From wrestling to MMA: how Iranian superstar Amir Aliakbari reached the world stage

With millions of social media followers and a massive fanbase, Amir Aliakbari is already an icon in his home country of Iran.

Now he’s aiming for international stardom in ONE Championship.

The next step will come when Aliakbari returns in a heavyweight MMA clash against former world title challenger Mauro Cerilli at ONE on Prime Video 1: Moraes vs. Johnson II on Friday, August 26.

He knows a win is essential amid the only losing streak of his pro career, but he’s also thrilled with his first prime-time appearance in North America.

Before the 34-year-old takes on Cerilli at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, find out how he went from rural Iran to competing against the top heavyweights of the world’s biggest martial arts organization.

Early life in the countryside

Although Aliakbari now resides in a bustling capital of nearly 9 million people, he spent his early days in a much smaller part of his country.

“I was born in the province of East Azerbaijan,” he says. “But today I live in Tehran.”

The heavyweight had a humble upbringing in the region that borders Azerbaijan and Armenia, growing up with his father, mother and five siblings.

“I have a brother and four sisters,” he says. “My mother and father used to work on a farm, but they stopped working a long time ago, and now they also live in Tehran.”

Entering his national sport

For the young Iranian, athletics has always been a major factor in his life, especially the country’s national pastime, wrestling.

With so much prestige attached to him, legions of young men are flocking to the sport, and Aliakbari has followed in the footsteps of one of his brothers on the mats.

“I started wrestling at the age of 10. My older brother was a wrestler. He encouraged me and introduced me to the world of wrestling,” said the AAA team representative. .

“In my family, my brother was the only member who practiced this sport. But wrestling is the most important sport in Iran, and it is natural to have two or three wrestlers in each family.

Apart from leading by example, Aliakbari’s older brother was also his main source of motivation and support as he pushed through his new venture.

He adds:

“Because I loved this sport, [my brother] always used to encourage me to train and improve my skills.

Become world champion

Given the immense popularity of wrestling in Iran, the level of competition is extremely high and very few athletes reach the top. Yet Aliakbari’s rare talent quickly became apparent.

Realizing this, he committed to training and focused on his career on the mats.

“After practicing for a while, I felt I had what it took to succeed,” he recalls. “Therefore, I decided to take it seriously.”

From there, Aliakbari began to succeed on the domestic circuit, competing in the Iranian Premier League wrestling from 2007 to 2008.

Then in 2009, he won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Asian Championships.

And in 2010, he established himself as the best in his sport by winning gold at the World Championships in Russia.

Switch to MMA

After continuing to rack up the accolades, Aliakbari quit wrestling in 2014 and initially considered retiring from life as a professional athlete.

However, something else piqued his interest.

Seeing so many successful champions coming out of mixed martial arts wrestling, the Iranian decided to try his hand at full sport.

“I ran into problems in wrestling, so I stopped training,” he says. “As I liked MMA, I turned to him.”

With a renewed sense of purpose, Aliakbari moved to Thailand and began training in all aspects of combat. And just a year later, he was ready to compete professionally.

As the biggest Iranian wrestling star to make the transition, the heavyweight’s MMA debut generated huge interest – and he lived up to the hype with a 17-second TKO victory.

The 34-year-old then competed on big cards in countries around the world – including Japan and Russia – and built a 10-1 record despite more experienced rivals.

This earned him a contract with ONE, and although Aliakbari suffered a surprising pair of losses, he expects to turn the tide against Cerilli while showing his full potential in the organization.

He adds:

“I’ve been trying to work through the issues I’ve been suffering from recently, and I’m in much better shape and ready to come back.

“I think the fight is going to be entertaining. My opponent is a strong fighter, and I will try to give everything I have. I promise everyone a fight full of enthusiasm.

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