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Some days before school, Abedi; his brothers; one of their close friends, Ardeshir Asgari; and other wrestlers would go to Taq-e Bostan, a mountainous area a few miles from the family home. It was once a popular vacation destination for Persian kings. Ancient carvings were etched into spots in the rock. It was an ideal training spot. The wrestlers would sprint up the trails for cardio, or climb the steep rock faces for strengthening. When the weather wasn't too cold, they would run upstream, knee-deep in the creek.
Then everything in Iran changed. Supported by the United States, the ruling shah was actively trying to modernize the country, but the shifting ideology—along with the involvement of the U.S.—upset a growing fundamentalist Islamic population. A series of demonstrations and protests ran the shah out of Iran, enabling Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to return from exile in February 1979. When he did, he restructured the government as an Islamic republic. Almost overnight, men began growing out their beards and women were required to be in hijabs whenever they left the house.
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When Abedi applied to university, he couldn't sufficiently prove his commitment to and knowledge of Islam, so he was denied admission. He was heartbroken; it seemed his hope of being a teacher was gone forever.
Since he wasn't a student, he had to enlist in the military, joining the country's air force. Abedi was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, for a leader and a government he no longer supported.
"Before the revolution, I went to mosque, I prayed, I did all the religious things you're supposed to do," Abedi says. "But after the revolution, I got turned off. I went completely the other way. I couldn't deal with a bunch of zealots, a bunch of fanatics who tell you what to do. They try to make you act like sheep."
Abedi was placed in low-risk positions and granted time away from his military duties to train. While in Dezful, a town nearer the front lines of the war, he worked as a driver, transporting pilots from the barracks to the base driver. He later asked to be transferred to a position that would bring him nearer the front lines; he spent a month working in an ambulance, collecting bodies and parts of bodies.
But with the national wrestling tournament approaching, his coach with the air force insisted he focus on training. A month later, at the national tournament in Tehran, he advanced to the finals and won a spot on the team heading to the Military World Championships in Caracas, Venezuela.
Days after his win at nationals, Abedi walked into practice and was delivered disturbing news by a mullah, who oversaw the team. "He told me I had to wrestle another guy," Abedi recalls.
His competitor had connections in the government and was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful security-and-military organization loyal to the regime. The wrestler's name was Mashadi Aghaee.
"I was shaking when they said his name," Abedi says.
Seeing his opportunity to compete at the world championships slipping away, Abedi wanted to complain, but it was clear there was no alternative. "[Aghaee] knew a lot of people, and that's one of the reasons they wanted to take him over me—because I was a nobody," he says.
He was given a week to prepare.
With fellow wrestlers, military officials and a few mullahs watching, Abedi went down a few points early in the match. It seemed defeat was imminent. But Abedi caught Aghaee in a vulnerable position and pinned him, winning the match and seemingly requalifying for the world championships.
Instead, the mullah declared the victory a fluke and demanded a rematch. A week later, the two wrestled at the same facility in front of the same crowd, and once again, Abedi won. But the mullah insisted on a third match.
This time, an angry Abedi complained to his coach and officials. It was out of their hands, they said. The only hope was to keep wrestling—and winning.
While training at one of the local wrestling clubs, Abedi heard that Aghaee had a bad knee. He had been taught by his father "to win with respect," but desperation was setting in. Abedi felt he was being cheated once again by a government that seemed to reward only those who were obedient.
A week after the second match, the wrestlers met on the mat. Abedi shot for Aghaee's bad knee repeatedly. He so dominated the match that Aghaee gave up. He lay on the mat, while Abedi had him straddled and refused to continue. Abedi stared intently at the mullah, his hands on his hips.
After showering and changing, he entered the wrestling room, where the mullah approached him. "Buddy," he said, "make sure you bring two pictures so we can get your passport."
* * *
As he boarded the flight to Venezuela in early August 1982, Abedi had no plan. When the plane landed in Paris for a layover, the scene in the terminal was startling. Coming from Iran, Abedi was shocked to see women in short skirts and loud colors. "I had never seen porn in my life," he says in a whispered tone. "The people looked half-naked to me."
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