Million Shekel Baby: The Story of an Israeli World Boxing Champion

Adi Rotem likes to throw punches. In fact, she’s so good at it that she’s the reigning world Muay Thai (thaiboxing) champ. Haaretz joins her before the big fight and hears about her Muslim coach, lack of government support and the men who run away from her.

Ilya Melnikov

The first time Adi Rotem realized she was exceptional was age four. Her mother gave her a pink chiffon leotard and slippers, and sent her off to ballet class along with her nursery-school girlfriends. Adi’s parents were thrilled by their little blonde ballerina, and couldn’t snap enough pictures of her. But she was far more interested in the raucous tumult being made by the children signed up for the survival course in the next room than by any pirouettes or pliés.

“The kids there were fooling around; they were fighting and jumping about. There was action and there was contact, and it fascinated me,” she recalls. “Then and there, I told my mother that was what I wanted.”

Rotem traded in the leotard for a gi ‏(judo uniform‏), and joined the survival class. She was the only girl: “I was the little sister who beat up everyone; I was gifted. Everyone was afraid of me. The only thing I wanted in life was to someday become the best fighter in the world.”

A little less than two months ago, that happened. Following a merciless match in The Netherlands and years of exhausting training, Rotem was crowned world Muay Thai (aka thaiboxing) champion in the under-52 kilogram class.
Just seconds after her hand was raised victoriously in the air and the crowd cheered enthusiastically, she was left standing alone in the big ring. Her country’s culture and sports minister did not rush to the podium to have her picture taken with the new world champ. Neither did the president call to congratulate Rotem, as he usually does whenever Israeli athletes win an international competition. The small sum of prize money she received barely covered her travel and training expenses.

Nevertheless, Rotem had fulfilled her greatest dream. She broke down in tears, and was unable to stop crying. The tears diluted the sweat and blood that still streamed down her face, and the champagne her supporters were spraying in every direction.

Rotem was born 34 years ago in Herzliya. Her father is a production engineer and her mother a housekeeper. Her parents divorced when she was four, although she emphasizes that she has always gotten full emotional support from both and that they have never stopped encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

When she was little, she enjoyed watching martial arts films and copycatting the moves of the actors on screen. “I can still reel off the names of each and every one of those silly films. I was a big fan of “American Ninja,” “Cyborg” and “Bloodsport,” she says.

The energetic and restless girl soon became a star in a locally developed martial-arts discipline known as Dennis Survival Jujitsu art. She qualified for a black belt in judo and then, for seven years in a row − until her enlistment in the army as a Krav Maga instructor − was the Israeli free-weight champion in judo, jujitsu and karate.

And yet despite these successes, Rotem was transferred from school to school because of her stormy temperament. She says she never found a single educational framework that was suited to her.

Rotem recalls that her first match was in fifth grade, and she won it easily. “My father and grandfather were in the audience. After the fight, my father asked why I didn’t do this and why I didn’t do that. I told him, ‘Dad, you are no longer coming to any of my matches.’ And that is what happened. I was the only one whose parents were not allowed to come to any of their matches.”

Close ties with Ben

Rotem was first exposed to Muay Thai after her army service, when she took a trip to the Far East. Instead of hanging out on a beach somewhere, she enrolled in a local Muay Thai gym outside of Bangkok, and spent her time in grueling training. Upon her return to Israel, she continued to train in thaiboxing with Israeli coach Avner Shalom. “He said: ‘Adi, you will be the world champion someday. I can see it happening.’”

Shalom, who himself had trained in The Netherlands in the 1990s, suggested that she go to Vos Gym, a martial-arts academy in Amsterdam, and meet the owners − Francois Lubbers and also Ivan ‏(The Hippo‏) Hippolyte, who would subsequently become her admired mentor. In the past decade, the Dutch capital has become the preeminent international center for all forms of kickboxing, and attracts the finest athletes from around the world.

Rotem first arrived in Amsterdam in the summer of 2006, with the goal of being accepted to Vos’ professional training program. As she did not have a residency visa or any possibility of working in Europe, she would remain in the city for periods of up to a few months, between which she would have to return to Israel to work. This became her routine for the next four years, until she moved back home.

