USA Sambo athlete shocked by his fan club

USA Sambo athlete shocked by his fan club

steve kelleyBy Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist

         KAZAN, Russia (July 11, 2013)– It’s after 10 p.m. and Arash Soofiani, has just arrived from his long journey from Los Angeles. He collects his luggage at Kazan International Airport and, as he stands in line waiting to exit baggage claim, he looks through the glass and sees something he’s never seen before.

On the other side of the glass a star-spangled American delegation, about a dozen strong, is waiting for him, waving small plastic flags, and holding up signs: “Welcome Arash. Go USA Sambo” and “Hello Arash.”

His smile and his wave are as warm and genuine as the hugs he gives when he finally emerges to the cheers of his new-found fan club.

“When I got that welcome I got this feeling of exhilaration,” Soofiani says a few minutes later, sitting in an Italian restaurant inside the terminal. “And now I can’t wait to fight on Tuesday. There’s this excitement going through my blood.”

Soofiani will be competing in sambo and those of us who came to the airport must honestly say that before these World University Games, none of us had heard of sambo.

Samba? Yes. But sambo? Huh?

“I usually just tell my friends it’s Russian judo,” Soofiani says.

The sport never has been in the Games before and Soofiani and his coach Boris Brezhnev are the only members of the U.S. team here.

Soofiani, who turns 21 next month, is soft-spoken, humble and appreciative of this chance to compete for his country on the international stage, to compete in the homeland of his chosen sport.

When he meets you, he doesn’t just shake hands, he swallows you in a hug. He is thickly built, with a dark, black beard and eyes that are disarmingly bright and alive.

This is no sinister, surly wrestler from the WWE. And seeing his gentle nature, it raises the question, how does this 6-foot-3, 280-pound man with such a welcoming personality, compete in such a violent sport?

This is a nice guy in a nasty game.

“There’s a huge separation between off the mat and on the mat,” he says. “As soon as you walk into the gym to prepare you remember what your goal is. Even if the guy has been your training partner for seven years, he’s not your friend for one hour and a half or two hours.

“Or when you get on the mat for a tournament, you have to put away the guy’s face. That’s what I like to do. I like to forget about the guy’s face.”

Soofiani removes his glasses.

“I mean I can’t really see his face without my glasses anyway,” he says smiling. “But if I put away his face, I forget he’s a Russian. I forget he’s a Ukrainian. Then I can just see him as my dummy. My live dummy. That’s when I feel that I can dominate him.”

Soofiani was introduced to sambo by Brezhnev, who watched him wrestle and lose in practice at Beverly Hills High School to his heavyweight teammate Weston Cage, the son of actor Nicholas Cage.

“I got beat up every day by him,” Soofiani said. “He’s a really tough individual. He’s just one of those guys who has a genius for fighting. But one day after a bad practice, I was really down on my luck and I didn’t want to get beaten up anymore.”

Brezhnev saw Soofiani looking defeated and told him, “You’ve got to respect yourself. After you’re done wrestling come and do sambo.”

“I had no idea what it was,” Soofiani said, “and when I first saw it, the people in the gym looked like killers. I’m not a killer.”

“He’s a warrior, but he needed to get somebody close to him to teach him,” Brezhnev says. “I came up to him and told him, ‘You’re my son now.’

“The combination of my Russian coaching and his Persian genes, we are a perfect match. In the future maybe he makes the U.S. Olympic team for judo. But now I want to see him come here with a medal.”

Soofiani pauses during the interview. He’s still overwhelmed by his airport reception. He laughs. “This is so exciting,” he says. “I’ve never been interviewed before, except for my high school paper.”

He competes in both judo and sambo, but you get the feeling Soofiani has a special affection for the “Russian judo.”

“In judo, when you throw, there’s no continuation of that move,” he says, taking a slice of pizza off the tray. “If you hit a clean throw, it’s the end of the match. In sambo if you hit a throw, you have to continue.

“You have to hold him. You have to try to break his arm. Try to break his leg. You have to hold him after the throw is done. You have to keep going for five minutes. In sambo you have to be geared to a different goal.

“You have to continuously think about what you have to do after the throw. How do you finish the match? You have to think, ‘Wow I just threw the guy, but now he can get up and throw me.’ You have to constantly be on your toes. I like it because it allows me to express myself.”

Before this meeting, I figured he was a token invitee. Since most of America never has heard of sambo, certainly it couldn’t have an athlete skilled enough to earn a medal.

And yes, Soofiani is happy to be here, but he isn’t just happy to be here. He finished third in last summer’s sambo World Cup in Venezuela. He has come to Kazan to medal.

Soofiani grabs another slice of pizza as he talks about his martial arts future.

“Honestly,” he says, “you know when you watch You Tube videos of all these champions they all say, ‘Well I’m just taking it one step at a time?’ It’s honestly like that. If you think of (your career) as a whole pizza, it can be daunting, right? But if you eat it one slice at a time, eventually the pizza’s gone.”

In his other life, Soofiani is a junior kinesiology major at West Los Angeles College. He was a walk-on wrestler at Arizona State, but was dropped from the team after budget cuts forced the school to shorten its roster.

“It kind of lit a fire under my bum,” he says. “It got me working hard again and training much harder than I was in Arizona. As hard as I was working there, I knew it wasn’t enough and when I came to Boris, he put it in my head that maybe it was good that I failed, because maybe I found a way to succeed.

“My friends ask me why I do this and I tell them I want to be an Olympic champion in judo and sambo if it becomes included in the Games. I want to open the door and be remembered forever. I don’t want to go through this life and be forgotten.”

This large gentle man is going places. And, now that they’ve met him and discovered how genuine he is, the members of his new-found fan club are ready to follow.