A few days ago Hani Khalil pulled off the greatest achievement of his life, so far. At 25, eight years after first entering the arena, the martial arts specialist from the town of Fureidis was runner-up in the under-84 kg division at the World Kickboxing Championship in Antalya, Turkey.
He almost won the gold medal, but missed out because of a technical error he committed in the third round, which cost him three points.
“I was already leading in the final round,” he says, “nearly becoming world champion, but I ran out of luck. I was angry, but now I feel grateful for what I did accomplish. Many people would be happy to be number two in the world.”
When he was younger he used to lift weights. When he turned 17 his father, a former soccer player, and his uncle, a retired boxer, pushed him into joining a martial arts club. He tried self-defense, karate and Thai boxing before discovering kickboxing. “I wanted to become a famous athlete, to be a champion like my uncle,” he says.
Khalil remembers taking the bus to attend training sessions in central Israel, until he started kickboxing in the ring at Kfar Yasif, under the tutelage of Hani Sachs and his son Peter.
“I wanted to advance so I tackled it very seriously, with five or six training sessions every week. It was hard, but the drive and belief in myself helped me attain a high level,” he says. “I like delivering and receiving blows − it’s something I’ve gotten used to. On days it doesn’t happen I feel like something is missing. It’s in my blood. People think kickboxing is just about blows, but that’s not it. You need stamina, concentration and patience in order to be really good at it.”
Khalil gives everything he’s got when he’s in the ring, but like other athletes in more esoteric sports, gets little from the sports establishment. The Israel All-Style Kickboxing Federation and the Ayelet Federation (of non-Olympic competitive sports in Israel) have collected token sums to support him, but in order to make ends meet he has to get up at 5:30 A.M. every morning and show up at the local school in Fureidis. “I work there as a guard and maintenance worker in order to cover living expenses and gas,” he explains.
In the afternoon he goes home for lunch and then continues to Kfar Yasif for a training session, which goes on into the night. This is what he does on a daily basis, trying to sneak in time for stamina training and running, which helps relieve tension.
Before winning the medal in Turkey, Khalil won several championships in Israel, as well as coming in sixth in Europe. “Before each fight I kiss my mother’s and father’s hands when I leave the house and go pray at the mosque,” says Khalil, who lives at home with two brothers and one sister.
He attributes the delays he’s subjected to during security checks at Ben-Gurion International Airport not to his name or origins, but rather to the tins of food he carries with him on his trips. On the other hand Khalil agrees that the Arab sector, which is blessed with many talented athletes such as Yousef Abdelghani, bronze medalist at the European Boxing Championship three years ago, does not receive the attention it deserves. “If we had better support the sector could produce many champions,” he says.
He is convinced that funding will allow this potential to come to fruition. “Instead of training three times a day I have to go out and work. But it’s not just the training: Our competitors abroad have equipment, the right food, masseurs and psychologists to help them out. I wish I had all that, but with my budget I barely manage to live and train.”
Despite his impressive achievement, Khalil raised the ire of bloggers in Israel when he was the only medal winner to mount the podium without the flag of the country he was representing. “I was called to the ceremony immediately after winning and went directly to the podium,” he explains. “People thought that I didn’t want to carry the flag, but I’m not ashamed of it. Why would I have a problem with it? I wasn’t focused after the fight. I’m from Israel, so why would I be afraid or embarrassed to hold up its flag? I have no problem with that.”
The soft tone is not put on for show. It seems that behind the scary dimensions, the fists and kicks, there lies a relaxed soul. “This sport also educates you” says Khalil. “The boxer is not an evil person who only hits, but someone who respects people. If you annoy or even curse him, he won’t strike back. He’s relaxed, educated and can control himself.”
He says that everyone is excited when entering the ring. “There’s tension and pressure since everyone wants you to win, but I try to remain calm so as not to operate only with force, but with technique and by using my head. If I only lash out, I lose right away.”
In May he will marry Khanin, his girlfriend for the last two years. Eight years after discovering kickboxing, he believes that his career has yet to peak. “This was a great accomplishment, but I’m carrying on, not stopping yet,” he says. “I dream of being world champion, of getting more support and of setting up a team in Fureidis that will represent Israel and produce champions.”