An unlikely union develops through boxing
Israeli Arab Achmad Tal, his hand being raised by Jewish trainer Ranny Tal, won his first pro fight in Philadelphia.
Ranny Tal and Achmad Tuba live in a peaceful place when they’re together, a place that’s blind to ethnic and racial lines, where everyone is welcome, whether they’re Muslim or Jewish, Palestinian or Israeli.
Two years ago, Tuba, a Muslim kid from Nazareth in northern Israel, walked tentatively into the Combined Martial Arts Gym in Tel Aviv. He looked down so he wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone other than the man he was looking for, Tal, a former Israeli soldier who trains a small group of professional fighters out of the CMA.
Tuba made the 2¾-hour one-way trek by bus with a large gym bag and myriad suspicious eyes on him, watching his every move, for one reason; he wanted to become a professional fighter.
Since that day, Tuba, 21, and Tal have formed an unusual union — Palestinian and Jew in a land of never ending conflict — that evolved further when Tuba outpointed Vincent Batteast in his first pro fight Friday at the Blue Horizon Arena in Philadelphia.
The journey from Israel to the United States illustrates both the powder-keg reality of life in Israel and the bond between trainer and fighter.
Tal and Tuba were at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on May 11 waiting for their 7:15 a.m. flight to Philadelphia when, at around 5 a.m., Tuba was pulled from the line by two burly security guards dressed in black. They strip searched him and detained him for two hours, according to Tal, pelting him with questions as to where he was going and what his intentions were.
It’s amazing they even got out of Tel Aviv, Tal said.
“I went nuts; I wasn’t prepared for it,” he said. “One of the officers told me to calm down, or I’d get arrested. They were giving Tuba hell. They took him to a private room, stripped him of his clothes and searched him. How demeaning that is to Muslim men to be placed in that position.”
“I felt worse than garbage,” said Tuba, his words translated by Tal.
Tal said he felt helpless.
“They didn’t allow me to go with Achmad when he was being searched,” Tal said. “I wanted them to leave him alone. ÔÇª When you strip someone and go through his clothes, that’s embarrassing. Muslim men are filled with a lot of pride. This happened because he is Muslim and he’s traveling abroad. I yelled at one of the security officers ‘No wonder they hate us, look at what you’re doing to him.’ I kept saying that. It was humiliating. They made him feel like a criminal. They told me, ‘Shut up and go home if you don’t like it.’ It hurt me, because these are my people, my proud Jewish people doing this to someone else, when we’ve been humiliated like that through history.
“I was embarrassed, ashamed of my people.”
Embarrassing to some, necessary to others.
“It’s procedure in some circumstances,” said a representative of Ben-Gurion Airport, who declined to be identified. “I can’t speak about this one particular instance, because I don’t know, but that’s the way we do it here when young Muslims are blowing things up. You look for Muslims. We have to be careful, especially with international flights. This is an area of the world that’s constantly on alert, it’s not like America.
“Terrorists kill innocent people every day, on buses, trains and in car bombs. You call it being excessive, we call it being careful and protecting the innocent. We have to be secure.”
Secure is not what Tuba felt like as he left Nazareth to take that long bus ride to CMA to meet Tal the first time. He went with the intention of selling himself to the trainer.
Tuba comes from a poverty-stricken environment, with no indoor plumbing, where 10 sleep in a room, where Tuba’s bed is a wooden board with an old, bug-infested mattress thrown on top.
He came dressed in his father’s best clothes, which were too tight around his muscular frame and carried everything he could in an over-sized gym bag. He told Tal he would sleep in the gym for two days, as if that would be enough to convince Tal to work with him.
All Tuba actually needed was a handshake.
“I had known Achmad for five or six years as an amateur,” said Tal, who also trains Israeli pro cruiserweight Ran Nakash. “I knew Achmad’s old trainer and I knew him, but we never worked together. When he first stepped into the gym, he asked me if I could help him. It was like he was on that bus ride and he was preparing that line. He waited so long to speak with me, and came right to me and said it. It’s unusual that a Muslim guy would come to CMA. It took great courage.”
“ÔÇª When buses explode, it’s not Jewish bombers, it’s Muslim extremists,” Tal continued. “And with the mess in Gaza, it is the Israelis that did it, not the Muslims. All Achmad had to do was shake my hand and we had a deal.”
That deal was fine with Tal, but not with others in the gym.
For the next few months, three times a week, Tuba made the long journey, getting stopped nine, 10, a dozen times and routinely asked by Israeli police for his ID. If that wasn’t grinding enough, when he finally arrived, he had to deal with a gym filled with Jewish fighters who really didn’t want him there.
No way would they let an Arab kid beat them. Each day, Tuba walked into the gym, not acknowledging anyone, making sure not to make eye contact, fearful it could trigger a dispute. He clung to Tal for the first two months at CMA.
“There was pressure,” Tal said. “Even the fighters in the gym didn’t like the idea from the beginning, that someone like me shouldn’t work with a Muslim guy. I thought it was just a matter of time before they accepted Tuba. It took a few months. Tuba didn’t say hi to anyone and no one said hi to him. I have a team of fighters and I had enough.
“I spoke to them and said they had to acknowledge that Tuba was a part of this gym. He’s Muslim, so what; we’re Jewish, so what. We hit the same bags, we all want to be world champion some day. We’re all doing the same thing. Accept him.”
Acceptance still came grudgingly. What really opened the door was when Nakash came up to Tuba and said in front of everyone, “If there’s anything you need or want, just let me know and I’ll take care of it.”
“Ran is the best fighter in the gym and he was willing to accept him, so everyone had to,” Tal said. “The other fighters started to come around. They saw the green light was on and they wanted to come up to Achmad and say hello. There is no relationship between Palestine and Israel. All over the world, it’s always like that. They have their minds set that people are a certain way and that’s it. After a few months, Achmad was taking his Muslim friends to the gym as a group, even a girl, and that’s a no-no with Muslims that their women do anything like box.
“Everyone is nice to them. They have respect for them, because of Achmad.”
Tuba is grateful. He persevered through a very difficult situation and came out on the other side with something he cherishes.
“I know this is the first time ever, a Jewish guy and a Muslim guy working in pro boxing, but we’re going to achieve something,” Tuba said. “ÔÇª From what I learned as a kid, that there is no way to come and ask for help from a Jewish guy. I learned from my own experience that I can ask, and I have friends at the gym and they really care about me.
“It’s like I have a Jewish family.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of Ring Magazine