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Iranian wrestler Alireza Noei moved to Brazil for Olympic dream, but found MMA instead

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Alireza Noei won six straight going into his next fight at Future MMA 11 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Marcos Santos, Future MMA

Wrestling is one of the main sports in Iran, so earning a spot in the Olympics is far from easy. When the opportunity came for Alireza Noei to seize a spot on the Brazilian national team at the 2016 Games, he didn’t think twice.

Noei flew to Brazil, aiming to work his way up in wrestling tournaments while waiting for his paperwork to be done. He said the Brazilian wrestling federation promised to help get it sorted. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out.

“It’s hard to do it through Iran, and people told me if I trained really hard I would be able to compete for Brazil,” Noei told MMA Fighting. “I was training hard, but never got the documents I needed. I was national champion eight times in Brazil; I won titles without giving away any points, but it didn’t work. I beat everyone, but no one helped me get the documents.”

After 22 years dedicated to wrestling, Noei felt rudderless in Brazil. Instead of moving back to Iran, the 30-year-old got a job in a martial arts gym, teaching wrestling. He began learning new tricks. And he kept collecting gold medals.

“When I got to Brazil and saw jiu-jitsu, I thought, ‘Which sport is this that people lay down and then the fight starts?’” he laughs. “I had never seen MMA before either. Maybe in a movie, I don’t know, but had no idea what MMA was. Boxing, I knew (Mike) Tyson and Muhammad Ali, but that’s it.”

Noei fell in love with MMA, and soon, he had booked his first fight. Things did not go his way; he was knocked out in under one minute, eating a knee to the face while shooting for a takedown. Yet, he refused to give up on this dream just yet.

Four months later, the Iranian lightweight returned to the cage and scored his first victory. Then he earned another four months later. Five weeks later, it was another submission finish. Noei went 4-0 in 2018 before adding a pair of victories to his record last year — in his last bout, Noei beat RIZIN veteran Gabriel Oliveira.

On Jan. 17, Noei steps in the cage for the first time in 2020, facing Thiago “Manchinha” Silva at Future MMA 11 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He foresees “a difficult fight” with the experienced foe, but stays focused on his longterm goal: the UFC belt.

“It’s not only my dream, but everyone who enters MMA wants that,” Noei said. “Every MMA fighter wants the same. I’m here for the belt. I joined MMA for the UFC belt.”

To this day, Noei waits for the documents that will allow him to represent Brazil at the 2020 Games. He’s 34 now, but won’t waste any time thinking the clock is against him.

One thing that could complicate his UFC dreams is the conflicted relationship between the United States and his native country.

The MMA fighter joined as military when he was 20 — like every other adult male is required, he said – but doesn’t like the idea of war. That said, Noei wouldn’t shy away from defending his country.

“I saw on TV and online that Trump said there will be no war, and the president of Iran said he doesn’t want a war either,” Noei said. “War is bad. War is very difficult. But if a war begins, I will have to go to Iran because that’s my country. It’s my country, right? If you leave Brazil and a war starts, you have to go back to Brazil. Otherwise, it would be bad.

“For now, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think both countries will work it out.”

Noei’s entire family is back in Iran, and he hasn’t visited them in four years. Technology helps them get in touch and chat every single day through FaceTime, but the past few weeks have been tense. He plans on going back to visit for a few months in the near future, and hopes both Iran and U.S. can work something out to avoid war and more unnecessary deaths.

What the Chute Boxe fighter misses most is being close to his family. But that’s where signing with the UFC could help reunite them.

“That’s why I work so hard to join the UFC one day,” he said.

The experienced wrestler, who’s 6-1 in MMA, wouldn’t be the first Iranian fighter to enter the UFC. Noei says Reza Madadi wasn’t known by casual fans in Iran because MMA isn’t popular back home. But he plans to be the one to change that.

“Iran has wrestlers and boxers, only Olympic sports,” Noei said. “They don’t know MMA and jiu-jitsu there. But if I were the (UFC) champion, I’m sure that would be good for the country. I’m sure people would begin training MMA if I got that belt.”