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Profile | Gholamreza Takhti: World Champion Wrestler, Iranian Patriot

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

10 Jan 2012 01:48Comments
Pahlavi_Mohammad_Reza_Shah_Takhti.jpgA glorious career, a generous soul, and a mysterious death.

[ profile ] Certain popular figures live on for centuries in Iranians' minds and hearts, from the legendary Rostam, Sohrab, and Esfandiar of Abolghasem Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings), to the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great, to Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir (1807-52), chief minister to Naser al-Din Shah of the Qajar dynasty and one of the first true Iranian reformers.

Perhaps no such figure has been more popular over the past several decades than Gholamreza Takhti, the most famous wrestler in Iranian history. He was renowned for his chivalrous behavior and sportsmanship, but everyone also knew that he was a nationalist, a member of the National Front opposition to the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and an ardent supporter of Iran's national hero, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. January 7 was the 44th anniversary of his death, which shocked the nation not only because the beloved Takhti was just 37, but also because his death was, and still is, shrouded in secrecy. The Shah's government announced that Takhti had committed suicide, but almost no one believed it. I will never forget my own shock when I saw the headlines in the two leading newspapers, Ettelaat and Kayhan, that my father brought home every day.

00036651.jpgEarly life

Takhti was born on August 27, 1930, to a pious Muslim family in Khani Abad, a poor neighborhood on the southern edge of Tehran. Years later, he would frequently go to Mashhad in northeast Iran and visit the shrine of Imam Reza, Shiites' Eighth Imam. He always professed his love and respect for Imam Ali, the First Imam and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. As a consequence of his religious beliefs, he always led a simple, squeaky-clean life.

Takhti's grandfather, Haji Gholi, owned a supermarket in Khani Abad. He would sit on an elevated seat, called takht in Persian and was thus known as Haji takhti. When in the 1920s the government of Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, decided to issue all Iranians birth certificates and identity cards, everyone had to have a family name, and Takhti became the last name of Haji Gholi. Takhti's father, Rajab Khan Takhti, was an unsuccessful merchant, to the point that he had to mortgage his home to support his family. When he could not pay back his debt, they were thrown out. Takhti himself said years later that they were forced to live on the street for three days. They finally rented two rooms in a house in the neighborhood. The elder Takhti passed away when Gholamreza was very young, leaving his wife (pictured) and five children -- three sons and two daughters, Gholamreza the youngest of the five -- in relative poverty. This had a deep effect on Takhti, and years later he used his fame to help poor Iranians.

Takhti graduated from Hakim Nezami Elementary School and went to Manouchehri High School. Due to his family's financial difficulties, he was able to attend only through the ninth grade before he had to drop out. He first worked for the National Iranian Oil Company in Masjed Soleiman, in oil-rich Khuzestan province. After returning to Tehran, he was drafted into the army in 1948, and was also employed by Iran's national railroad.

Wrestling career

Takhti began learning wrestling and what is called in Iran varzesh-e zurkhaneh (literally, house-of-strength sport), which combines lifting, wrestling, aerobics, and other strenuous exercises. His first trainer was Seyyed Ali Haghshenas Kamyab (1906-73), known as Pahlavan Seyyed Ali, who was considered the most powerful athlete in Tehran in the era preceding World War II. Beginning in 1950, Takhti began going regularly to Poulad Club on Shahpour Street in south Tehran. There, he attracted the attention of club president Hossein Rezizadeh, who perceived that Takhti had considerable wrestling talent. That same year he became a member of the national wrestling team. At the 1951 world championship competition, he won a silver medal, launching an illustrious wrestling career. Mahmoud Mollah Ghasemi also won silver, while Abdollah Mojtavabi and Mehdi Yaghoobi took bronze medals, marking the beginning of Iran as a world wrestling power, which it remains to this day.

At the 1952 Olympic Games, also held in Helsinki, Takhti again won a silver medal, after six victories and only one defeat. At the 1954 world championships, Takhti was unexpectedly defeated by a Swedish opponent in the semifinals. At the championships in Warsaw the following year, he took silver yet again. And then, at the Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956, he at last won a gold medal.

In the 1957 world championships, held in Istanbul, Takhti was eliminated early, simply because he was too light compared to his competitors in the 87-kilogram class. In 1958 and 1959, after defeating the late Hossein Nouri, Takhti was acclaimed as Iran's Pahlevan (most powerful man). At the 1958 Asian wrestling championships in Tokyo, Takhti won the gold; later that year, at the world championships in Sofia, he took silver. At the 1959 world championships, held in Tehran, he won gold. The next year saw him win silver at the Rome Olympic Games. The greatest triumph for Iran's wrestlers came in 1961 at the world championships in Yokohama -- the team won five gold medals, including one by Takhti, along with a bronze.

The next year, at the world championship games in Toledo, Ohio, Takhti took the silver medal, but only because he was heavier than his opponent from the Soviet Union, Alexander Medved, by a mere 200 grams. He was also very ill, and was immediately taken to New York after the competition for surgery. Medved, who had become Takhti's fiercest competitor and would later be recognized as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, always praised Takhti. He was particularly touched by the fact that, when they wrestled for gold in the 1962 finals, Takhti knew that one of Medved's feet was injured, but he never tried to attack it. The two subsequently became close friends. In his final Olympic appearance, at the Tokyo Games of 1964, Takhti ranked fourth in his weight class.

