Defecting Iranian Judoka Beats Israeli 'Friend' in Major Competition

Israeli judoka Sagi Muki lost to the former Iranian Saeid Mollaei who fled the country after he was forced to lose on purpose to avoid a meeting with the Israeli in the 2019 World Cup final

Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
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Former Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei at the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Japan, in 2019.
Former Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei at the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Japan, in 2019.Credit: Kim Kyung Hoon / REUTERS
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky

Three years after Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei was forced to avoid competing against Israeli Sagi Muki, who became world champion in 2019, Mollaei beat Muki in the Grand Slam in Hungary on Saturday. Mollaei fled Iran after the 2019 incident and represented Mongolia, and subsequently Azerbaijan.

In Saturday’s match Mollaei appeared sharper than Muki. After about a minute and a half both received a penalty for failing to engage each other in the allotted time. At 1:42 from the end of the match they received another two-sided penalty. But this time something unexpected occurred: The video broadcast was cut off and the spectators, both at the World Judo Federation site and on its YouTube channel, could see only the scoreboard. The match went into Golden Score, when Mollaei initiated a hold that turned into a lock, won the match and entered the quarter-finals, with Muki eliminated from the competition. After the match, the two embraced, spoke for a long time on the mat, and smiled for photographers.

For Mollaei, the 2019 World Judo Championship in Tokyo was a watershed. The Iranian judoka, then 27, was at the height of his skills. As one of the candidates to win the gold, he made his way to the semifinals. But behind the scenes, drama was taking place. Later, Mollaei said that he and his family were pressured to lose the semifinals on purpose, as well as the match for the bronze, while Muki became world champion in the under-81 kilogram class.

Eventually the Israeli and the Iranian became friends. After the championship, Mollaei decided not to return to Iran and flew to Germany, where he hid in fear for his life. After receiving Mongolian citizenship, Mollaei came to Israel last year for the Grand Slam in Tel Aviv, winning the silver. At that time he had not yet met Muki in competition. The two then spent time together, and Mollaei trained with the Israeli team ahead of the championship in Tokyo, where he represented Mongolia and won silver. Then, too, the lottery did not bring the Israeli and the Iranian together on the mat, which remained the case until Saturday.

"We waited a very long time for this fight, even when Saeid represented Iran," Muki said after the fight. "Iran prevented Saeid from fighting me several times, but this time, with sports above politics, we managed to get on the judo mat together. Two good friends – an Iranian who represents Azerbaijan and an Israeli. I will put competitiveness aside for now, because I think the message we sent today is a message of friendship against all odds. One that brings people and countries closer together – the bridge between all religions and countries. I believe that Saeid and I – together – are this bridge."

Two members of the Israeli judo team were to compete for the silver on Saturday night: Tohar Butbul, in the under-73 kilogram class, and Maya Goshen, in the under-70 kilogram class. The team won three bronze medals on Friday, and Butbul and Goshen will try to bring the number of medals to five.

For the rest of the Israeli team, Saturday was less successful. Gili Sharir (under 63 kilograms) beat Sarai Padilla Guerrero on penalties in Golden Score in the first round, but in the elimination round she trailed in penalties against the Polish judoka Angelica Szymanska, when the contest went into Golden Score. After almost three minutes in Golden Score, Sharir received her third penalty and was eliminated. Inbal Shemesh (under 63 kilograms) was eliminated in the first round after losing to Laura Vasquez Fernandez from Spain.

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