By Maxmilian Wechsler
DEDICATED, motivated, strong, humble and fiercely competitive – these are all accurate descriptions of American-born Israeli athlete Nili Block. Add another word to that list of adjectives – multitalented. On March 1 she came first in the women’s 16-19 age group, 10km leg, of the Jerusalem Marathon, beating 500 runners in her category and covering the distance in 44 minutes. Just a little more than two weeks later, on March 16, she was awarded a gold medal in the 54kg division of the 10th Amateur-Pro Muay Thai Championships in Bangkok, winning the title bout against a Bulgarian boxer.
Adding to her sporting achievements is a four year stint (2008 – 2012) as a member of the Israeli national flag football team, for whom she played abroad in many countries, including France and Germany. She started playing the game − a version of American football in which the ball-carrier is stripped of a flag instead of tackled – when she was 11.
When we met Nili in Bangkok for this interview, a couple of days after her fight, we also had chance to catch up with her
“Nili is amazing − slim and tall, she’s built for this sport, and she possesses quite an array of weapons. She can devastate an opponent with her hands, knees and feet, and she has perfect technique,” said Shuki. “She is a complete fighter with a high IQ for the sport. She has a very good future if she chooses to continue to box. Everything comes naturally for her, and she’s just getting started.
“A fight is not only won on strength. Nili won all three rounds against the Bulgarian girl, who was physically stronger, by virtue of her superior technique,” said Shuki, adding: “The Thai referee was excellent. Everyone says that they are the best and I agree.”
Nili was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States and her family moved to Israel when she was two years old. She started learning Muay Thai at the age of 10. ‘‘My mum was at that time a volunteer police woman attached to the Jerusalem police department and she was looking for some kind of martial arts which would be beneficial for her work,” said Nili. “I went with her as she looked for a Muay Thai training camp and I started to train with her. I stopped training for two years while going to school and resumed when I was 13. My father (an orthodox Jew and a dentist by profession) supports and encourages me to box.”
Currently a 12th grade high school student, Nili says her teachers also support her. “They see my success as a good thing for the school, especially because I am a girl.” She is doing well in her studies and believes that participating in athletics fosters academic success because it motivates a person to be successful in everything they do.
“I have been practicing Muay Thai as an amateur for five years in Israel. This is my first trip abroad and my first international tournament. I would like to fight a Thai woman but there weren’t any at the championship in my weight category. However, there are many Thai professional women in my weight class.”
Nili said that during her stay in Thailand she had been treated very well, and really enjoyed the friendly nature and culture of the Thai people.
“It was an unforgettable moment when I was given the gold medal during the awards ceremony and was able to listen to the Israel national anthem in Bangkok,” said Nili. In fact, the anthem was played twice because her teammate, Sarah Avraham, also won a gold medal in the 63.5kg category after defeating her British opponent on points.
The third boxer in the team was Noam Corland, who is only 12 years old and boxed in the 30kg category with a Thai girl. She lost on points. Shuki said that many people who saw the match believed Noam was the better boxer and should have won the gold medal. ‘‘She is strong and she was amazing. Everybody was surprised by the decision,” said Shuki.
Sarah wasn’t available for an interview, but she also has quite an amazing story. Born into a Hindu family in Mumbai, India, her father was a friend of Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka, who were both murdered when terrorists attacked the Chabad House (Jewish community centre) in Mumbai in November 2008. Out of solidarity with the Jewish people, Sarah’s entire family converted to Judaism and migrated to Israel in 2009. Sarah took up Muay Thai while studying in a religious school. Shuki is confident that Sarah, also 18, has a great future in Muay Thai if she so desires.
Nili says her big dream is to box in the Olympic Games, but this is a bit of a problem since Muay Thai is not an Olympic sport at this time. ‘‘I would have to switch to the international boxing style, and I am not so sure I want to do that – I love Muay Thai so much. It’s a totally different style than international boxing which, of course, has no kicking – and this is my strong point.”
She will be conscripted to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) this year, which presents another big dilemma. “If I serve two years as is the usual period of conscription [men serve three years], then I won’t be able continue to box unless I request and receive a special athletic status from the IDF.
“To be in the military is a one-time opportunity and experience, so I am not sure if I want to be a special athlete and continue Muay Thai during my service with the IDF or to serve like everybody else and start a boxing career after leaving the IDF. This is the decision I must make.”
Shuki said he believes her chances of receiving the special athletic status are very good thanks to her recent success in the Jerusalem Marathon and now scooping the gold in Muay Thai – if she makes the request to the IDF. “If accepted Nili will be able to box with assistance and support from the IDF and to represent Israel internationally and maybe even in the Olympic Games. It is up to her to decide what she wants to do in the future. My advice to her would be to continue boxing.’’
“Women’s Muay Thai is very popular in many places, for example in Australia, Holland, Russia and of course Thailand, but that’s not so in Israel,’’ said Nili. ‘‘I tell someone I do Muay Thai and they look at me like ‘what is that?’ Hopefully, with Sarah’s and my world titles here we will contribute to making the sport more popular in Israel.
“There are very few Muay Thai girls in Israel, so I sparred with Sarah and with Adi Roten, another female boxer, a few weeks before I came here. Most of my fights in Israel were against boys – which tells you how many woman there are − and I beat them all,” said Nili, adding, “I haven’t fought a Thai female boxer as yet but I hope to fight one soon.”
Adi, a professional and very successful international kick boxer, is the top-ranked women’s Muay Thai boxer in Israel. She fought and trained in Europe and came to Thailand some years ago to learn Muay Thai because “it has a lot of similarities with kick boxing.”
Nili didn’t have a sponsor for her trip to the tournament in Bangkok, and paid all expenses herself, including air tickets and accommodation. “If you compete in the international boxing style, which is very well known, it is easy to find a sponsor. But in Israel Muay Thai boxers have to pay from their own pockets. Maybe now, after I have won the medal and people look at me as a real athlete, someone will offer me sponsorship. It also depends on publicity. No potential sponsors have contacted me as yet. In fact I have only spoken on the phone with my mum.”
Nili said she hadn’t gone to see any professional Muay Thai bouts at Lumpini Stadium because “I can’t afford it.” She did buy some Muay Thai gear at shops near the entrance to the stadium. She says the equipment is much cheaper here than in Israel and is much better quality as well. After winning the 10km event of the Jerusalem Marathon she received a trophy and a coupon to purchase a well-known brand of running shoes, but no cash.
She also pays for her training back home at the Muay Thai Academy Team Yusopov, where she trains five times a week for two hours at a time. “My coach there is Eddie Yusopov. The training camp is about a 30 minutes drive from my home. I don’t go out too much, just to school or to the camp,” said Nili.
When asked about her future plans, she replied: “Of course, I would like to fight Muay Thai professionally. There are a few professional men in Israel, but no women at this moment so I would have to fight abroad.”
Whatever happens, says Nili, she will continue with Muay Thai and take every opportunity that arises to compete and do her utmost to win as she did in Bangkok.