At first, life in Amsterdam was difficult and lonely. Rotem was happy, though, having been given the opportunity to train and develop her skills. She spent her nights sleeping in hostels with rooms for eight people − most of whom never went to sleep, she recalls, but instead conducted all-night existential discussions while chewing magic mushrooms.

At Vos, Rotem met the man who would become her personal coach and the most important figure in her career. Ben, whose real name is Moncef Bennour, is a 37-year-old Muslim Arab born in Tunis – to a Surinamese mother and a Tunisian father – who migrated to Holland as a young man.

Although the ties between coach and boxer are close now, the relationship between the two began as a head-on collision. During the first few months in which Adi was training at Vos, Ben saw her as representing the Israeli occupation. “He would yell ‘You f***ing Jew’ at me,” Rotem recalls. “He’d say all sorts of nasty things about Israelis and would tell racist jokes one after another.

“People at the gym would say: ‘Adi, go home. You shouldn’t be here,’” she continues. “It took me some time to understand that this was his way of expressing himself, that he could say someone was a ‘f***ing nigger’ while he himself is black.”

Rotem was in Israel during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, but Ben didn’t stop sending messages and calling her by phone from Amsterdam. “He would yell at me over the phone, asking why were we bombing Gaza, as if I were doing it myself,” she says.

When she returned to The Netherlands, he had put up posters all over Vos Gym with pictures of Palestinian children killed in the attacks on Gaza − and would not talk with her.

“Because I knew he loves to drink, I opened a bottle of wine with him and then explained how each of us is fed certain things by the media. I held a peace conference with him. After that night, we became the closest friends.”

Ben is now the most protective figure in Adi’s life. He looks after all of her needs and is attentive to her changing moods. Despite his tough-guy facade, he is a sensitive and sociable person. Most of all, he is extremely funny when you meet him. He reports that he eats only one type of food each day.

“There are days when I eat only sushi,” he explains, revealing a big smile and bright eyes. “I eat sushi for breakfast, sushi for lunch, and then in the evening I go to a Japanese restaurant, where I eat more sushi. I can’t mix foods.”

For 10 years Ben lived in Japan, where he hoped to become a professional karate fighter and was married to a local woman with whom he had a daughter. The 14-year-old, named Hadisha, now lives with him in Amsterdam, in his mother’s house. Ben has not been in a relationship for a long while, and excuses it by explaining that Dutch women like to go out with several guys at the same time. “I’m not suited to that, so I prefer not to go out with anyone.”

Rotem is protective of her coach, and is in no rush to offer personal details about him. About six months ago Ben’s older brother was shot to death in Almere (to the east of Amsterdam). He was a professional bodybuilder who owned a gym and also sold nutritional supplements. The murder case was covered heavily in the Dutch media, in part because the two murderers have not been caught and because the victim was a black Muslim.

In the limited time she had between workouts there, Rotem tried to earn a little money in the hope of covering her training expenses. “I did anything that could help me stay above water,” she says. “I cleaned the houses of the friends I lived with. I’d go train, then clean a couple of houses, then return to the gym and then go to sleep. I’d also iron shirts, but all these Dutch sons-of-bitches wear extra large, and I am not exactly a housekeeper.”

Threatening look

At Vos, Rotem also met Gaby Van de Walle-Voigt, a Dutch accountant who took her into her home after hearing that she had nowhere to stay. For several months, Adi slept in the attic above Gaby’s kitchen, and they became close friends.

Gaby, a refined but tough young woman, became a sort of big sister to Adi at difficult times; the two women supported one another. Like Ben, Gaby also experienced a difficult family tragedy this year: one of the twins she delivered died in hospital from a lethal virus.

Rotem became one of the best kickboxers at Vos, and the accolades were not long in coming. In 2008, she was crowned runner-up in the European K-1 ‏(a worldwide kickboxing organization‏) amateur championship, and in 2009 became world champion in amateur K-1 − a title she held for two years.

