It was a bit before 5 P.M. and the oppressive July heat was impossible to avoid on the streets of Tel Aviv. Thankfully, things were a lot more chilled inside the air-conditioned Dizengoff Center.
But things were about to heat up here as well, as groups of youngsters started arriving and making their way to the lower ground floor of Building B. Here, alongside a post office branch, home-cooked food stand, jewelry store and nail salon, stood – of all things – a boxing ring. The teenagers arrived wearing matching black shirts sporting the slogan “Stronger, Smarter, Faster,” and were pumped up to enter the ring. But they would have to wait a while longer.
The event, given the prosaic title “Boxing Matches Evening,” was the seventh in a series of fight nights organized by Hagar Finer, the former bantamweight world champion of the Women’s International Boxing Federation.
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Finer, 37, moves among the crowd in a black shirt displaying the logo of the martial arts club she owns in Tel Aviv. She would soon slip on a pink button-down shirt and escort all of her fighters into the ring, just like a Las Vegas boxing promoter.
Among the early arrivals is former television host and actor Tal Lifshitz – now a social worker – who is wandering around restlessly. The reason soon becomes clear: her 11-year-old son David is participating in one of the children’s fights.
“When you send a child to a class, you need a model. Hagar is that model,” Lifshitz says of Finer. “You just want your child to do something physical, and for it to be convenient and close,” she adds, explaining how she ended up sending her son to Finer’s club at age 5. “To see your boy give and take punches is unnatural. Of course I’d like to see him reading a book and feeding rabbits, but I’m very proud that he’s so diligent.”
David enters the ring to the sounds of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and his mother’s cries of encouragement. She gets as close to the ropes as possible, filming everything that’s going on with her smartphone. Her face is frozen almost throughout the entire fight. In spite of some hairy moments, it ends safely – when the referee raises the hands of both David and his opponent. In these fights, there are no winners or losers. “It’s fun,” says David about his decision to box. “I’m really hyperactive and was tense before, but the pressure was released during the fight.”
The adult fights commence at 7 P.M. “Now it will be tough,” says Lifshitz, as Daphni Leef – one of the leading figures of the 2011 cost-of-living protests, and one of the women who train with Finer – climbs into the ring and takes the microphone.
No stranger to rousing the public, Leef seeks to excite the crowd in this mall in the heart of Tel Aviv. The number of spectators slowly starts to increase, with some crowding around the ring while others peer down from the spiraling passageways above.
A sport, not a brawl
A lot has been written about the topography of Dizengoff Center, but it’s doubtful its planners – the architects Aliza Toledo and Yitzhak Yashar – ever imagined that these passageways would serve as the perfect platform for watching boxing matches.
Leaning on a wall at a reasonable distance from the ring are Shaun and Avi, who work at the Rebar shake stand in Building A. They had seen an ad for the event and came to witness the local talent up close. “We would have opened a popcorn stand here, made a load of money,” says a disappointed Shaun. He is not happy with the boxing abilities of the adult participants either. “They’re not as good boxers as the children,” he complains.
A., the father of one of the boxers who will soon march into the ring, surveys the scene from above. “This is what the boy wanted, I can’t tell him no,” says A., who asked not to be named. “As long as it’s a sport, it’s okay; when it becomes professional, it’s a problem. At this level when it’s three rounds, fights without a winner, it’s still okay. It’s important to remember it’s a sport, not beating [people] up. A lot of folks don’t understand that. There are a lot of restrictions on the type of punches you can throw.”
A. says that if boxing in Israel was once popular mostly among immigrants from the former Soviet bloc and the Arab community, these days the sport attracts a broader range: “It’s possible to see girls boxing who work in high-tech.”
As you see each of the competitors entering the ring, you notice that each boxer is unique in his own way. One is small and quick; another has long braids; a third shows off his abs; another highlights his hands.
What’s special about Gal “Canelo” Paz, it seems, is the color of his hair. He was given the nickname thanks to his red hair, like Mexican boxer Canelo Álvarez (the first boxer to be world champion in four weight classes). In a fight with Dov Elis, a tall young man wearing red, Paz moves fast. The two of them leave the ring with wide smiles that reveal their mouth guards. When Paz takes his off, a red tint appears on his otherwise white teeth. “What heart Canelo, what heart!” a man yells as he comes to hug him.
The crowd goes crazy
It seems that most of the spectators are here by accident. “Almost no one came to the Israeli championships,” says one of then, explaining why this location was chosen. Slowly, more people assemble in the passageways and near the ring, and a number of local celebrities can be seen alongside it.
“I like boxing and a friend told me about it,” says Yiftach Ziv, a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball player who looks fascinated by the event. Rapper Ravid Plotnik (aka Nechi Nech) came to lend support for his friend Harel Dahan, who participated in one of the two main fights and also trains in Finer’s gym.
In the adjacent Freak board-game store and tattoo studio, meanwhile, it was business as usual. The people sitting here are unenthused by the hundreds outside, but on the floor below things are heating up. When Dahan fought Hen Shushan, the crowd went crazy. About 400 people created an atmosphere that wouldn’t have shamed million-dollar fights, and fans chanted Dahan’s name. Lifshitz stood on a chair to improve her view. Plotnik got as close as possible to the ring and joined passionately in the singing in honor of Dahan.
The local hero managed to evade Shushan’s jab and cross punch, and was careful not to be backed into a corner. Every time it seemed Shushan was about to connect with his opponent’s face, Lifshitz looked away. Dahan’s mother stood by the side and preferred to chat with Finer’s mother instead of watching her son fight, with Lifshitz reporting in real time on her son’s condition.
After three rounds, Dahan is declared the winner. This causes Shushan’s crew and fans to protest the refereeing, in an attempt to reverse the decision. When chutzpah doesn’t help, they try something else: declaring Shushan the winner. But they are in the minority, with the majority cheering Dahan as he emerges from the ring, winning a small bit of the fame he and trains so hard for every day.
“There’s a rumor that it’s worth sending children with attention deficit disorders” to Finer, Lifshitz says. “When you see how she controls groups in a time where it’s impossible to tell [kids] anything, it’s really impressive to see.”
Finer may be able to use boxing as an educational and sporting tool – but it is likely that she and the rest of Israel’s boxing fans would prefer to win a lot more respect here. In the meantime, they make do with evenings at the Dizengoff Center. That’s something too.