon Valley and choosing to rejoin the Israel Defense Forces as a paratrooper for its operation against Hamas in Gaza.
Except he didn’t actually consider it a choice.
“When [our] home is in danger, there is no other way for us [but to serve in the army],” Lahat said in a phone interview from the airport on July 30, en route to the Jewish state. “For us [Israelis], it’s not a war far away in Iraq or Afghanistan. For us it’s right at home. My family is in danger, my country … you have to go and defend it.”
Lahat, a 30-year-old featherweight who turned pro in 2008, won his three-round UFC bout against Steven Siler on July 26 in a unanimous decision. He was part of the undercard of a big UFC Fight Night event that was headlined by megastars Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown, and drew 11,482 fans into the SAP Center, the same arena where the San Jose Sharks play.
Lahat, whose return to the IDF has garnered significant media coverage, said he is “not looking for any long-term career in the military” but rather is “just coming to do what I need, and then I’ll go back” to the UFC.
“I love California, but I need to go back and defend my home,” he said.
After his arrival in Israel, a deal for a 72-hour cease-fire was reached July 31, only to collapse shortly thereafter. Another cease-fire fell apart this week.
Lahat, who is on Twitter at @Neo_mma, is from the community of Alfei Menashe, a Jewish settlement located in the seam zone on the western edge of the central West Bank. Both his parents were IDF generals. He picked up judo at age 5 and continued it through his teens, dreaming of representing Israel in the Olympics.
At 18, he joined the army and served in a paratroopers brigade. In 2007, a year after his service ended, he left Israel for what turned into anything but a traditional post-army trip to South America. He was supposed to meet up with friends, but instead — having decided to give mixed martial arts a try — he wound up going to a prestigious jiu-jitsu academy in Brazil, where he trained for a couple of years.
In 2009, he arrived in San Jose, knocking on the door at the American Kickboxing Academy, which boasts one of the best fight teams in the country. Coaches and other MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters there thought he had a lot of potential, so he was invited to stay and train. And teach. In the morning and evenings, he teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and in between and at night, he trains with the other AKA fighters.
He started his MMA career with seven straight victories, and in February 2014 landed a four-fight deal with the marquee UFC. A match on March 23 in Brazil, in which he was knocked out 2 minutes and 39 seconds into the first round, made Lahat the second Israeli ever to compete in a UFC bout. The first was Moti “The Hammer” Horenstein, a light heavyweight (205 pounds) who went 0-2 and never made it out of the first round in two UFC bouts in 1996 and 1997.
Not that anyone but a fool would mess with a UFC competitor — even one who is “only” a 5-foot-9, 145-pound featherweight — but anyone with anti-Israel feelings had better be sure to steer clear of Lanat.
“People that have any kind of a negativity about Israel know to stay far away from me,” Lahat said. “Most of my friends that I train with, I think that 100 percent of them know what’s going on [in the Middle East], so I never had trouble with that.”
Lahat does, however, encounter cyberhate.
“Especially online, I get a lot of hate from all kinds of people,” he said. “And for me, I find it fascinating that the things that they say against Jewish people online, like ‘Death to the Jews’ … you can never say that to any other minority. People say it with their full name, full picture, everybody can know who they are, and they have no problem saying it. … When people say stuff like that, I’m just ignoring them, because if someone has a question, and we have a conversation, it’s no problem. But if someone has overly anti-Semitic opinions like that, there’s no place to talk.”
While some celebrities have denounced Israel’s actions during the current conflict, Lahat said he doesn’t feel the need to use his name recognition to speak up for Israel just because “someone else speaks.” But at the same time, he said he is “always true and always honest with who I am and what I think.”
He continued: “You see me walk out to the [UFC] cage, I have my Star of David, I have my [Israeli] flag. Everybody knows who I am. I’m not hiding. I’m not feeling ashamed of who I am, I feel pride and I always show it around. Everybody knows that I am the Israeli, and I feel 100 percent OK with that.”
According to Tapology.com, a website that follows MMA sports, Noad claimed to have the worst training period of his life as he prepared for the July 26 bout against Siler, on account of the situation between Israel and Hamas. “He then proceeded to deliver an inspiring post-fight interview when asked by [announcer] Joe Rogan” about returning to Israel to fight in the army, Tapology.com reported.
Lahat told jns.org he would “never run away from anything” upon his return to the IDF, citing both the current and historical imperatives for a Jewish homeland.
“Right now, and it has always been [this way], the Jewish people are able to live everywhere just because we have a strong Jewish state,” he said. “You see the people [suffering from anti-Semitism] in France right now. [It’s] not safe there.
“History shows that every few years, Jews need to pick up their stuff and run away,” Lahat added. “Where are they going to run to? The only place in the world that Jews are safe, and can be Jews, and not be embarrassed or ashamed or anything like that, is in Israel. So even people who don’t live in Israel have to show their support for that one safe haven in the whole world that we have.”
J. staff contributed to this report.