Iran’s Masoud Hajizavareh: The Joyful Warrior

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may_16_2015_01

It was not difficult to conclude that Masoud Hajizavareh was a happy man. At the award ceremony to collect his gold medal in the male -74kg division at the Traktor Arena in Chelyabinsk, Russia on May 14, 2015, he didn’t step up onto the winner’s rostrum – he leapt onto it with a huge grin lighting up his face.

And that is not an unusual state of mind, for the 26-year-old enjoys what he does. “The most important thing is I really enjoy competing,” he said. “I kind of like to fight.”

Hajizavareh’s game is on the up. The world-ranked number eight, he won bronze at the 2014 Grand Price in Manchester, U.K., and a gold at the Asian Games in Incheon, Korea, the same year.

But to add a world championship to his growing list of titles in the World Championships in Chelyabinsk he had to face, after cleaving his way through the preliminaries, hometown favorite Albert Gaun of Russia.

Their semifinal match opened with a war of nerves as both men sparred for distance at the center of the mat. It was the Iranian who landed first, taking the round, 1-0. Gaun came out stronger in the second, pulling the score up after an appeal by the Iranian coach was nixed. The round ended 4-4, leaving everything to play for in the third round with the crowd roaring for Gaun.

Late in the final round, the Iranian landed a punch, taking a one-point lead – then Gaun himself connected with his fist in the very last second. That took the match to golden point. Both athletes came out fighting. Gaun fired off a head kick, but the Iranian countered with an ax kick that landed on the body protector – taking both point and match.

“He was the most difficult opponent, and in the previous world championships I had lost to Gaun, so I had planned and studied how to fight him,” he said. “But though he was the most difficult opponent, in all my previous matches the athletes were the best – they were all difficult.”

In the finals, Hajizavareh faced world third-ranked Nikita Rafalovic of Uzbekistan.

From the start, neither man gave an inch, dueling in center court. Hajizavareh caught the Uzbek by surprise with a high kick, winning three points, following up with a punch, for a 4-0 lead. Trusting to his reflexes and distancing, Hajizavareh dropped down into low, open stances, taunting his opponent. Rafalovich was game, but the Iranian’s accuracy proved superior: another out-of-the-blue ax kick rattled Rafalovich. Round two ended 2-8. In the final round, Rafalovich found his distance, clawing back the score to 4-8, before the match degenerated into a scrappy affair of clinching – during which the Iranian stole another point with a rabbit kick. As the seconds counted down, the Uzbek went all out, but Hajizavareh kept his cool and took the title 9-7

The key technique the Iranian uses is crowd-pleasing and point-winning: The Iranian is an ax man. “The ax kick – this is my main skill,” he said. But what about that business of dropping back into low stances and taunting his opponent? “When I compete I want to do everything to make people enjoy it more,” he said. “Just a little!”

A native of Kermanshah, Hajizavareh is a full-time athlete. Working out at the House of Taekwondo in Teheran, he undergoes two training sessions a day, one in the morning (conditioning) and one in the evening (techniques and tactics). “I believe that the Iran National Team is enjoying the best coaches in the world ever,” he said. “They are very up to date, and the athletes follow all the guidelines of the coaches.” Iran’s taekwondo assets include not just state support but even a dedicated taekwondo TV channel.

To reach his current elite status on the national squad, he previously spent eight years in training camps, eating, drinking and breathing taekwondo, a skill has practiced for 20 years.

That conditioning has rubbed off.

The man is totally absorbed by the sport: During this interview, in the venue media center, his attention kept wandering up to the screen broadcasting the matches. His commitment is total. “I have no plans for life now, I am so focused on the Olympics!” he said. “I have been married for five years, but no children yet.”

Asked if this kind of laser-like focus is necessary to be a champion, his response is immediate. “Yes!” he said. “To be successful, you have to dedicate your life to it.”

He has no hobbies beyond taekwondo. As for his post-competitive career, the answer is predictable: “I will continue as a coach.”

However, unlike team mate Farzan “The Tsunami” Ashour Zadeh Falleh he does not have a nickname. If he did, what might it be?

Hajizavareh thinks for a moment. “If I had a nickname, it would be ‘warrior.’”