Pummeling His Way to Glory

Shuki Rozenzweig started off as a Jerusalem fishmonger. Today he’s a hero of sorts in Thailand as a master of the full-contact, rib-smashing sport of Thai boxing. Other Israelis are close behind.



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, November 18, 2002



Bruised and battered but winning: Shuki Rosenzweig with some of his champion's belts (photos courtesy of Shuki Rosenzweig)

“This guy,” Shuki Rosenzweig says, “wanted to chop my head off with his elbows, rip my heart out, kill me.” He’s referring to Panpana, Cambodia’s best Thai boxer, a vicious fighter who wields his calloused elbows to beat opponents into submission; the Israeli fought him last August in the ring of Phnom Penh Stadium. Gazing at the taped recording of a Cambodian Channel 5 broadcast in his sparse bachelor pad in Bangkok, Rosenzweig relives the most recent bout in this long-standing blood feud.


Following a rapid flurry of traded kicks and punches in Round 1, Panpana knees the Israeli savagely in the ribs. On the screen Rosenzweig doubles up in pain. In the flesh, he pulls up his T-shirt to reveal a lump on his right side where a broken rib hasn’t yet healed. ”In the break, I gulped down some lungfuls to regain my composure,” he offers by way of explaining his decision to carry on.


On to Round 2: The Cambodian, wearing a pair of amulet-bearing straps wrapped around his biceps for divine protection, wins that, too. ”Every time I moved a muscle,” explains Rosenzweig, a Kojak-bald, Dumbo-eared six-footer from Jerusalem with knuckle-busted fists, “I felt my broken rib stab me.” But Panpana, snarling and wild-eyed, won’t pull his punches. He craves revenge: A garlanded hero in his homeland, he’s ignominiously lost both of his previous fights with the Israeli. He can’t afford to be humiliated again. Yet Rosenzweig, who is 34 with a lean, finely honed physique, and now blooded with an eyebrow cut, wants to bruise back.


Rounds 3 and 4: As fist-shaking, feverish spectators egg the fighters on, the Israeli kicks the Cambodian to the temple and pummels him in the ribs. Bobbing and weaving rhythmically in his long-limbed loping way, he knees Panpana in the solar plexus and wallops his head. Rosenzweig has evened out the odds. Then watch: Twisted sidewise, Rosenzweig whacks his nemesis across the forehead with a brutal backhanded slap. He heard a crack, he now says, “like a coconut splitting open.” Panpana staggers and reels back against the ropes, dazed and disoriented. Unrelenting, the Israeli purses his wounded pray, pummeling him left and right, right and left. Gong! Gong! Gong! The bell saves the Cambodian.


Rosenzweig slumps down on the plastic stool in his corner. Off screen, he raises his plaster-cast right arm. It was that which cracked, not Panpana’s skull. First a broken rib, now a fractured lower arm. ”God helped me continue,” he offers, though he professes not to be religious beyond some pantheistic beliefs. ”Maybe He likes Thai boxing; I don’t know.”


In the fifth and last three minutes, with his fractured right arm throbbing, his broken rib stinging, the Israeli knocks the Cambodian down twice: Panpana scampers on all fours to the safety of refereed time-outs. “Look! I even spin-back-kicked him!” Rosenzweig exclaims, fast-rewinding the tape for another eyeful of his masterful footwork. Then it’s on to a perfect roundhouse kick, a straight-kneed sidewise battering ram of a whip-kick using the shin to bludgeon his opponent. Next, in a push-kick, he shoves a heel hard into the Cambodian’s chin. ”I’ll tell my grandchildren about this fight!” he pledges.


The rematch ends in a draw. But Rosenzweig perceives himself the winner. He performs some push-ups and struts around the ring like a triumphant fighting-cock. ”I don’t exaggerate,” he boasts, “if I say I’m the most popular foreign fighter in Cambodia.”


