The “cover photo” quote featured on 20-year-old Nili Block’s Facebook page says, “When My Body ‘Shouts’ Stop, My Mind ‘Screams’ Never.”
The quote is on the mark. After a decade of blood, sweat, and tears, this daughter of immigrants who moved to Israel from Maryland when she was a young child is now a women’s world champion in the rough-and-tough sport of kickboxing.
In October 2015, Block was crowned champion in the 60-kilogram (132-pound) senior division (ages 19 and up) after winning four grueling three-round matches at the Kickboxing World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
In recognition of her achievement, the Federation of Non-Olympic Competitive Sports in Israel, known as Ayelet, last week named Block as the Jewish state’s female athlete of the year for 2015.
Block, who describes herself as a “traditional” Jew, was introduced to the kickboxing at the age of 10. Her mother, then an officer in Israel’s Border Police force, wanted her daughter to learn self-defense.
“I always liked sports and would even call myself a ‘tomboy.’ But at first I saw kickboxing just as an after-school activity, as something fun. Then it became more. I developed a daily routine. I would go to school in Beit Shemesh (where the family lives), come home, and then take the bus to Jerusalem to train at the kickboxing academy at Teddy Stadium,” Block says.
She has been in training ever since, whether it’s kickboxing or a similar discipline called Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing. Block also excelled at American flag football, playing regularly in a women’s league at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, and she has represented Israel at international football competitions on Israel’s Women’s National Team.
Yet her path to athletic success didn’t come without challenges. At the age of 17, Block had to make a serious life decision. She says that one of her dreams was to serve in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces, but how would she be able to continue her athletic training while also becoming a solider?
“It was a real dilemma,” she says. “I had to choose either combat in the army as a soldier, or sports.”
Thanks to a special IDF program, Block was able to find a middle ground. After proving her athletic prowess and showcasing her accomplishments to the IDF, including participating and even medaling in competitions in countries such as Thailand, Spain, Hungary, and Ukraine, she was accepted to join the army with a special designation as “an outstanding athlete.”
While unable to join a combat unit, for a year and nine months she was still given the chance to serve her country in some capacity as a soldier, with the army giving her time to continue her kickboxing training. Football, however, had to take a back seat because the army would only allow her to focus on her main sport.
With army service under her belt, it was time for last fall’s Kickboxing World Championships. Featuring top athletes from 16 countries in her weight class, Block had her work cut out for her. She started the tournament strong, winning her first two matches by dominating each round on points, which are awarded by four ringside judges.
But in the semifinals, Block was pitted against Elana Moratova, the reigning and six-time women’s world kickboxing champion from Belarus. After dropping the first round, Block came back to even the match in the second round, and took the third round for a decisive victory to become the new champion.
“That was the hardest match I’ve ever had, both physically and mentally,” she says. “I had lost to [Moratova] twice before in other competitions.”
Despite her clear semifinal win, the match ended with controversy as world politics reared its head. The in-ring referee was at the tournament as part of a delegation from “Palestine,” and when Block was victorious, he refused to raise her arm as the victor.
“I noticed in the match he was a bit off,” says Block, “and I wasn’t sure why. He was issuing me various warnings unnecessarily.”
After the match, Block became nervous when a group of competition officials huddled in the ring before proclaiming her the winner. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. Following their deliberation, another referee stepped in and was tasked with raising her arm in victory, as the in-ring referee adamantly refused to acknowledge the Israeli competitor’s achievement. Block says that until then she had never personally experienced any anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiments throughout her competitions around the world.
Block’s victory in the finals was far less dramatic. She won all three rounds and ascended the podium draped in an Israeli flag, becoming the new kickboxing champion of the world.
“It is such a good feeling [being champion],” she says. “I see this as an uprising, and it’s so special to become a symbol in the world as a Jew and as an Israeli. They (observers of the world championships) didn’t expect me to win, coming from such a small country. Who would have expected it?”
Someone who did expect it is Block’s longtime coach, Beny Cogan, who serves as Israel’s national kickboxing and Muay Thai coach and has been turning Israeli athletes into champions for the past 15 years. Cogan has been working with Block since she began her journey a decade ago.
“I was not surprised [that Nili won],” Cogan says. “I could see in her a gifted and talented athlete, with a strong mind and one who likes to work hard. She is an excellent worker and a winner. This is what we aim for.”
Cogan says he has worked with Israeli kickboxing and Muay Thai fighters over the years who have won a total of six first-place finishes in international tournaments.
“For me, [Block] was never the underdog,” he says.
With her gigantic championship trophy as her carry-on luggage, Block came home to Israel. Without skipping a beat, she swiftly began training to compete in the Muay Thai World Championships. That competition takes place this June in Sweden.
Her short reprise? A night off to attend the Ayelet ceremony and receive her award as Israel’s female athlete of the year. When asked what’s more meaningful—being world champion or being named Israel’s top female athlete—she hesitates.
On the one hand, she recalls her epic triumph in Belgrade, but on the other hand she says the local recognition might be even more fulfilling.
“It’s a good feeling winning [the Israeli award], I dedicated so much to it. I feel blessed. It also gives me the motivation to come back and train, seeking more,” she says, adding that being on the podium in Israel, in the presence of friends and family, “is even more uplifting.”
She also notes the importance of being recognized as a top female athlete, hoping to inspire young girls so that they too can succeed in athletics.
Block is hopeful that her world championship will help attract potential sponsorship deals that would allow her to travel and compete on a professional level in kickboxing tournaments in the U.S. and elsewhere. One day she hopes to go to college and study sports psychology, but right now it’s all about the training.
At the same time, Block is trying not to let the current wave of terror in Israel get in the way of her routine. She is confident that her experience as a multidisciplinary fighter would kick in should she be the victim of an attempted stabbing, with such attacks plaguing Israel regularly over the past few months.
In fact, Block is giving back to the community, holding a Krav Maga self-defense course this week for the girls in her high school alma mater so that they too can defend themselves.
“The main goal of self-defense is to get out alive,” she says. “I’m confident that I would able to neutralize an attacker. The main thing is knowing that you have the tools to do it. It’s all in your head. And I feel that I can, as this is what I do for a living.”
A terrorist who starts up with Block on the Israeli street would likely be in for an unpleasant surprise. Indeed, that’s why Block’s mother first enrolled her in self-defense classes a decade ago.