Rotem’s longing for home brought her back to Tel Aviv in 2010. Since then, she has worked as a fitness trainer at the city’s beachfront Gordon pool, where she also teaches kickboxing.

In early October, Rotem landed in Amsterdam, two weeks ahead of the big match that would determine whether she would be crowned the new world champion. Her opponent, reigning world champ Linda Ooms, is a veteran and experienced boxer who was the favorite to win. From the moment Rotem arrived in Amsterdam, she closed herself off from the world. She wore a serious expression and barely smiled. She radiated a combination of hostility, distress and disquiet. She knew she was facing the most important match of her life. Everything had to be meticulously planned.

Before leaving for The Netherlands, she had trained in Israel with fitness coach Yoni Schweitzer. Now, two weeks before the fight, we accompany her on her daily trips to Vos Gym for special training sessions with Ben – who has set aside all his time for her, without payment.

The daily schedule is the same − waking up at 9 A.M. and riding a rusty bicycle to Vos. Once there, she starts with a group boxing workout that includes stamina exercises, followed by a sparring workout that simulates the real thing. Afterward is a punching workout with Ben; he holds up a large shield that she pounds furiously.

“We are doing this at a murderous pace,” Rotem says. “Every punch is a real punch, and it is very, very hard.”

After this, she stands in front of the mirror and performs an air-boxing workout, while Ben corrects her technique. As a final touch, she does dozens of sit-ups and stretches ‏(“I hate stretches most of all; you don’t get to throw any punches.”‏)
In the afternoon, she returns to her apartment and sleeps for two hours, after which she gets up, has a cup of coffee and goes back to the gym for another series of workouts that include sparring, throwing punches, technique-improvement drills, stomach exercises and stretches until 8 P.M.

Hanging on the walls at Vos are oversize pictures of local stars who made good, champions holding trophies or looking threatening in their boxing gloves. Adi Rotem does not hide the fact that she would like to see her picture hanging there someday as well.

In the meantime, the male and female boxers training at the gym already show her a lot of respect. Everyone knows her name and knows she is about to compete for the world championship in her weight class.

“Adi, I know you’ll win. You are the best in the world,” says one young female trainee in Dutch, as she slaps Rotem on the back. The guys want to have their photo taken with her.

A few days before the match, Ben sets up a meeting with an acquaintance of his, who braids Adi’s curly hair into small, tight cornrows, which lends her a tough and threatening look.

The following day, Ben and Adi travel by train to the small village where the match will take place for a weigh-in, to make sure she does not weigh more than 52 kilograms.

‘No respect, no money’

Two days before the match Rotem is strictly forbidden to train and is forced to rest at home and gather strength for the big day. This harsh edict is in complete contrast to her nature. “I am dying to punch someone,” she complains. “I can’t stand this inactivity. But that is exactly what it is supposed to do: make me want to fight even more.”

The Dutch weather has beaten her and she is suffering from a cold and is feeling weak. Ben forces her to stay home and not do anything.

“People don’t understand what athletes go through,” she says, laying on the couch in the apartment of an Israeli-Dutch girlfriend she met in Amsterdam and who is hosting her before the big match. “Israel doesn’t have enough respect for sport. It isn’t in our culture. You only get money if you are a successful soccer player; all the others have a really tough time.”

And being a female boxer is probably even harder.

Who wants to see women’s basketball or soccer? Does anyone care about them? As for female boxers, if we’re not talking about bikinis and rolling around in the mud, then it is of no interest to anyone. The female body and the male body have exactly the same muscles. There is no reason for our matches to be less important.

“I participate in a sport that gets no respect and has no money. I am always proud to represent Israel, but I get the feeling that my country doesn’t even recognize me. The state will not support me. It has always been that way, and will always be that way. People have said to me, ‘We want to see medals, we want to see records.’ They don’t care what sort of difficulties I am going through, or how I am. I only hope I can find a sponsor soon.”

In 2008, Rotem received a grant of NIS 6,000 and a monthly stipend of NIS 1,800. Following the 2009 championship she received a one-time grant of NIS 28,000 from the Culture and Sports Ministry, which was divided into payments over the course of the year.