* * *


Probably in Thailand as well. In Bangkok, the citadel of Muay Thai (Thai boxing), where champions are idolized, Shuki Rosenzweig — or “Suki” to sibilant-challenged Thais — is fast becoming a household-name celebrity. Sports dailies carry his visage on their covers, sometimes for days in a row; television commentators refer to him during fights he’s nowhere near; boxing fans recognize him in shopping malls, pointing him out excitedly to friends: “Suki! Suki!”

The Israeli gives a Thai boxer a taste of his elbow


He owes it to a fight he lost. Last August, in a nationally televised boxing match against a Thai champion Namsak Noi in Bangkok’s Lumphini Park Stadium (the Thai boxing equivalent of Madison Square Garden), Rosenzweig was strong-armed by his promoters to fight despite a dislocated left shoulder. He didn’t stand a chance. So in mid-fight he threw his arms wide and, defenseless, taunted his opponent on live television in front of millions of enraptured Thai boxing fans: “C’mon! C’mon! Gimme your best shot!” The Thai boxer did, but Rosenzweig remained standing until his helpers thought it wise to save him by throwing in the towel. ”When I fight,” he says, “I want to win right here, right now, as if there’s no tomorrow.”


At a bout last March in Lamai Stadium on the scenic island of Koh Samui against Sanit Lek, the South Thailand Champion, Rosenzweig, while delivering a pile driver, broke a bone in the back of his right fist. ”This guy kicks like crazy and he almost knocked me out in Round 4,” Rosenzweig recalls. ”It was a hell of a fight!” In the end, it was the Israeli who knocked his opponent out. He became a local hero: His framed photograph now graces the honor wall in Lamai Stadium. It was here that he’s fought and won most of his 31 professional fights in Thailand since his first in October 2000. He’s been “adopted” by the stadium’s powerful Thai owner, Puyay Now: Rosenzweig now boxes under the nom de guerre “Shuki Sitpuyaynow” (Shuki the protege of Chief Now).


Shuki “Pain’s My Middle Name” Rosenzweig rakes in about 12,000 baht ($300) a fight from such promoters. Having just squandered his hard-earned savings in a business scheme gone bad, he’s down on his last 3,000 baht ($75). Nibbling yoghurt from a small plastic cup and refusing invitations for a more filling meal, the erstwhile fishmonger at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehudah open-air market is nursing his fractured arm back into its service in professional boxing. But even if he starves, he insists, money comes second in his spoiling to fight again. ”After each match,” he says, ”I relive every moment a hundred times again, rewind it in my memory, and replay it in slow motion.” He bolsters his point: “I love fighting and Muay Thai is the ultimate fighting sport.”


Muay Thai, developed on ancient battle fields, is a heavy-duty, full-contact, hand-to-hand combat; a fighter pummels his adversary with fists, pounds his head and chest with elbows, rams his ribs and kidneys with knees, and shatters his blocking defenses with savage kicks. Fists, feet, elbows, knees: hence its moniker “the eight-limbed science.” (In kickboxing, with which it is sometimes confused, only fists and feet are allowed.) ”A Thai boxer will beat a karate or kung fu fighter any time,” claims Rosenzweig, who was a kung fu brown belt before making his transition first to kickboxing, then to Thai boxing 10 years ago. ”I already did.”


Shunning fancy martial arts choreography, Thai boxers employ a limited arsenal of moves, the ones that best suit their fighting style. Rosenzweig is a knee-thrust and punch specialist. Naron Siri, his 52-year-old khruu (training guru) in Rompo Gym who was a prize fighter in his time and has been coaching boxers worldwide for 28 years, credits his student with being ”the best knee-fighter in Thailand.” ”Shuki isn’t a stylist fighter,” the boxer-nosed, sparse-toothed, mustachioed master elucidates. ”He fights as I used to fight — like a pit-bull hounding his rival to exhaustion before finishing him off.”


