Iranian Champion Wrestler and Defector Reza Abedi Tells His Story in a New Book

By Tara Biglari

Reza Abedi is a World Champion Wrestler and Hall of Fame coach who lived in Iran through the 1979 revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, and who made international headlines when he defected. His story has now been told by author Kristin Orloff in “American Wings, Iranian Roots.”

‘American Wings, Iranian Roots’ book cover. Photo credit: Kristin Orloff.

Abedi’s story offered Kristin an avenue to explore the wider relationship between Iran and America, while focusing on his life as well — including his personal goals, relationships and views of the world.

Kayhan Life caught up with Kristin for a conversation about her book and the roots of her inspiration.

Q: How did you come across and meet the subject of your book?

A: Reza Abedi and I met in 2004 at a Little League Game where both our sons were playing. I did not know at the time that this conversation would change my life. Reza shared with me that he “ran to third base” the first time he hit a baseball.  After we had a good-natured laugh, Reza began to share his story. Then there’s my story–a girl from white-picket fence America whose most significant vision of Iran was the blindfolded American hostages.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”Photo credit: Kristin Orloff.” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”Reza and Kristin. at the Hall of Fame ceremony. ” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

As my conversations with Reza continued, I realized my absolute ignorance regarding Iranian identity, culture, history and politics. Reza’s story had to be told, not only for Reza, but also for the millions of Americans who are just like me – for whom Iran has been banished in the 1979 shadows of blindfolded hostages and flaming American flags.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”Photo credit: Reza Abedi.” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”Reza’s parents, Nimtaj and Abbas. ” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Q: What drew you to the subject, and did you have any experience in wrestling?

A: I did not have any experience with the sport of wrestling, but it [strongly relates to a] theme that is woven throughout the book. In Iran, kids grew playing mostly soccer and gymnastics.  The “warriors,” the strongest and most capable athletes, became the wrestlers. A Farsi term I love is pahlavan, meaning a person of strong body, mind and spirit.

Reza at a wrestling match in Iran. Photo credit: Reza Abedi.

In the book, there is an important conversation that Reza has with his cousin and little brother about pahlavan which is one of the thematic threads in the story.  They discuss a match where both boxers were nearly dead from exhaustion going into the final round. The trainer of one of them “threw in the towel” to end the match. Although that saved the boxer’s life, his soul never recovered, and he became a ghost of himself for the rest of life.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”Photo credit: Reza Abedi.” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”The Iranian National Team who went to compete in Venezuela. Reza, and 3 others from this team photo would defect. Reza in bottom middle. ” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Q: Have you stayed in touch with Reza? What is he doing now?

A: Reza and I do keep in touch. In the spring of 2018, Reza was inducted in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame — alongside U.S. Presidents and astronauts! — and I was honored to attend the ceremony.  When he accepted the award, the packed room erupted in a standing ovation after he shared his story.

We also continue to present at high schools, colleges, libraries and other organizations. We’ve dedicated our lives to educating others. The heavily Euro-centered curriculum [in American schools] leaves little room for study and understanding of Iran’s history and culture.

  • Reza being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame--alongside such American Presidents and astronauts. Photo credit: Reza Abedi.

One of my proudest moments occurred at one of our presentations with several Iranian young men in attendance.  As Reza spoke, I could see these students sit up a little straighter and hold their heads a little higher. In sharing his story, Reza flew in the face of so many misguided stereotypes.

Q: What sparked your passion for Iranian culture and history?

A: The more I learned, the more I had to know.  It’s such a rich and exciting culture. I am inspired by the love and loyalty shown by Reza and his entire family. The great sacrifices that Reza and his family made to live in America and pursue his dreams made me want to know more about how he came to cherish these values.

Author headshot. Photo credit: Kristin Orloff.

Q: Have you ever traveled to Iran, and if so what were your impressions?

A: I have not traveled to Iran, but it is definitely on my list!

Q: Are you working on any upcoming projects?

A: We are always looking for opportunities to share Reza’s story. We have had some interest in sharing it as a film and hope to continue to pursue these avenues. We have just finished the audible version – [after] searching endlessly for a narrator who could bring soul and pronunciation to the story!