About a week ago, Bekzod Abdurakhmonov, who had been drafted in the UP Dangal Pro Wrestling League (PWL) team, was doing some research on his likely opponents when he came upon a video of the controversial Commonwealth Games selection trial bout between Sushil Kumar and Parveen Rana. Abdurakhmonov decided to watch the grainy YouTube clip, in which Sushil accused Rana of slapping and biting him during the bout, while Rana and his brother accused Sushil of encouraging his supporters to assault them after the bout.
“The same thing happened to me as well,” says Abdurakhmonov. “That took me back many years ago. I saw Rana was keeping on slapping and Sushil was managing to keep calm,” he says. The parallel incident in Abdurakhmonov’s life took place a decade ago in 2008, when he was a junior wrestler trying to make a name for himself in Uzbekistan. “My opponent was from Bukhara where the junior national championships were happening. And he also kept slapping me. He slapped me once, twice. Sushil managed to stay calm but I said, ‘you slap me once more. I’m gonna hit you.’ And he slapped me once more so I swung an uppercut at him and knocked him out,” says Abdurakhmonov.
Slapped in turn with an immediate ban by his federation, Abdurakhmonov was out of options. “I thought my career was over then,” he says. As it turns out, the ban was only a pit stop in an eventful journey.
Sitting in a New Delhi hotel lobby, Abdurakhmonov’s clothes — a jumble of teams and brands — hint at where his path has led him. His blue-and-white jacket is the official one of the Uzbek national team. Following the conclusion of his ban, Abdurakhmonov has won a World Championship bronze medal, two Asian Championships as well as an Asian Games gold. His inner jersey is the crimson of Harvard University, where Abdurakhmonov is a volunteer assistant coach, having concluded a decorated collegiate career.
It’s a journey Abdurakhmonov says he had never expected. “When I was young, I had no idea about anything other than wrestling. Nothing about college or the USA or anything,” he says.
“If I didn’t get into that fight, I might have been done with wrestling”
Once he was banned by the national federation though, he needed to find a place to train. His older brother, who was in the USA, advised him to try joining an American college. The only place Abdurakhmonov could get into was a community college in Kansas.
This was not the solution to all his problems. “I wasn’t planning on moving to the USA, so I didn’t speak any English. Since I couldn’t speak English, I had to work really hard. When I wasn’t wrestling, I was studying full time. My first semester was awful because I couldn’t speak English. But my teachers would sit with me and teach me one on one. I have no idea how they managed to do it,” he says.
Remarkably for someone who had never spoken a word of English, Abdurakhmonov’s grades picked up and he eventually was able to transfer to Pennsylvania’s Clarion University. “I had never taken studies seriously until I came to the USA. I only cared about wrestling until then. But I quickly found out, If I didn’t study hard I wouldn’t get the chance to wrestle any further. So I had no option,” he says.
At the end of his sports management degree in 2014 and a collegiate career that saw him earn All American honours, Abdurakhmonov got the chance to become a volunteer coach at Harvard’s Wrestling program. The Harvard athletics website credits Abdurakhmonov for helping three wrestlers earn All-Ivy honours in his first year. And while he has been offered the chance to join as a permanent coach, Abdurakhmonov has declined. “They offered me a coaching job and I would have loved to. It’s a great university and I love the team, and the coaching staff but I can’t do that right now. If I want to coach, I want to be there all the time. But my goals are different,” he says.
His ambition remains an Olympic medal. After the completion of his ban, Abdurakhmonov has become a key part of the Uzbek national team. In his first senior competition for them, he won a bronze at the 2014 World Championships. He followed that up with a gold at the Asian Games and then two consecutive gold medals at the Asian championships. An Olympic medal, though, has remained elusive. At Rio, he came within two points of a bronze before losing 7-9 to Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov in the playoff and finished fifth. “It stinks to come that close and miss it by so little,” he says.
Abdurakhmonov will make another attempt at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in order to train for which, he has given up a promising mixed martial arts career too (he currently has a 6-0 record). “I fought in a few good promotions like the CES, CFF. There’s a lot of fighters going from that to the UFC. I trained for a few months and there was a lot of money in it but I decided that isn’t the priority for me. No more fighting for me, official or unofficial. I’ve learned my lesson from back in 2008,” he jokes.
However, Abdurakhmonov says he is glad he actually came to blows on the mat all those years ago. “That fight opened up a lot of doors for me. When I see all of my teammates from when I was 18, everyone is done with wrestling now. If I didn’t get into a fight, I might have been done with wrestling too. But I still have a lot left in me,” he says.