* * *


In the open-air training ground of Jockey Gym’s crammed courtyard flanked by a two-story building collapsed on monsoon-sodden ground and a festering sewage-logged canal, young aspirants and reigning champions — barefoot and bare-chested them all — sweat it out elbow-to-shoulder in windless damp air that feels like a sauna’s hot steam. The flying fists and flailing feet fuse into a whirlwind of paired-up trainees. Here, a wiry, pocket-size 13-year-old in yellow shorts is battering away with steely resolve at the hand and kidney pads of an aging veteran fighter. There, a sinewy up-and-comer is pounding a tattered, rag-stuffed cowhide bag. Behind them, Sanchai, the 23-year-old flyweight world champion, is dealing sweeping shin kicks into a hapless assistant’s padded gloves. The muggy air is thick with the self-motivating growls and yelps of Ayee! Aey! Ohoy!


Momentarily, as the gym’s numerous past champs, flashing toothy grins over their gleaming big-buckled victory belts, look on approvingly from faded ringside photographs, kicks and punches cease and heads turn: Asher Ben Yehuda -- sporting blue boxing shorts emblazoned with his pugilistic vow ”I love Marion and Jerusalem” (his French Jewish wife and his hometown) —  mounts the creaky wooden steps to the weathered boxing ring’s platform for a mock fight with 41-year-old shin-guarded Peepa, the head trainer who exhibits Thai boxers’ distinctive mark: chiseled abdominals. Thai boxers don’t have the colored belt system of karate or kung fu fighters; they rank themselves in the threshing mill of the ring. And in there, even mock fights can nudge you up and down a fiercely contested place on the psychological pyramid of standing and reputation.


After minutes of bone-crushing punches and kicks, a winded Peepa whacks Ben Yehuda appreciatively at the back of his sweat-drenched, peroxide-dyed head. The 24-year-old Israeli — or farang (white foreigner) as he’s known here — has acquitted himself well. The Jerusalemite fetches his sweaty black T-shirt, which proclaims to the world: This Spirit Is Full of Motivation, Soul, Heart, and Inspiration.


It seems like that. Ben Yehuda trains and fights like native Thais. He lives like them too; in Bang Po, an outlying seedy district that feels a world away from Bangkok’s modern downtown. There, he and Marion share a small airless cell in a five-storey building (where most of his neighbors are fellow fighters), overlooking his gym’s corrugated-iron roof. He gobbles sticky rice with steamed fish and washes it down with raw egg whites. With the first crack of dawn streaking across the drowsy Bangkok sky, he rises at 5 a.m. for his bleary-eyed 10km jog, followed by an intense day of training. Like his fellows, he kowtows to their mentor, who lives next-door in a baronial mansion among shacks: Somluck Kamsing, a featherweight who won Thailand’s first-ever Olympic gold in Western-style boxing in Atlanta in 1996 (Thai boxing isn’t yet an Olympic sport) and has since been virtually deified.


Ben Yehuda boxes, too — a peripatetic pugilist on the fight circuit. After he performs the pre-fight ram muay ritual, a slow-motion ballet-like boxer dance, and — wearing fighters’ sacred monkon headband — kneels in homage at center-ring facing his camp and trainer, he’s ready to rumble. To the undulating, adrenalin-churning tempo of live ringside fight tunes coming from ching cymbals, Javanese oboes, and Indian drums, Ben Yehuda battles his opponent while savvy spectators are betting frenziedly in the stands. Those who wagered on Ben Yehuda last August lost a packet. In a welterweight match, the virtual rookie took on Ying-yai, Thailand’s preeminent champion who reigns supreme in Lumphini Park and whose name translates as “great prize” — fittingly for a man whose defeat would indeed be a great prize for the Israeli rookie. In the third round, Ben Yehuda got kneed in the abdomen; he buckled helpless to the floor. Game over.


