Ildar Hafizov (60 kg, Army/WCAP) is just over five and a half years removed from arriving in America, and contrary to what he might think, it is very easy to understand everything he has to say.
Hafizov’s ever-improving English features an abrupt brand of syntax common to most from Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and it meshes well with the litany of American colloquialisms he’s picked up since dropping anchor on these shores. But his method of communication is not effective simply because his grasp of the language has tightened. It is effective because every example — every phrase, every sentence, every word — contains a purpose. When Hafizov, who originally rose to international prominence in his native Uzbekistan, speaks about the American wrestling system and its lack of Greco-Roman development, his delivery comes off almost as a plea.
As if he loves the sport so much that it is difficult for him to wrap his brain around such negligence.
But there were other items to discuss with a man who is preparing for his sixth World-level tournament (and second for Team USA). It took a minute to nail down. Hafizov, now 31 and the married father of two young daughters, has observed a hectic schedule leading up to the Americans’ departure for Kazakhstan this week. Along with packing his own gear and personal effects, he also shopped for some relatives back home, as well as finish up a few last-minute errands. So he has been busy, predictably.
Not a big deal. When it was time to finally talk, Hafizov effortlessly opened up the same way he does on a mat. Nothing expressed is wasted. If he wanted to get his point across regarding a question or topic, he not only did so, but would pepper his answers with smatterings of introspective dialogue to enunciate just how incredulous he finds much of the minutiae that surrounds everyday life as a World-class American athlete.
That is his middle ground. The best way to describe Hafizov is equally grateful and frustrated. Grateful, because living in the US and representing this country has afforded him more opportunities to provide the best life possible for he and his family. Frustrated, because he appreciates the fruit that hangs from these trees and struggles with watching others take it for granted. Hafizov defends his ideals. They might be embedded in his DNA, true. At the very least, he believes in them fitfully and is willing to work himself to the bone since that is the only recourse available to adequately demonstrate his gratuity.
Precious is the pain of a career spent striving for greatness in an occupation that demands perpetual sacrifice. That is the agreement. Everyone gets it. So they embrace the pain. There’s not much choice in the matter, and it doesn’t obscure grand objectives. The best technical wrestler in the country and the elder statesman of Army/WCAP’s “Ninja Squad”, Hafizov stopped worrying about the pain a long time ago. His focus today is on making it count for something: a medal at the 2019 World Championships, which begins next Saturday (and for Hafizov, on Monday, September 16).
He won’t be alone out there. He’ll have the US contingent that includes three of his Ninja Squad teammates. He will have actual blood relatives cheering him on in person for the first time in years. He hopes to have an adopted nation behind him, as well. That’s why this is a cause stripped down to its barest parts. Hafizov is not begging for attention. He doesn’t need you to know his passions or his story. But if you’re going to support the cause, if you’re going to bother to learn?
Then he’s going to make damn well sure you understand everything he has to say.
And you will.
5PM Interview with Ildar Hafizov
5PM: Your first Senior Worlds appearance was back in 2007, the year the US won the team title. You had a very good tournament placing fifth at only 19 years of age. Other than the different rule-set, what do you remember most about it?
Ildar Hafizov: I remember I had good matches. I was wrestling the Turkish guy (Hayshin Baykara) first match and I reverse lifted him and threw him for five. I won the second period, as well. The second match was the Hungarian guy (Tibor Olah) and I beat him.
The third match was against Kyrgyzstan (Ulan Temirbekov). I didn’t realize that if I won the match I would qualify the weight. It wasn’t on my mind to qualify. As soon as I won, my coaches started yelling. They were so happy. So I was like, Why are they so happy? I still have to win one more. But then they were so happy, they said, ‘You already qualified the weight!’ They were yelling. I was like, Really? So nobody can take this away from me? They said, ‘No, you’re good, you qualified. You did the main thing, you’re going to the Olympics.’ Wow, okay.
The semifinal match was the Korean guy (Park Eun-Chul). He was 31, like me right now. What I remember from that match was he was so strong. I never had felt that strength before. Never. He was solid man-strong, not like, kid-strong. I was strong, too. But I was a 19-year-old boy in front of him. He was strong strong (laughs). I didn’t lose by a lot of points to him. A couple, two, three points. But the match was so hard for me because I never felt that. He was strong like steel, like, Whoa, whoa, really?
So I lost to him and wrestled for third against the Russian (Nazir Akiev) who took gold at the Olympic Games the next year. That was horrible, because he hit my eyebrow and split it bad. We were still wrestling. He scored simple points. He won by three or something. I didn’t lose by a lot.
I had lost the match for third and I was upset. But my coach was telling me, ‘You’re good, you are only 19 and you placed fifth in the World. You did great.’ But I wasn’t satisfied with the result. I was like, No! I should have taken a medal at this tournament. I was really judging myself badly. That’s what I remember from the tournament.
5PM: How is wrestling organized in Uzbekistan compared to the US? Here at the Senior level, we have a few main training centers and clubs. Is it set up similarly?
