World, Middle East

Rivalry between Iranian, American wrestlers takes sports to new heights in Iran

Hassan Yazdani of Iran and David Taylor of US are two long-time rivals in freestyle wrestling

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 06.10.2021
Rivalry between Iranian, American wrestlers takes sports to new heights in Iran


As Iran's top-ranked freestyle wrestler and the reigning world champion took on his long-time American rival and the reigning Olympic champion for the world championship title this week, it was no less than a war.

The two highly-decorated wrestlers and arch rivals — Hassan Yazdani of Iran and David Taylor of the US — had faced off less than two months ago, at the Tokyo Olympics.

Taylor had the last laugh that time, leaving Yazdani and his legions of fans devastated.

But on Sunday, the Iranian avenged his loss at the Tokyo Olympics final, overpowering the American for 86kg gold at the world wrestling championships in Oslo, and thereby rekindling the epic rivalry.

The sensational 6-2 win caught the imagination of the people in Iran, where wrestling comes next only to soccer in terms of popularity and where Yazdani is placed on the same pedestal as legendary footballer Ali Daei, whose longstanding world record of 109 international goals was broken recently by Cristiano Ronaldo.

The love and admiration for Yazdani in Iran springs from the laurels he has brought for his country — three-time world champion, one-time Olympic champion, and two-time Asian champion.

However, one key aspect of that is related to his long-time rivalry with Taylor, the reigning Olympic champion and the former world champion, which has quite evidently taken political contours too, amidst heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.

In Iran, the contest between them is seen as no less than a war, in the same way cricket matches between India and Pakistan are looked at around the world. Some sports rivalries cannot be separated from politics.

"Hassan Yazdani's win against David Taylor is big, bigger than other two gold medals by Iranian wrestlers at Oslo," Rohullah Amini, a Tehran-based sports journalist, told Anadolu Agency.

"Somehow the rivalry between them has to be seen in the context of relations between Iran and the US."

Pertinently, the duo had faced four times in major world wrestling events since 2017. Taylor always prevailed over Yazdani in closely-fought bouts until the box-office clash in Oslo this week.

Iranian squad has put up its best performance in this year's world championship in Norway, clinching three gold and three silver medals in six different categories of the freestyle division. It is also competing in the Greco-Roman division, with more medals up for grabs.

Tributes galore

Yazdani's popularity was on full display at the Nyle Jordal Amfi Stadium in Oslo on Sunday as his supporters cheered him on from the stands. There were emotional scenes as Yazdani pinned his American opponent down before breaking into tears of joy.

Soon, images of his celebratory run inside the court went viral, as everyone from film stars to politicians in Iran raced to congratulate the 27-year old world wrestling champion from a small town of Jauybar in northern Iran's Mazandaran province.

People poured into the streets at midnight to celebrate the win, and television reporters dashed off to Mazandran to interview his family, friends and former coaches.

Speaking after the match, Yazdani said his tears were "for the people" as he didn't want to disappoint them again. After the loss in Tokyo, he had apologized to the Iranians.

Among the first to congratulate Yazdani was Iran's newly-appointed sports minister and former Olympian, Syed Hamid Sajjadi, who said his win against the American rival had "made the nation happy and proud".

Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber termed Yazdani's win against Taylor a "heroic feat", which he said has brought "joy and happiness" to the country.

Parliament Speaker Baqer Ghalibaf shared a video of his whatsapp call to Yazdani, in which he hailed him as a "national hero".

Tehran's mayor and former presidential candidate, Alireza Zakani, said his name "should adorn the streets of this city", in an indication that a street might be named after Yazdani in the national capital.

In a cryptic reference to tensions between Iran and the US, Zakani said the idea is to "tire the opponent and strike at the end", adding that an Iranian "will never surrender to the opponent".

President Ebrahim Raeisi chipped in little late to congratulate the "brave champions", whose wins he said "created a wave of pride and joy" among people.

The last one to congratulate Yazdani and his fellow medal winners was Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said the "honorable victory" of wrestlers had "delighted everyone" in the country.

Sacred passion

Iran is known for its rich wrestling tradition, having bagged a vast majority of its Olympic medals in this sport, known in the local language as "koshti".

While the tradition dates back many centuries, the modern version of Iran's "varzesh e bastani" (traditional wrestling), originally practiced in "zoorkhaneh" (house of strength), was made popular by Gholamreza Takhti, who won three Olympic medals for Iran between 1952 and 1960.

"From zoorkhaneh with spiritual music in the background to the world championships with noise and glitz, it's been a giant leap for Iranian wrestlers," Mahdi Mohammadi, a historian and wrestling enthusiast, told Anadolu Agency.

"Wrestling is more than a sport in Iran, it is a form of meditation, a prayer, a sacred ritual," he said. "Wrestlers (pahlavan) are supposed to be powerful both physically and morally, to be real men."

Over the years, many Iranian wrestlers have made their mark at the world stage. Abdollah Movahed dominated freestyle wrestling between 1965 and 1970, winning five world titles and a gold at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Rasoul Khadem burst onto the scene in 1990s, winning back to back world titles in 1994 and 1995 before clinching a gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Hamid Sourian was a big name in Greco-Roman wrestling, winning six world titles between 2005 and 2015, besides a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Yazdani's name, as some sports historians argue, figures above all these wrestlers, given his vast medal tally as well as formidable opponents, which includes Taylor.

Reza Akbari, an Iranian-American researcher, in a tweet on Monday, said Yazdani's victory over his American opponent "will be politicized as almost all US-Iran matters".

"But those who followed the intense Yazdani-Taylor rivalry for the past 5 years know the tremendous amount of respect between them. They know each other better and they know it," he said.

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