“That isn’t real money,” she says. “You have to pay for personal coaches; there are expenses on the gym, training camps, travel to competitions. You need equipment, you have to cover those periods when you can’t work, not to mention rent and the cost of a sports psychologist. I don’t have money, so I don’t go to a psychologist. But sport is first and foremost in your head.”

Rotem hasn’t received any state funding since 2010, while the fee for the world championship training camp was about NIS 20,000. “I have to say there is a fellow to whom I owe my gratitude and that is Hanni Sakas, a Christian Arab Israeli who is involved with the Israeli kickboxing federation. He telephoned me here in The Netherlands and said he wanted to help me. It is due to him that I began receiving financial assistance at all. He has been like an angel to me.”

But the hardships are not only financial: “Aside from the fact that I am in a field that has no money, I also have to contend with the stigmas related to it. People think something’s wrong with me. In any event, the public views sports as a male province and because I am in a sport of fighters, they say I am a lesbian and I am a man. Based upon your occupation, they determine who you are. But I have never had a problem with other people saying things about me. I know who I am.”
Is it hard for female boxers to find love?

“I don’t look like a boxer. The guys see a cute blonde girl and, at first sight, I am cool and they flirt with me. And then I talk, and my temperament is revealed. It disturbs men that I am a strong woman. A man will look for someone who can be a good-looking accessory.”

She reveals that her last serious relationship ended in 2007. It was with an SWAT-team policeman in Israel. “He was self-confident, he knew what he wanted. But most men are afraid of me being strong. It may be that I give off something that’s unpleasant to them, with my unintentional body language. It may also be that the Israeli man is deterred by the fact that I am a successful, self-confident woman who knows what she wants. In Israel, women are thought of as being the thing that walks next to the man. And I don’t know how to cook, at all. I always head home when I’m hungry and I have nothing to eat.”

What sort of man would you like to find?

“A relationship can be built upon friendship, and it is important to me that he be understanding and able to ‘complete’ me. I am looking for someone who will be my best friend. But he must be a man, mentally speaking. He doesn’t have to be 1.90 meters tall, but he should be a man who has a strong character. I love strength because I am also a strong person.”

At times Rotem sees the world as one big boxing ring, and she has a wealth of stories about violent incidents. One took place recently in Herzliya after she honked her horn at a driver who had stopped in front of her. In response, he got out of his car, leaned his head through the window of her car and yelled at her.

“It took me a few seconds to pull myself together. It was shocking,” she says. “He probably was thinking to himself, ‘Here’s a little blonde chick, I can do whatever I feel like doing.’

“On the passenger seat next to me was the steering-wheel lock rod,” she adds. “A second later I had grabbed it, gotten out of my car and held the rod up in the air over my head in both hands. I stood in front of him and shouted at him, saying this was the last time in his life that he would raise his voice like that to a woman. It shut him up good and proper.”

Despite her physical capabilities, Rotem speaks with concern about violence outside of the ring: “In the street, there are no laws. If you are on your way home from going out, wearing stiletto heels and a tight miniskirt, or if you are standing by the stairs inside your own home − you are exposed. You never know if someone is going to pull a knife or a gun on you.”

At night, Rotem makes sure to go to bed with a hammer within arm’s reach, and her cellphone rings with the sound of automatic weapon fire whenever anyone calls.

How do you explain your attraction to fighting?

“Oh come on, it’s fun to fight! It’s not just beating someone up; you have to know how to do it. As far as I’m concerned, it is the real world. It’s either me or her. Losing or winning.

“The question is forever hanging in the air: Who will die first? It’s very similar to chess. Everyone moves differently, everyone has different loopholes in their defense and you have to figure out what they are.

“There is a lot of psychology and tactics here. But if you have fear, you mustn’t get into the ring. You mustn’t display weakness or fatigue. You either fight with love, or not at all.”

‘World champion! Me!’

