From bully to boxer and mentor
By Chandrea Serebro
Self-proclaimed “impossible kid” who went on to become a world champion and to champion the world of disabled kids, Itai Liptz has pretty much done it all and still dreams of doing more. Now as CEO of Mexem, a Financial Services Company that he founded, Itai reflects on having been given a repeated dose of “luck” during a tumultuous journey that he admits was “not too easy on him”. A journey that led him to help kids who don’t have it easy and to whom he looks to instil the same grit attitude which saw him conquer mountains and overcome war wounds, personal struggles, and his own demons.
Growing up in Jerusalem to an “amazing” family, Itai was a “problem child” suffering from ADHD and severe dyslexia in an age when neither of these two disorders was widespread or even acknowledged. Itai’s parents wanted to help give him the tools to cope with his frustration and the challenges that he faced. So, at seven years old, they enrolled him in a martial arts school to learn to fight with “discipline” rather than the rough and ready antics he employed on the playground in the hope that he would learn to channel his energy into constructive rather than destructive behaviours. “I was the youngest and the weakest in the class,” Itai recalls, his training six hours a week being synonymous with getting beaten up for six hours a week.
But, when he entered his first fight at the age of ten, Itai’s world opened up in slow motion before his very eyes.” I was stronger and quicker than my opponent who was older than me, and I was more skilled than he was by far. I remember thinking “wow – I am finally good at something.” This first dose of self-belief led Itai to take his fighting seriously and, at the age of 14, he began competing in Europe, offering him an opportunity to travel and hone his skills. Nine years after starting his career in fighting, at 16 years old, Itai experienced his first loss against a French opponent, which was a “lesson for life” for him. “I lost the battle before I even entered the ring. Here was this huge French fighter who I was to take on, on his home ground, covered in tattoos from top-to-toe, scaring the living daylights out of me with just one look. He never really even had to throw a punch.”
After this defeat, Itai realised that he had to change his approach to life, and whatever challenge or difficulty he would have to face in life, he vowed that he would go after it to win it, no matter the odds, no matter what the world, or his own inner voice, would be saying. This would be a lesson that Itai would draw on often in the next decade of his life when the odds would be stacked against him.
Leaving school before he could graduate because of his learning difficulties and his erratic, often bullying behaviour, Itai went on to join the Special Forces, where he says, “G-d didn’t send me a second chance, but my second hundredth chance.” The Army supported Itai’s return to his studies, enabling him to matriculate and earn his University degree, despite a consistent struggle with his dyslexia and ADHD. His struggles only got worse when he was severely injured in the second Lebanon War, when Itai learned the art of humility, having to face his physical limitations, when he found himself struggling to walk despite being “the guy who would run a mile”, and having to man up to the person he would become on the weekends, picking random fights. “I was trying to prove something to everyone else and to myself, going about it the only way I knew how.”
So, Itai turned to his love of adventure and sports, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro solo, scaling Aconcagua, and breaking the Israeli Free Diving record. He was pushing himself to the limit, to prove that he could do whatever he wanted. Itai wanted to go off to Thailand to fight professionally, but first decided to spend time “giving back” at the suggestion of his family. He volunteered at Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem as a sports coach for special needs people, teaching blind children to swim and as a fitness and climbing instructor. “This singularly changed my life. At 24, for the first time, I wasn’t aggressive. I wasn’t fighting. I was just happy. I had been running around trying to be the best, and here at Alyn I saw the reality of life. I saw people with children who weren’t well. I saw kids who couldn’t breathe without a machine. Brain damaged kids who couldn’t walk. Down’s Syndrome kids. They weren’t busy destroying themselves, they were living. And they inspired me. For the first time, I saw true life battles. I realised that for too long I had been running around trying to prove my worth, trying to find happiness. And here, with these kids, I found just that.” Itai’s epiphany was that the world is bigger than his personal achievements. The records he set and the fights he won encouraged him and he took these lessons to the kids he mentored and went on to help the Israeli Special Olympic team and the Paralympics team he coached win their events. He ran a marathon in Jerusalem with a disabled person, helping him realise his dream. “I felt truly amazing. I had found myself.”
Itai finally moved to Thailand to realise his dream of fighting professionally, and he was crowned Muay Thai boxing Z-1 world champion in 2011 and 2012 in his category. “I’ll never forget that day. I was losing the fight miserably and my coach asked me: ‘Would you want your kids at home who have overcome such challenges to see you this way?’ He helped me dig deep to find the part of me that wanted to be an excellent role model to these kids, for them to look up to me, to see me as a hero. Suddenly, I wanted to win the fight and become an icon. For them.” Living the life in Thailand and loving the world of professional fighting, it wasn’t until a respected Thai businessman and friend asked Itai, “What are you doing here? You are wasting your time and your life is passing you by.” He knew then that he needed to settle down, something which had previously been a distant idea for Itai, especially now as he was at the peak of his boxing career.
“Again, I looked back at my disabled kids that had so inspired me and what they could achieve. And, that readied me for the challenge of further study with the intention to go into business.” Despite major misgivings, Itai went on to study for an MBA, meeting and marrying his wife in South Africa and returning here to start his own business, Mexem, a financial services company offering South African clients access to Interactive Brokers – the largest US electronic broker. But, what still gives Itai the most meaning is passing on the lessons he gained from his own tumultuous times to other kids, specifically disabled ones or those who haven’t been as “lucky” as he was in his life.
Now he trains the kids at Arcadia in swimming and soccer, but more than that, he says, “I make them stretch themselves beyond their limits. I teach them determination and dedication, how to lose, to want to win, and how to face their challenges head on – much of what I lived in my own personal life.” And while Itai admits he can at times be “tough” on them, he reassures them that trials are an “excellent way to learn about life”, and he gives them the resources to find their hidden reserves of self-belief and drive to get through them. “Seeing these kids achieve the goals that they never thought possible is such a huge thing for me. Being able to help them do it is a privilege.”
He is not under any false pretence. Itai is still that kid who wants to climb Mount Everest, to push the boundaries and go beyond himself. But he knows his limits now and he uses this self-knowledge to help the kids he trains push their vision of their own limits and put in the hard work to achieve them. “Because I know they can do it. They will be something great in life. They will succeed at what they try. And how do I know this? Because I’m the best example I can give them.”