Even though he was ready to retire from wrestling, his immense popularity among his countrymen persuaded him to accept a spot on the national team for the world championships of 1966, again held in Toledo. By then, he was active in the political opposition to the Shah, and the Pahlavi regime was concerned about him. The government repeatedly raised obstacles to his training regimen, which became common knowledge. On the day of his departure for the competition, thousands of people showed up at Mehrabad, Tehran's old airport, to see him off. Having been unable to properly train, Takhti was swiftly eliminated, and retired.

Takhti was immensely popular, not only because of his illustrious career, but more importantly, due to his connection with common Iranians, his kindness to them, and in particular to poor people. He was once asked by a journalist which of his medals was the most important to him. "The highest and best trophy that I have received is not a gold or silver medal," he said. "A human's heart is worth thousands of gold medals, and I know that thousands of my compatriots have devoted a small part of their kind hearts to me."

Along with Emam Ali Habibi Goudarzi (who now lives in Texas) and Abdollah Movahed (who now lives in California), Takhti is in the Hall of Fame of FILA, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Social and political life

takhti13.jpgTakhti married Shahla Tavakoli in November 1966. They had one son, Babak Takhti, who was born September 2, 1967, only four months before his father's death.

Even 44 years after his death, Iranians still share tales about Takhti's caring for the poor and needy. On September 1, 1962, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Bouin Zahra, a large village west of Tehran. More than 12,200 people were killed and 21,000 homes were destroyed, leaving many thousands of people homeless. The government called on citizens around the country for assistance, but the response was not very strong. But when Takhti called on the people to help, the response was huge. He led a long line of trucks carrying aid for the people in the earthquake-ravaged areas. As a result, he became even more popular than ever.

Takhti was also politically conscious. He backed the oil nationalization movement of 1951-53, and was an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Mosaddegh. After the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 that overthrew the Mosaddegh government, Takhti was said to be very depressed and did not want to appear in public. In the summer of 1961, after he returned from Yokohama as world champion, he announced his membership in the Second National Front, which supported Mosaddegh. After the June 5, 1963, uprising, Takhti was elected to the Central Committee of the Second National Front. From then on, he was known as a member of the opposition, not only to the people, but also to the SAVAK, the Shah's security apparatus, which repeatedly summoned him for intimidatory questioning. After Mosaddegh passed away on March 5, 1966, under house arrest in the village of Ahmadabad outside Tehran, Takhti was among the prominent figures who participated in his funeral, despite repeated threats from SAVAK agents. He reportedly told them, "Arrest me."

On one occasion when students at the University of Tehran staged a strike and sit-in, the campus was surrounded by security forces who prevented anyone from entering. Except for Takhti, who was allowed to bring in food for the striking students, which he continued to do until the sit-in ended.

Death

On January 7, 1968, the government announced that Takhti had committed suicide and that his lifeless body had been found in Tehran's Atlantic Hotel. Almost no one believed the official account. How could a pious, kind man like Takhti kill himself only four months after the birth of his son? The renowned author Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-69) wrote of Takhti's funeral, "In that vast crowd, no one was thinking about the possibility of suicide even for one moment." Speculation continues about the real cause of his death. (The last two days of his life have been chronicled here.)

His funeral, organized by Hossein Towfigh, editor-in-chief and publisher of the satire magazine Towfigh, was attended by hundreds of thousands. Towfigh devoted a special issue to Takhti's death in which he was depicted as an angel, flying high above the throngs of mourners at his own funeral. The caption read, "Do not cry for me, cry for your own plight" -- a direct reference to the Shah's dictatorship and repression of the Iranian people. Towfigh also coined a memorable phrase, "Takhti raa khodkoshi kardand" (Takhti was killed, but they said he committed suicide). The magazine was barred from publishing by the Shah for several months.

Takhti is buried at Ebn-e Babooyeh Cemetery in south Tehran, near Rey, in the mausoleum of Shamshiri, the owner of a famous restaurant in Tehran, also believed to be a member of the opposition. Decades after his death, he is still commemorated every year by his fans. Ali Hatami, the renowned film director, began work on a movie about him, Jahan Palevan Takhti (World Champion Takhti), before he passed away in 1996. The movie, which examines some of the theories about Takhti's death, was finished the following year by director and screenwriter Behrooz Afkhami. Siavash Kasraei, Mehdi Soheili, and Mehdi Akhavan Sales have composed beautiful poems in Takhti's memory. His son, Babak, who has no direct recollection of Takhti, has written a book about him, In Search of My Father.

When the news of Takhti's death spread, the Iranian nation went into mourning. At least seven people killed themselves due to their sadness. One, a butcher in Kermanshah, left a note saying, "A world without the world's champion is not a place to live." A boxer in Rey, where Takhti visited frequently, had heard that Takhti had ended his life due to problems with his wife, which had prompted him to attack her. After he found out that Takhti had actually mentioned her in his will very respectfully, and had said that in his absence she should raise young Babak, the boxer was so ashamed that he killed himself. His grave is only a short distance from Takhti's.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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