Feature | Wrestling

Iran's 'Greatest' Hassan Yazdani seeks wrestling immortality

With an Olympic gold medal, two world titles, and over 500k Instagram followers, Hasan Yazdani is an Iranian hero. But can he gain redemption over the one man he is yet to beat?

By Andrew Binner ·

Freestyle wrestling is Iran’s national sport, so when Hassan Yazdani pinned down the 74kg gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics, he became an instant national hero.

He moved up to 86kg, which better suited his growing frame, taking out the world championships gold medal at his new weight division in 2017 and 2019.

Yazdani became known as The Greatest and Fearless back home, while his Instagram account swelled to over 500K followers. Quite simply, he could walk the streets of Iran like he was The King… which is incidentally another one of his nicknames there.

“The truth is that I hope I am worthy of these nicknames,” he told Tehran Times. “Each one is valuable for me and so I hope I can live up to the nicknames and the expectations of my great fans. I always want to keep their hope, so I accept them all and just hope that I am worthy.”

Unconventional style

Growing up in wrestling-obsessed Iran, it wasn’t long before Yazdani found his way to the mat.

“I started wrestling at 12. In our country, wrestling, especially in my town, is a popular sport,” said the Jouybar-born grappler. “We also have popular traditional wrestling and as a child, I used to go watch. I became interested early in life and eventually participated and stayed with it."

He quickly became renowned in his town for his unconventional style. While most wrestlers in his category are short and stocky in stature, the reigning 86kg world champion cut a more lanky physique.

This extra limb length allowed him to execute more double-leg takedowns, whereby his opponent is put down on the mat.

Winning Olympic gold

Yazdani’s natural gifts and strength of character were on full display in the Rio 2016 final, where he came back from a daunting 6-0 deficit to defeat Russia’s much-fancied Aniuar Gedue.

“I was thinking positive and I was thinking of winning, not even one percent of the time on the mat did I think of losing,” he revealed. “My mind was clear, I wasn’t concerned about injuries. I had my coaches and God by my side, which helped me to stay focused and earn the win.”

Rivalry with USA's David Taylor

While Yazdani would have hoped for a seamless transition to the bigger 86kg weight category, he was instead brought back to earth with a literal thud.

At the 2017 Wrestling World Cup on home turf in Iran, he came up against the USA’s David Taylor, and a new rivalry was born.

After taking an early lead, Yazdani succumbed to Taylor’s superior hand fighting ability and leg attacks, which prevented the Olympic champion of six months from performing his trademark counters.

With Yazdani a year more experienced at his new weight, the stage set for a grand re-match at the 2017 world championships. However, Taylor failed to win his place on the USA team after losing to J’den Cox at the notoriously competitive USA wrestling trials. Yazdani went on to become world champion, but wrestling fans still yearned for a direct bout between the duo.

They got their wish in the qualification round of the 2018 world championships in Budapest. After getting the better of Taylor in the opening exchanges, Yazdani surrendered a 6-2 lead to Taylor, who eventually progressed with an powerful 11-6 victory, and became 2018 world champion. Such comebacks have earned Taylor his own wrestling nickname of Magic Man.

But a serious knee injury prevented Taylor from defending his title at Nur-Sultan in 2019, which was almost inevitably reclaimed by Yazdani.

The Greatest V Magic Man

Despite the pair’s intense previous bouts, the foundation of their rivalry is respect.

That was evident in a tweet in 2019, where Taylor wished Yazdini a speedy recovery after the Iranian suffered a serious knee injury of his own during training.

“For athletes, respect comes from seeing each other’s character and their culture,” Yazdani said.

“I always think about respecting all my opponents and I always wish them the best in health and personal success. No matter if they are my direct opponent or not, I wish they are in a great situation so we can put on a great show for fans.”

“It’s been about two months since my surgery. I am back training hard, but not like the competition training. Right now, during the pause, I am working on bodybuilding, weights, and slowly training. Overall, my knee is good and not bothering me.”

With an extra year to recover from his injury before Tokyo 2020, a third match-up between the pair at an Olympics is a truly mouth-watering prospect.

Given that Yazdani has already secured his place at the Games, and Cox’ decision to move up a weight category at the USA trials (making Taylor’s route to Olympic qualification a touch less competitive), the stars seem to be aligning for a third clash.

"My plan is to compete at the 2024 Olympics if my body allows it."

Despite having already amassed an Olympic title, three world championship medals, an Asian Games gold medal, and three Wrestling World Cups, Yazdani is still only 25.

Regardless of what happens at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, he has already outlined his plan to keep wrestling until the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“I hope I can achieve the best medals during my wrestling career for as long as my body allows me,” he said. “Ideally, I want to have the most medals, both Olympic medals, and world medals. My plan is to compete at the 2024 Olympics if my body allows it."

If Yazdani was able to keep competing until the next Olympics, perhaps a new nickname is in order for Iran’s favourite wrestler: The Timeless.