On the big day, Van de Walle-Voigt volunteers to drive Ben and Rotem in her big Mercedes sedan, and we leave Amsterdam at 4 P.M. Rotem barely speaks during the ride; she is withdrawn. Ben and Van de Walle-Voigt carry on a chatty conversation in the front seat. She talks about her parents and sisters who live in Abu Dhabi, and I ask if her sisters married local men.

My question ticks Ben off: “I was waiting for you to ask exactly that question!” he says, and turns around in his seat to face me. “You were probably thinking to yourself, ‘I only hope they don’t marry Arabs,’ right?”

After an hour-and-a-quarter drive, we reach Brummen, the town where Rotem’s opponent, Ooms, trains. Brummen is a typical Dutch village, which is now lying in a thick afternoon fog.

A large crowd has gathered in the local sports center; milling around is an older blonde-haired woman pushing a supermarket cart and selling the national junk foods of Holland: hot french fries, fried meat snacks and soft drinks.

The eyes of the enthusiastic crowd are drawn to a large ring where two 10-year-old boys are fighting one another; meanwhile Rotem’s small entourage is led to a back room where the final training session will be held.

She is scheduled to enter the ring two hours later, by which time she must be as violent, frightening and strong as possible, but right now she looks, more than anything else, like a panic-stricken kid. She changes into a shirt and white skirt with a large Israeli flag on it, and sits down across from Ben, whose hands − full of Arabic-language tattoos − skillfully wind bandages around her hands.

He doesn’t stop talking to her about the match, and does his best to bolster and encourage her: “You will throw this punch at her, just like we practiced, Adi. You know what to do − you are the strongest. You are the champ.” One of the boys who had been fighting out in the auditorium now enters the room, breathing heavily, with tears in his eyes. His family, from Morocco, does their best to console him.

Then a tall, heavily muscled fellow walks into the dressing room and shouts, “Where’s the Israeli girl? Your match is starting now.” Rotem is ready and slowly strides into the big, noisy hall and climbs up small wooden steps into the ring. Francois Lubbers, the owner of Vos Gym, arrives at the last minute with another female boxer, and together with Ben they stand at the rear of the ring, cheering for Rotem. Van de Walle-Voigt is standing in the crowd. She looks tense as she watches the two boxers facing one another.

The match is relatively close in the early rounds; neither contestant is able to score a knockout or make her rival fall onto the canvas. Ben yells advice: “Adi, go over there, yeah, get in the leg, that’s good! Pay attention, pay attention, Adi, go ahead, ahead.”

When the match finally ends, no one knows who won. The two boxers stand before the crowd with the referee between them. He receives the results from the judges and announces: “The girl in blue is the new world champion!” and raises Adi’s hand in the air.

Rotem, tears flowing down her cheeks, asks to dedicate the match to the memory of Van de Walle-Voigt’s baby and to Ben’s murdered brother. She descends from the ring and is surrounded by her friends, and the group heads back to the changing room. Rotem still can’t believe she just won the championship.

“F***!” she yells, her red eyes wide open. “World champ! Me!” She is handed an oversize belt that she holds up to her body, as well as a heavy trophy, and is immediately photographed for Facebook with her entourage, which is now ecstatic. She will share the cash award with Ben, but now they are planning their big night out in Amsterdam, drinking and celebrating until she has to show up at the airport.

“Adi, you are not getting to the airport standing up on two legs,” Ben promises. And Adi turns to Francois and asks him to make sure that her picture is put up on the wall at Vos soon.

By the following day, she is back in her little apartment near the Tel Aviv beach. She goes back to work as a fitness coach and martial arts instructor at the Gordon pool. She also works at the Crossfit gym now.

How have your plans changed now that you are the world champion?

“I want to have a family, and soon I will open a gym of my own, with my own students. I want to coach and train competitors whose careers I will be responsible for. I want to pay my know-how forward.”

When you are a mother, will you send your daughter to survival class or to ballet class?

“I’ll send her to ballet class, because that is feminine and soft and pink. Although there is nothing better for girls than fighting. If a young woman is caught alone in the dark, she has to have the tools to deal with it.”

Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz