Three years after being forced to refuse to fight Israeli Sagi Muki, judoka Saeid Mollaei, ex-Iranian turned Azerbaijani, finally faced his opponent on Saturday at the Budapest Grand Slam. Mollaei won by immobilization in the third round of the tournament, and the two men, who have become friends, hugged after the fight.
On his Instagram account, Muki welcomed a “victory of sport over politics” and praised “the ability of sport and friendship to bridge all the gaps.”
“Thank you brother,” Mollaei replied.
Mollaei fled his country to Europe in 2019 after being ordered to lose bouts in order to avoid competing against the Israeli. Mollaei and Muki became friends following the highly publicized incident at the 2019 World Championships, and have cheered each other on over the past few years. Saturday was the first time the two officially competed against each other.
“First ever contest between Saeid Mollaei and Sagi Muki! What a beautiful friendship between these judoka!” the International Judo Federation said on Twitter.
A caption to a 2020 Instagram photo of the two published by Muki read: “Friend for life!!!”
The story of the unlikely friendship between Mollaei and Muki is being developed for television by Israel’s Tadmor Entertainment and MGM.
MUKI, Sagi???????? pic.twitter.com/POsaWp4VFo
— 2022judo (@1974ay1) July 9, 2022
Last year, Mollaei, while representing Mongolia, took home the silver medal in the men’s 81-kilogram division at the Tokyo Olympics.
Competing at the 2019 Grand Slam international judo competition held in Tel Aviv, where he also took home the silver, Mollaei told CNN that Israel had been “very good to me since I arrived,” adding that the Israeli judo team members “have been very kind. That is something I will never forget.”
Mollaei was granted refugee status in Germany after openly challenging his government. He told IJF officials in 2019 that he was afraid to return home.
The IJF said Mollaei had been pressured to lose at the 2019 World Championships by Iranian deputy sports minister Davar Zani. He was also reportedly pressured to bow out by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who told him minutes before his semifinal match that Iranian security services were at his parents’ house in Tehran.
Mollaei, who had been on track to face Muki in the finals of the men’s under-81 kilogram class, told the IJF that he bowed to the pressure and deliberately lost to Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semifinals to avoid having to face the Israeli athlete, who ended up winning the gold.
The International Judo Federation issued a four-year ban, backdated to September 2019, against the Iranian Judo Federation over Tehran’s demands that its athletes not face Israeli opponents.
Iran does not recognize Israel and Iranian passports remind holders in bold red they are “not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine.”