An Iran-to-Baltimore odyssey for a hard-working wrestler

April 29, 2001|By Gregory Kane

"YOU BEAT Dave Schultz?!" the incredulous amateur wrestling fan asks Eisa Momeni.

The 31-year-old Iranian immigrant doesn't puff out his chest. He answers not with a hint of pride in his voice, but with a friendly smile. Yes, he says, he did beat Dave Schultz.

OK, some clarification is in order. Schultz was, in the 1980s and early 1990s, one of America's top amateur wrestlers. He won two world championships, an Olympic title, one World Cup title and one Pan American Games title. He also placed first in the Tbilisi tournament in Georgia of the former Soviet Union in 1987. Former Olympian Dan Gable, whom many consider America's greatest amateur wrestler, said the Olympics are a cake walk compared to the Tbilisi tournament.

It was at the 1994 World Cup in Edmonton, Alberta, that Momeni, then a member of Iran's national team, wrestled Schultz and beat him by a score of 9-1. In the scoring used in freestyle amateur wrestling, that means Momeni beat Schultz like a tom-tom. But Momeni, some seven years later, is still very low-key about the victory.

"He was a great champion, a great wrestler," Momeni said of Schultz. "He was very nice to us. He told us how much he liked Iranian wrestling. He wrestled in Iran in 1979. His wish was to one day to again go to Iran and wrestle for that crowd."

Just two years after wrestling Momeni, Schultz was shot dead by a mentally disturbed John E. du Pont, heir to a $250 million fortune. Momeni was wrestling for Iran in the Yarygin Cup tournament in Siberia at the time.

"I was upset when I learned of Schultz's death," Momeni recalled. He learned the news from members of the American team. He didn't know much English, but an interpreter gave him just enough information to let him know what had happened.

"In my country, they know most of the U.S. wrestlers," Momeni said of Iran, where amateur wrestling is the national sport. Iranians appreciate good wrestling and wrestlers. Schultz' death hit hard.

Schultz's career ended in a hail of bullets from a .44-caliber pistol. Momeni's ended with a decision to come to America and seek a better life. He arrived here in October 1997 and stayed with a friend in Alabama. He had been unemployed for over two years when he went to the 2000 World Cup in Fairfax, Va.

Another friend introduced him to Alan Gebhart, who had organized the event and, in addition to running his real estate business, coaches Archbishop Curley's wrestling team. Gebhart invited Momeni to be an assistant wrestling coach at Curley. Momeni had his first job, and Curley had a world-class wrestler on its coaching staff.

In addition to beating Schultz, Momeni placed first in the Asian championships in 1995, won second place at the 1994 World Cup, was second at the Yarygin tournament in 1996 and has won the Iranian national tournament - which allows wrestlers from other countries - twice.

He made the Iranian Olympic team in 1996 but tore his hamstring a few weeks before the Games began. He came in 16th and saw two wrestlers he had beaten shortly before the Olympics in the Asian championships take the silver and bronze medals.

His father was on the 1968 Iranian Olympic team. Momeni's father bundled his five sons into a truck and drove five or six hours to Tehran to see a national tournament when Momeni was 15. It was at that moment that he and his brothers decided their dream was to wrestle in a tournament at the national level. They watched one top-notch wrestler work out. They counted the number of sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups he did.

"We said we have to do exactly what he's doing to be a national champion," Momeni recalled that he and his brothers concluded. Their dad corrected them.

"No," he said. "You have to do more than he does."

Thus, the work ethic of a world-class wrestler began. Momeni says part of his attraction to America, one of the reasons he wanted to come here, become a citizen and wrestle for this country's team is that success is the result of hard work.

"This is the best country in the world," he said of America. "I was looking for the good life when I left Iran. There's freedom here. There's a lot of opportunity for everything you want to do."

Momeni is on the local organizing committee for the 2001 World Cup, which will be held here May 5 and 6. That's less than a week away. Will the World Cup in Baltimore be a success? Not if hard work is a factor. We simply haven't worked at it. Gebhart, who put together last year's World Cup in Fairfax and this year's in Baltimore, said the corporate community has been slow to respond and that ticket sales are slow. Dallas, which, like Baltimore, is looking to be host to the Olympics in 2012, held the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials there last year and drew 55,000 people. Baltimore will have to draw 13,750 for each of the four World Cup sessions to match Dallas.

When the International Olympic Committee awards the 2012 Olympics to Dallas, Baltimoreans need only look back to the weekend of May 5 and 6, 2001, to know why.

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