Q: Why did the rabbi enter the Octagon?
Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, an assistant Chabad rabbi from San Diego, California, recently made news when he fought his first amateur MMA fight, winning by TKO in the second round. Several publications covered the story, but much of coverage focused more on the oddity of a man of God stepping in to the MMA ring and less on the spiritual message he was trying to convey by doing so.
Rabbi Yossi grew up in San Diego, the son of Chabad emissaries, and was always acrobatic as a young kid. When he was 12, his parents hired an assistant rabbi who happened to be a Krav Maga instructor. Yossi trained with him learning the art of Krav Maga until going to yeshiva (religious school) in Los Angeles for high school.
After finishing the rabbinical program Yossi came back to San Diego for an assistant rabbi position where he met an MMA trainer and former UFC fighter Thierry Sokoudjou, who suggested that they start training together.
Having gone to a kickboxing gym back in Los Angeles, this was an easy transition for Yossi and after training enthusiastically for a few months he agreed to participate in one amateur fight – in order to truly test his technique in the closest thing to a real self-defense scenario.
He said he felt uncomfortable by the “misleading” portrayal of his desire to be an amateur fighter. His life goal is to become a police chaplain, providing a spiritual viewpoint and emotional support to law enforcement officers, as well as starting a special gym and training facility for the Jewish religious community.
According to Yossi, his life-long interest in martial arts and physical activity has actually enhanced his spiritual pursuits, his mental focus and ability to learn religious texts for hours at a time.
His message is this: You don’t have to compromise your religious lifestyle to live a healthy, active life, even if that means becoming a martial artist.
Best line from the video is when his trainer, Thierry Sokoudjou, yells: “My grandmother kicks harder than you, Yossi, and she’s dead!” Expect to hear that in a class soon.
It’s interesting that he won the fight even when he held back. This raises a problem I have with sparring (and ground work to the extent I do it anymore). It’s not realistic if you’re not hurting your partner—at least hurting him a little bit. No one who knows me would ever accuse me of being overly moral, but I don’t like landing a solid punch. At least not to the head. Having received my fair share, I know how little fun it is. I prefer to win the exchange (when I can), but pull the winning punch before it lands. If my partner isn’t getting a genuine effort out me, however, does he learn his own shortcomings? And am I making my job harder by emboldening him to fight with greater abandon? Nothing teaches defense better than taking a solid left hook to the jaw.
I know we all approach sparring as consenting adults, but we’re also stupid. Or driven to stupidity by competitiveness. I like capping my sparring intensity level at about 30%, tilted toward strategy and speed, but away from contact. If that makes me a wuss, at least I’m a wuss with my wits about me. Besides, 30% becomes 50% after a few exchanges. It’s 75% and above where I say no más.
Do others have thoughts on the subject? Similar concerns? Having taken up martial arts in middle age, I, like Yossi, am more interested in the spiritual and mental benefits than merely the pugilistic ones. One good right uppercut to the chin will undo a lot of mental benefits.