Ilya Grad, Israel's Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) champion, directs a stunning kick at his Iranian opponent. The Iranian kickboxer, Mostafa Abdollahi, staggers back but recovers fast and sends a punch of his own towards his Israeli opponent's face. Then something strange happens.
A moment after the sparring ends, the Iranian places a friendly arm on the Israeli's shoulder, and the Israeli responds with a wide smile. Then they go to get a cold drink together, talking about the training and the competitions coming up – just like two good friends. The fact they come from enemy states doesn't get in the way at all.
"Mostafa is a great guy," Grad (23) says. "He's proud of his country and nation, but he doesn't mix politics with sport, and he has no problem being my friend even though I'm Israeli. Politics? – we don't take it seriously. We both laugh at the situation between Israel and Iran."
Grad, from Jerusalem, has a list of sporting achievements to his name: Israeli amateur Thai boxing champion, Asia champion, and also placing third in the world. His friendship with the captain of Iran's leading boxing team began during the world championships in Bangkok, in 2009.
Grad asked Abdollahi (28) if he would be Grad's "corner-man" – the one who helps by providing towels and water during the breaks in the rounds and treats wounds if necessary. The Iranian agreed.
Iran angry when link discovered
"From that moment we began helping each other during training," Grad says. "We also talked after the training and I saw we had a lot in common. We have the same dreams: We want to be champions so that our families and nations will be proud of us. So the Thai boxing brings us together."
They both live in Bangkok, assist each other in training and go to competitions together. When one is in the ring, the other serves as corner-man. Their story was published for the first time a few months ago on the International Amateur Muay Thai Federation website. The website said that despite the political disagreements between the two countries, these two sportsmen are a perfect example that through sport we can live together in peace and overcome cultural barriers.
Abdollahi's Iranian managers didn't like the article and made sure it was removed. But Abdollahi refused to break off contact with his Israeli friend. Since then they have trained together for six weeks on Koh Samui Island in preparation for the martial arts Olympics that took place in Beijing about a month ago.
"We don't fight each other in competitions, because Ilya fights in the 71 kg category and I fight in the 75 kg category," Abdollahi explains. "But because his weight is similar to my weight, he is an excellent training partner. Ilya is dependable and dedicated, and training with him is great."
'Come to Israel'
The difference between them is mainly in government support. While Iran sends its captain $1,500 each month plus grants for medals won, Israel and sports organizations here ignore the Israeli champion. Grad, who is considered one of the eight best amateur Thai boxers in the world, is compelled to work at odd jobs to earn a living.
"The absurd thing is, I even had to buy the Israeli flag which I bring to competitions," he says sadly. "I was in a competition with 80 countries participating, and I was the only one who had to buy his own flight ticket and accommodation. Everyone received government funding."
Grad has invited his Iranian friend to visit Israel. Abdollahi said he would gladly come or host his friend in Iran, though it's clear to them both that this cannot happen at this time.
"Thai boxing is based on respect for the other," Abdollahi says. Grad agrees – "The respect you get from your opponent is just as important as the respect you show him. It's a friendship that can last forever."
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