The Ultimate Jewish Fighter


It is the fifth round of a martial arts championship fight and the two strapping gladiators are fighting exhaustion as well as each other. Moti Horenstein is exchanging punches and kicks with Peter Vine.

"It was a matter of who wanted it more," Horenstein says in his Spring Valley office, narrating his 1996 Shidokan match at Chicago’s Bismarck Palace.

Horenstein picks up his opponent and slams him repeatedly into the canvas. Finally, a kick to the head finishes off Vine.The referee lifts Horenstein’s arm in victory: one that gives him the world title only two years after turning pro in a no-holds-barred sport that combines elements of karate, wrestling and Thai boxing.

Back in his office Horenstein, 6-foot-2, 235 pounds of layered muscle, smiles. "The Hammer," a title tattooed on his back, is a secular Sabra at home among the black hats of Rockland County, where he lives alone and keeps a kosher home. He holds the super heavyweight title in Shidokan and in two other forms of Ultimate Fighting: part boxing, part wrestling, part martial arts, part slug-it-out street combat.

All told, the Tel Aviv native owns five championships, awarded by various martial arts organizations.

"I’m unique," he says. "Not a lot of people meet Israeli fighters."

Horenstein won his first world title, in a form of karate, in 1994. His most recent championship, in Thai boxing, came last November in Thailand.

In the small but fanatic world of his sport, which like other ultimate or extreme sports has boomed in popularity in recent years, Horenstein is a known name, and he has fought on ESPN. His trunks are embroidered with the Hebrew word Hisardut, survival, and fans wave Israeli flags at his matches. "They scream my name," he says.

Is this Ultimate Fighting’s answer to professional wrestling’s Goldberg, the one-time wildly popular Jewish champion turned bad guy? Horenstein merely smiles at the comparison.

A surfer and guitar player and bike racer who keeps his aggression inside the ring, he says he is 35 and "getting older." Horenstein’s specialty is kickboxing, less theatrical than pro wrestling, less bellicose than regular boxing.

He dismisses the wresting comparison. Kickboxing is "very real," he says, sitting barefoot (as in the ring) in the office of his "Survival Center" in a shopping center. There’s a mezuzah on the door, trophies scattered around the room.

"It’s not like the WWF," Horenstein says of the World Wrestling Federation, which runs matches that even its president has said are orchestrated. "Every fighter gets injured."

So why does he do it?

"I like to go out and put myself in a challenge," Horenstein says. "I like what I do. People in football, ice hockey are hurting each other worse."

"It’s a sport," he says: a gentleman’s sport. You only hurt the ones you like. Competitors abide by a strict martial arts code of combat. "Even in the fights, we respect each other."

Horenstein, says Louis Neglia, a Long Island-based kickboxing promoter, is considered "an excellent fighter" and a top attraction. "He’s got a good look to him. He’s got a good charisma. People like him: he brings a nice crowd."

He started at 5 when his parents took him for judo lessons after school. Soon he mastered jujitsu and karate. He taught self-defense in the Israeli army, was national champion in the indigenous Survival competition for three years, and earned a sixth-degree black belt in karate.

Horenstein hears the question, "What’s a nice Jewish boy like you …?" all the time. His Sabra parents weren’t thrilled, at first, about his career choice. "You know how a mom thinks," he says.

He has been a paratrooper, professional model, disc jockey, landscaper and instructor at police training seminars. And a baal teshuvah.

In 1989 Horenstein visited an Orthodox friend in Monsey. He extended his two-week stay because he "saw the opportunity in America." After touring the country for a couple years, he opened his gym in Spring Valley.

"Just a small teaching school," he calls it. "I wanted a place for me to work out."

And he started fighting professionally. The bouts, five to 12 two-minute rounds, are held in mid-sized arenas and theaters.

He’s fought in Australia, Russia, China, Japan and several European cities. Have fists, after fists, will travel. "Today I can make a living from fighting." With dual citizenship, he has represented Israel and the U.S. And sometimes Russia. (Don’t ask!)

Horenstein fights once or twice a month and teaches the rest of the time. He started with one student; now he has about 400, in Spring Valley and at the Karate & Kickboxing Academy he opened last year in New City. His professional titles and the Israeli army’s mystique helped business.

About 40 percent of his students are Jewish. "We have a lot of religious kids. They’re always coming to me with questions" about physical fitness, he says.

An e-mail came in this week. A Russian emigre, Modern Orthodox, needed "a piece of good advice." The emigre was 38 and out of shape. "A workout in a gym is too boring," he wrote.

"I’ll write him to get into kickboxing," Horenstein says. "He doesn’t want to get hurt." Horenstein answers all his e-mail queries. "This is my duty as a fitness leader."

He teaches six days a week, usually finishing at 9 p.m., shuttling between his gyms in a van bearing his advertising bumper stickers. Instruction ranges from "Little Dragon Kicks" for kids to advanced lessons.

Last week began in New City, in a workout room decorated with American and Israeli flags. The Monday morning class was titled Kickboxing, but it was an aerobic sweatfest. With five children watching on the other side of a window and taped music blaring in the background, he led a dozen leotarded, 30ish karate moms in an hour of jumping-stretching-punching-jabbing-twisting-kicking exercises.

Kickboxing, according to a promotional brochure distributed at the gym, is ranked by Muscle and Fitness magazine "as the No. 1 fat burner, with over 800 calories burned in an hour class."

Horenstein says he will compete for five more years before turning to teaching full time. "My goal is to spread what I know," he says.

In the meantime, he’s grooming his younger brother, Dimor: they’re known as "The Israeli Connection" when they fight together. And he donates his time to such charities as the American Cancer Society and the March of Dimes, leading kick-a-thon fund-raisers and giving self-defense demonstrations.

"I like to help," he says simply.

Next weekend he’ll take part in the K-1 Championship, a tournament in Las Vegas leading up to a world title in Tokyo in December. After some business sessions and group lunches with his fellow fighters, he will knee some of them in the head and kick ’em in the stomach.

"Nothing personal," he stresses. "It’s a sport."

When the fighting ends, the camaraderie returns, Horenstein says. "We’ll have a party afterwards."