Kamsing chewed Ben Yehuda out after his defeat, deriding his protege: “You’re a katoey (lady boy)! You’ve got no heart!” ”I went home and cried,” Ben Yehuda admits. ”I knew he was right that I’d let myself down.” The Thai wouldn’t speak to the Israeli for a week. Today the two are chums again. Sipping iced soda amicably on his marble-floored patio, his embossed iron gates invitingly open to his fighters training boisterously within earshot, Kamsing explains himself: “Even some great native boxers never get to fight in Lumphini Park.” (Kamsing leant heavily on organizers to let Ben Yehuda box there.) ”In the first round already, Ying-yai was jelly, ready to go down. Then this fellow” — Kamsing indicates the Israeli, who’s sheepishly massaging a band-aided eyebrow cut he just received in a fight on Koh Samui — “got cold feet.” Yet he adds reassuringly: “Asher is more motivated than many of my Thai fighters. Once he gets the drift (experience), he’ll fly like a kite in the wind.” The aspirant kite pledges: “Even if they beat me to a pulp, I’ll never back down again!”


* * *


On the professional boxers’ circuit around Thailand, strengthening the ranks of the dozen or so foreign fighters, are three other Israelis, all from a gym in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. Yitzik Levy is a smallish fluffy-haired rascal of a fighter, based in Koh Samui, with (in Ben Yehuda's words) “a world of talent” but also a sorry bent for self-defeating carousal. Tamir Partush is a reticent hermit, who shuns publicity and lets his fists and feet do the talking. Daniel Golan, a scar-faced ruggedly handsome fellow in his early twenties living next-door to Rosenzweig, rarely appears without his starry-eyed Thai girlfriend at his side. Capable fighters in their own right, they’re standing their ground in various boxing rings, like a band of Maccabi brothers-in-arms, routinely beating the Thais at their own game.


But it’s clearly Rosenzweig who carries the banner for them all. ”Since I can remember,” he asserts, “I’ve wanted to be a fighter.” As a teenager, he feasted his eyes and imagination on martial art flicks with Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Already at 13, he was the junior boxing champion of Jerusalem. After flirting with kung fu and finishing his army service as a military policeman, he hit on kickboxing. He made for the Jet Center in Van Nuys, California, kickboxing’s ultimate training arena. He won the California State Championship in 1993.


Feeling hamstrung by his sport’s technical limitations, he soon opted to try his hands and feet at Muay Thai, in its European centers in Amsterdam and Paris, where he trained under the world-renowned fighter and trainer Andre Zeitoun. Later, as the Israeli welterweight Muay Thai champion (a title he held for four years after 1997), Rosenzweig would chaperone the Jewish Zeitoun around Israel on a Thai-style technique demonstration tour. He also opened Siam Boxing Jerusalem Gym in Talpiot, where he coached some 40 aspiring Israeli Muay Thai boxers, often for free as most of them were disadvantaged youngsters. Ben Yehuda, a yeshiva dropout from an ultra-Orthodox family who admits to having been “a punk and a bully,” was one of them. He would assault yeshivah students and tourists on the street; later in the army he served six-months in lockup for cocking his gun at an officer. He latched onto Rosenzweig, who told him: “If you’re such a tough guy, prove it in the ring.”


From then on, “living and breathing Muay Thai,” Ben Yehuda says, the pair would sleep on mats on the gym’s cement floor. Eager to try his Jerusalem-honed Thai boxing skills in the sport’s fighter-measuring homeland, Rosenzweig flew to Bangkok in September 2000, with Ben Yehuda soon following. Rosenzweig’s first professional bout against a Thai, a muscle-bound veteran boxer, was in the beach resort of Koh Samui, a popular island in Thailand’s south. “He laughed at me as if I’d just stepped out of some comic book,” recalls the wiry Jerusalemite. “Until I knocked him out.”


Later this year, he’s slated to box at a prize fight in Hong Kong. And next January he’s scheduled to challenge Ben Yehuda’s bane, Ying-yai, for the World Muay Thai Council’s championship belt (the ultimate trophy) in Lumphini Stadium. “Ying-yai is better technically than me,” Rosenzweig allows. “But I’ll chase him down, wear him out, and snatch his belt from him.” His coach, Naron Siri, agrees: “Shuki is one of a kind. He can beat Ying-yai. He will.”



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