The singular excitement of MMA is the suddenness of its conclusions. A specific excitement of MMA fandom is unearthing a new, noteworthy talent. Anyone watching Bellator 225 in August got a dose of both during the prelims when Aviv Gozali, an 18-year-old Israeli, broke a promotion record with an 11-second submission victory.
The move came in a flash but was years in the making for a young man who has been connected to the martial arts his entire life. Son of longtime fighter and jiu-jitsu black belt Haim Gozali, Aviv grew up in a house connected to a gym. His father, the head of the Renzo Gracie academy in Bat Yam, Israel, was always teaching, and by the time Aviv was two, he had already gotten started learning judo. A few years later, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was added to his catalog of classes. Not long after that, MMA.
Aviv was 12 when he realized he wanted to become a professional fighter himself. Even though he’d watched his father compete many times by then, it was his first taste of a big show that gave him the bug. It was then that he and his father traveled to New Jersey to take in UFC 159 in person. The event featured a main-event matchup pitting Jon Jones against Chael Sonnen, and watching the spectacle among 15,226 other fans, Aviv was hooked.
“I felt the energy,” he told MMA Fighting. “I was watching and thinking how fun it is to be in front of all of these people. I told everyone, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Without ever competing in MMA as an amateur, Gozali was scouted by Bellator to make his professional debut at just 17 last November. To make sure he was ready, Bellator officials reviewed tape of some of his previous jiu-jitsu competitions, and then visited him and watched him work out. They came away impressed enough to offer him a deal.
Since then, he has stopped all three of his opponents inside the first round, but neither of the first two stoppages made the waves of his Saturday night performance. As the bell rang, Gozali ran out toward his opponent Eduard Muravitsky, dove into an Imanari roll, snatched Muravitsky’s left leg, and clamped his opponent’s knee with his own legs before cranking a heel hook. Total time to the tap: 11 seconds. According to Bellator officials, Muravitsky escaped serious injury but still suffered a sprained ankle.
Gozali said he’d been working on the move for months and considered attempting it before both of his first two bouts. For some reason, this was the night to do it.
“It’s my first record that I break,” he said. “There are many to come. It’s only my third fight and I’m starting to break records. It’s amazing. I’m only at the start of my career but there’s a lot more to go.”
The submission is the second-fastest in major MMA history. The record is held by Oleg Taktarov, who tapped out Anthony Macias with a guillotine choke in just nine seconds at UFC 6. That result, however, has been steeped in controversy ever since, with noted referee John McCarthy writing in his book that while officiating the bout, “I believe I saw my first fixed in the UFC.”
With Gozali’s effort, there is no doubt.
In case you are wondering if Gozali may be a regional wonder being afforded favorable matchups, consider his camp. In March Gozali relocated from Israel to Los Angeles to train with fellow father-son combo Antonio and A.J. McKee at Team Bodyshop. He also regularly travels to New York to train with renowned jiu-jitsu coach John Danaher and the legendary Renzo Gracie.
After his record-breaking win, Gozali was promoted by Gracie from purple belt to brown. Still, Gozali realizes that there is much more work ahead of him to elevate himself to the next level. While his ground game is decorated, his striking remains something of a mystery as it has yet to be seen for any extended period of action since turning pro. For now, the mild-mannered but confident teenager says it’s a secret that he’d like to keep to himself. On Friday, he returns to his home country to battle Zaka Fatullazade at Bellator 234. On the same card, his father takes on Artur Pronin.
“I know I have to work on everything,” he said. “Right now, I don’t think I can take the big names. I’m only a kid. I need to grow up. I have a long way to go, but in two years from now I’m going to take them all and I’m going to beat them all.”
In Israel, 18-year-olds are subject to conscription, meaning all of Gozali’s contemporaries are serving in an arm of the Israel Defense Forces. As a notable athlete, Gozali was released from the obligation, but feels the weight of representing his country on the world stage. He wears its flag around his shoulders both entering and exiting the cage, one that years ago was signed by professional fighters who he looked up to.
Teenaged phenoms are rare in MMA, and for every Rory MacDonald that lives up to the hype, there is a Chris Horodecki who does not quite meet the lofty expectations set for him and retires young. Gozali insists he will fall into the former category, that fans will start seeing a whole lot more of him and come to realize that the 11-second record is just the beginning.
“The next record I want to break is to be the youngest champion of Bellator,” he said. “The record is 22 years old [held by former featherweight Joe Soto]. I have three or four years to break it, and I’m going to do it.”