If Natan Levy leaves his Saturday bout Rafa Garcia victorious, don’t expect the UFC debutant to be doing backflips or jumping on top of the Octagon.
“I feel like if you jump and go crazy after you win a fight, it's like you weren't expecting to win,” said Levy. “You're too happy you won. When I step in there, I know I'm gonna win so I'm not that excited that I won. I'm very happy, but I don't lose myself. I think you have to act like a pro.”
In other words, act like you’ve been there before.
That serious approach to the sport is also Levy’s approach to life. Sure, he likes to enjoy himself as much as the next guy, but when it’s time to work, it’s time to work.
“It's not all fun and games,” he said. “I really feel like I have a mission and it's to go as far as possible. Whether it's for myself, because I know I only have one shot at this, and at life, or for my people that I represent. I want to do the best I can do. Sometimes people are having too much fun, in my opinion. Sometimes a little bit in training, you have a little bit of fun and it's nice, but for me, I don't want to lose everything I sacrificed so far to have fun. Everything I sacrificed was to be great and to do something bigger than myself, something I feel I was destined to do.”
That destiny wasn’t something that was going to be easy to achieve. Born in France but raised in Israel, Levy wasn’t exactly interested in school or a 9 to 5 life. But in karate, he found his place.
“At school, I wasn't doing very good, and this atmosphere wasn't for me,” he said. “And when I started karate, I wanted to be a teacher. And then I saw I was talented, but in different ways. Maybe I wasn't the most talented in a school environment, but I was very talented at teaching and showing people how to do moves, connecting with people, helping them gain self-confidence.”
Then along came the UFC, and Levy’s whole outlook on life – and his future - changed.
“I had a few successful karate gyms and I would wake up every time there was a fight at 4 or 5am to watch the UFC card,” he recalls. “Slowly, it started becoming something that I really wanted to do and I knew at 22, it was now or never. So I closed my gyms, passed some of my students to other instructors that I trusted and went for it. I didn't know anybody or anything - I just flew to Vegas, showed up and wanted to be a fighter.”
It was a bold move, one that could have left his family and friends back home scratching their heads, but they knew who he was, so it wasn’t too surprising that he left everything to chase a dream that wasn’t guaranteed to have a happy ending.
“My family already knew I'm kind of a very extreme person and when I do something, I want to do it the best possible,” said Levy. “When I was doing karate, I flew to Japan because I wanted to train with the grandmasters in Okinawa. And it was the same thing here. The moment I knew I wanted to do MMA, many people told me I should start doing MMA in Israel, maybe become a local champion and then fly to the U.S. And I didn't listen. I just wanted to train with the best and compete with the best, so I went for it.”
Beginning his amateur career in 2015, Levy made a name for himself in Las Vegas and then turned pro in 2018. Five fights (and wins) later, he had a spot on Dana White’s Contender Series last year, and he made the most of that opportunity, submitting Shaheen Santana and earning a UFC contract.
Now, after a couple starts and stops, he makes his debut against Garcia. So is the 30-year-old ready for all this after just six pro fights?
“Yeah, I think I am ready for this,” he said. “First of all, including amateur I have ten fights and also, I started a little bit late, but I have a long martial arts journey behind me, so I feel I'm mature enough for it.”
That maturity, which is evident the second you begin talking to him, is an overlooked aspect of success in this sport. Sure, it’s nice to be 20 years old and full of all the talent and energy that goes with it. But knowing a little bit about life once you get to the big show can help a fighter deal with everything that happens in – and out of – the Octagon.
“I think it's very important,” Levy said. “It's a part of what makes you a complete fighter. It's not only if you can grapple and strike; it's also if you have the mental fortitude to go through hardships. And a lot of times, it's not the best fighter, it's who's left. Many fighters, things happen and they stop fighting before they can discover how good they really are.”
Levy wasn’t about to stop. The way he sees it, he’s just starting, and in doing so, he’s not only doing this for the usual reasons, but to set an example for mixed martial artists back home in Israel.
“There is some pressure, but it's not like bad pressure,” he said. “I don't mind it. It's one thing where I can make a difference. I wouldn't recommend to any kid to become a fighter, but some kids are destined to be fighters, and I'd like them to believe in themselves and see the path to doing it right and being successful at it.”
So is it safe to say Levy was one of those kids destined to be a fighter?
“I wasn't going to be sitting behind a desk.”