UFC newcomer Noad Lahat couldn’t help but shake his head when a friend recently asked him if he was worried about fighting a Brazilian – Godofredo Pepey – in Brazil this Sunday when he makes his Octagon debut.
“He said ‘aren’t you afraid of fighting in hostile territory,’” recalled Lahat. “I said ‘come on man, we’ve been in Gaza together. This is not hostile territory. What are they gonna do, boo me?”
That’s not bravado from Lahat, only the second Israel native (following Moti Horenstein) to ever compete in the UFC. It comes from a place where, as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces, the 29-year-old saw a lot worse things than someone trying to knock him out or submit him in sanctioned combat.
“I laugh when other fighters try to intimidate me,” he said. “I’m like ‘what are you gonna bring?’ (Laughs) Worst case scenario, you’re gonna put me to sleep for a few seconds and I’ll wake up. It’s part of the fun.”
At least it’s been part of the fun for Lahat, a black belt in judo and jiu-jitsu who has won all seven of his pro MMA bouts, finishing six of them. For him, fighting is a passion, not something to get nervous about.
“I love what I do and I can’t be waiting,” he said. “I’m excited and I really want to go for the fight. It’s not like I’m afraid of it and there’s no hesitation about it. I know I’ll do good and I just want to prove it already.”
There is plenty of excitement around Lahat’s arrival in the UFC, and not just because of his record and back story. The featherweight prospect is also a member of the elite American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) team, and when you consider the caliber of fighter that team produces, you can’t help being intrigued by what “Neo” brings to the table. And when you ask him if he expected his call-up to the big show so soon, he says, “No, I expected that years ago.”
Yet while Lahat expected to do big things the second he began training in jiu-jitsu after his stint in the service was over, his family wasn’t so sure, especially after he told them he was going to fight professionally.
“They thought I lost my mind,” he said. “My mom, a good Jewish mom, looked at me and said ‘are you crazy? You’re not going to go to University, you’re not going to get a real job and sit behind a desk or something?’ I said no. But she kind of knew from a young age that I wasn’t the kind of guy that can sit in an office without losing my mind. And after a while, she came to a few of my fights and she realized that it’s a real sport, and the rest of my family, they’re all a hundred percent behind me, supporting me and helping me.”
Surprisingly though, Lahat is the only one representing Israel in the UFC since Horenstein got fed to the wolves with bouts against Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr (both losses) in 1996-97. He believes there are a couple reasons for this.
“The number one sport in Israel is soccer,” he said. “After that, most guys, when they’re 18 they go into the military for three years, and when they’re out of the military they’re already mature. Even the athletes who took a three year break, they don’t really want to go back into stuff like that. Plus, fighting was never popular in Israel. We had a few boxers or kickboxers, but fighting was never popular. I think the main reason is the time difference. Most UFC events, only the real crazy ones stay up until 1 or 2am to watch the fights. That’s why I’m so excited about all the Europe events, and even now in Brazil, it’s a better time for people to watch. And because I’m in, I’m sure we’re going to get a lot more viewers from Israel.”
And maybe some young men (and women) who will want to follow in Lahat’s footsteps. But before that happens, he’s got to fight and win. The first part takes place this weekend, and he plans on making sure the second does too. But against Pepey, he will be in with a hungry fighter looking to rebound from two consecutive losses.
“He’s a guy with a lot of experience in the UFC, and he was on TUF, so that’s a lot of experience that I don’t have in the UFC,” said Lahat of his foe. “I’ve watched a few of his fights and he’s not afraid to go to the ground or even pull guard, which is awesome, because I love to go to the ground. If he wants to make it easier for me by pulling guard, that’s cool. But the main thing I see from him is the experience that he has.”
So can technique beat experience?
“That’s the plan,” said Lahat, who may be the one fighter who you believe when he says he’s not concerned about the first-time Octagon jitters.
“I think I’m going to be really, really excited until they lock the cage behind me,” he said. “Then it’s one man against another. It doesn’t matter about the cameras or whatever, when someone’s there trying to take your head off, you better be ready.”
Lahat Cool and Confident Before Debut
"It doesn’t matter about the cameras or whatever, when someone’s there trying to take your head off, you better be ready." - Noad Lahat