Sunday night's WEC lightweight
title headliner is more than a chance for fans to see Jamie Varner take some shots to the face. It's a chance to see a representative of one of the world's oldest and proudest martial arts traditions testing his skills in the MMA cage. Former Olympian Kamal Shalorus represents Iranian wrestling when he fights for the WEC.
Michael David Smith wrote a good piece on Shalorus' background and upbringing in Iran:
Growing up in the small town of Khalkhal in Northern Iran, Shalorus eschewed formal workouts and instead became one of his country's strongest amateur wrestlers by getting up early every day and putting in long hours of heavy lifting working on the family farm.
"I know some athletes who developed their strength through technology," Shalorus said in an interview with MMAFighting.com. "Not me. I got it working with my hands, working in the field all day, working with the animals. We had sheep, goats, horses -- I'd have to build a barn for the animals, I'd have to work in the garden and then go chop down a tree, I'd have to go into the mountains to get something. It was a hard workout. I would often think to myself while I was working that this would also help me with my wrestling."
It worked. Shalorus earned a spot on Iran's junior national team and traveled around the world competing in amateur wrestling, and once he had traveled as far as amateur wrestling could take him, he made the transition to professional mixed martial arts.
And although Shalorus emigrated to Great Britain and competed with their Olympic team rather than Iran's, Iran maintains one of the best wrestling programs in the world. They beat the U.S. team in the World Cup back in March.
Here's a good piece from CNN talking about Iranian wrestling:
"In Iran, wrestling and soccer are the two major sports," said Gary Abbott, director of communications for USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "They know their wrestling as well as anyone in the world. They treat our athletes like kings."
Abbott said Iran is one of the top wrestling powers in the world, along with countries such as the United States, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Competing in a wrestling-crazy society like Iran is special to Americans, who look forward to getting on the mats before large crowds in sold-out arenas.
"For the common citizen, an American wrestler in Iran is like Michael Jordan going over there," Abbott said, referring to the world-famous American basketball legend.
And it's not just the modern day Iran that is crazy for wrestling. Ancient Persia developed Varzesh-e Pahlavani long before any other country but India or ancient Greece had developed the martial arts. Pahlvani is a form of wrestling intertwined with as much religious meaning as anything the Shaolin monks ever devised.
The cultural importance of wrestling in Iran continued throughout the 20th century, with 1956 Olympic gold medalist Gholamreza Takhti becoming a cultural superstar and sadly, eventually a martyr to the Shah's repressive regime.
Here's hoping that someday soon Iran and the U.S. can get on better terms so that gold mine of Iranian wrestlers can start competing in MMA. Kamal Shalorus is hopefully just the first of many of his countrymen to make their mark in international MMA.