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UFC's Noad Lahat to head back to Israel Sunday to 'protect my future'

Alexis Cuarezma

Not that Noad Lahat is looking past Steven Siler, whom he meets at UFC on FOX 12 in San Jose Saturday night…but Lahat is looking past Steven Siler. Not from a place of competitive superiority, but because he feels he has to.

Lahat is the UFC’s second Israeli-born fighter. With the recent outbreak of violence in Gaza, with missiles flying over his homeland and his family ducking for cover, Lahat is relegated to his most immediate commitment. That’s his Saturday commitment. That’s the fun and games part, the payoff to a long fight camp spent at AKA getting punched by punching’s elite.

Lahat’s Sunday commitment, win or lose, will be rejoining his friends in the Israeli army and taking a stand against the Palestinians who are again butting heads with the Israelis in overlapping conflict zone of Gaza. In the brutal, complicated, generation’s old conflict, Lahat, who spent three-and-a-half years in the army, will put prizefighting on hold. He flies out Sunday for the other fight.

"I have to do it morally, I don’t have to do it legally," he says. "The thing is, the whole last month and a half it’s been crazy. My family has about 15 seconds every time an alarm goes off to take a shelter from missiles. And for us, it’s not some faraway war on the other side of the world. It’s by my home. I need to go protect my family, protect my country, protect my future."

Gaza, the de facto capital of Palestine, does seem like a million miles from sunny, peaceful Silicon Valley, where the fights for Lahat will feel more like a metaphor. The latest conflict on the Gaza Strip erupted in part because three Israeli teens -- Naftali Fraenkel (16), Gilad Shaer (16) and Eyal Yifrah (19) -- were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank. Hamas, a political party in Palestine (particularly in the Gaza portion of it) declared they weren’t responsible, but publicly applauded the killings. 

Subsequently, the Israelis launched air strikes against targets in Gaza that are used to launch rocket attacks into Israel. A Palestinian teen was killed in apparent retaliation. And then a few days ago, the Israeli's launched a ground invasion into Gaza. The thing has gotten ugly on both sides.

"As soon as they call my unit, I’m in," Lahat says. "I’m going to join my brothers, the same people I served with for years. And there’s no other way for me. And for me to be here, not at home right now, it’s something that…it’s beyond miserable. For me to be here and not at home right now, not being at home with my people. To be fighting in sunny California, it’s a horrible feeling."

Lahat served for three-and-a-half years in the Israeli army as part of a paratrooper unit. His mother (intelligence) and father (special forces) are former generals. His friends, whom he served with before pursuing a career in MMA and now work in high fields, are steadying themselves back in Israel. They have all been put on warning to be ready. When the call officially comes, they will step out of their everyday lives and re-enter the war block.

"About 90 percent of the people in Israel [make a career out of the military]," he says. "When I go back my friends are doctors and lawyers, and when they need us they just call us and we all pack our bags, leave our family and go to fight."

Since the conflict got started, Lahat has been distracting himself in training for his fight with Siler. He says his teammates at AKA have been empathetic to what’s going on, and have helped him by "punching me as hard as they can."

"The only time I could take my mind off of that was in the gym sparring," he says. "Other than that, I am watching news or on the phone with friends and family all the time. It’s been a hard camp."

Hard, but not lost. Lahat is coming off a let down in his UFC debut against Godofredo Pepey in March, a fight he lost via TKO in the first round. It was the judo player’s first pro loss, and he’s had a hard time reconciling it. That same night, Siler lost a controversial fight with Rony Jason. That was his second loss in a row.

Therefore, Lahat knows two aggravated fighters are coming together at the SAP Center.

"I watched him in The Ultimate Fighter, I think he’s not very much of an athletic guy, but he’s really tough," he says. "Really skilled, with good jiu-jitsu, good stand-up, not very good with wrestling. He’s coming off a loss with me on the same card in Brazil. I think it was an early stoppage on his last loss. But I’m excited. He’s a really tough fighter. He’s not going down easy, and neither will I. It’s going to be a good fight."

That’s the fight before the fight. Given the slippery situation that he and Siler find themselves in, both needing to win, it could be his last UFC fight. Given where he’s headed, though, the bigger sense of the future is uncertain.

"Usually, if you’re in other countries, [the Israeli army] won’t even call you," he says. "But we, our friends, we communicate with each other, and when we got the call right away I got messages to be ready.

"It’s more than moral. We can’t lose the war. If we lose there is no hope for me. California is not my home. I love California, and it’s nice, but it’s not my home. It’s a great place, but it’s not my place. For me, if I want to go back home, I need to protect it."