IH: How it’s set up in Uzbekistan is if you are the #1 guy, you live in the capital, Tashkent. You live and train in one facility. They have a new, big facility, it was probably built around seven years ago. Everyone trains there, and the #1 guy and the #2 guy try to get to the capital to train there. Because, in Uzbekistan they have 13 more cities and you don’t get a lot of training partners like you do in Tashkent. This is the main thing how they are set up. If you want to wrestle, you have to be set up in Tashkent. You have to rent an apartment yourself. If you want the coaches to see you, you have to be able to be in Tashkent. That’s how it’s set up.
5PM: Coming from the Asian region, you have a more pronounced grasp of the sport technically, and also, you are just naturally more familiar with Asian and European nations and their athletes. As a competitor, does that make it easy for you to scout international opponents?
IH: Oh yeah, I know who is in my weight class. I know exactly who I am going to wrestle. Maybe not the exact matches, but I know who I can meet in competition. I know how they wrestle. I’m scouting sometimes, watching videos and stuff, watching the Asian Championships, the Europeans. Now it’s easy. If you want to scout, just YouTube it. They have everything. They have every tournament. It’s so easy, it’s so simple. Definitely, yeah.
5PM: Do you enjoy watching a lot of different stuff that goes on overseas?
IH: I do enjoy some weight classes. 67 kilos is always tough. Or the smaller weights, like 55. 55 and 60 are pretty close, but 55 has more guys who are a little quicker. Not all the time, but you can see good matches. 67, they have good matches, sometimes you can see Olympic champs. 97, too, you can see really grinding matches. Like when two Olympic champs meet each other, it’s an exciting match. You want to go and see it. Maybe learn something sometimes, like pick up the best portion of their match and try to execute it in your matches. Or go back home and work on it. That will help, too.
5PM: What has been the toughest adjustment living in the US?
IH: Toughest? People understanding me. It’s hard to explain to people what I want because they don’t work how I would. If I want to get a job done quicker, if I want to get a job done better — but sometimes you don’t have to the time to do that — it’s hard to adjust yourself. I don’t want to say any bad words, but people’s laziness is so fucked up sometimes. They are raising prices and they don’t do their job. It’s killing me. It’s like, Hey, come on dude. You take that money and do your job the proper way. You have to. But they’re not doing it and then you’re like, Fuck, again? Really? Again? Come on. You can’t be that lazy, fucking Americans (laughs). You know what I’m saying, right?
This is the hard part. And, Americans don’t have a culture at all. First of all, they don’t have a culture, and second, they don’t want to learn. You try to say something and they know everything. If you want to correct someone — and I was trying to correct at first in the beginning, I was trying to help — they don’t want to learn. They say I know, I know, I know. So it’s like, Okay, you know? But you keep doing the same thing over and over. Same mistake, and you’re not learning from it. So you try to help them out and it’s, I know, I know, I know, I know how to do that. Then you just give up on it. Okay, if you know, do it. Whatever.
Now I’m on on my own, working on my stuff. And if someone asks for help, I will never say no. I will always help, but never overdo it. Because, no one respects it. People aren’t respectful here. Even for coaches. In Uzbekistan, we have huge respect for coaches. You always respect the coach. Sometimes the coach respects you, sometimes not (laughs). But here, people are not respecting the coach at all. They can say Fuck you. I’m not going to do it, I’m the #1 guy. What are you going to do? And coaches will say Okay, do whatever you want.
That’s the hardest part. Scheduling things, too. You put it on to schedule something and people don’t show up. Or people will say I can’t be there. They have too many excuses. They always find something. They are always smarter than others. That’s the hardest part, living with that all the time. Everyday you have to think about it.
5PM: Okay, then what about the American way of life do you enjoy most since you’ve been living here?
IH: Freedom. I will say freedom because I’m doing whatever I want to do and nobody will judge me after. Nobody will tell me how to live, and nobody will tell me what to do. They try to advise sometimes. I like how people don’t care about what you are doing at home. When you live in Uzbekistan, you always see the judgement from neighbors, from parents, from everyone. They try to judge how you live. No, you can’t live this way, you have to do this and that. They try to teach you. Here, they don’t teach you, they try to advise you. This I like most. People are polite, so they advise you sometimes but they don’t push you. You can work wherever you want, you can do whatever you want at home. You’re doing whatever you want and no one will tell you how to do it.
My family, my daughters, they’re doing whatever they want. They have a lot here. More than I did when I was small like them. I never had what they have now. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not (laughs). But they do whatever they want. This is what I like most.
Also, if you want something, you can afford it here. It’s easy. You don’t have to overdo some certain thing to get it. Even if you want a phone, you just go and buy it. Okay, you have to save for a couple of months. But if I want, say an iPhone. If I want an iPhone in Uzbekistan, I have to save for years to buy that phone. If you want it here, to buy a phone or anything else, you go and buy it. It’s easy, simple.
It’s a simpler life here. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. If you work, you have your apartment. If you don’t work, you don’t have your apartment. It’s so simple. But in Uzbekistan, if you work, sometimes you do have money and sometimes you don’t. That is the hard part. You always have to do something. Overdo. Overthink. You can’t focus on just one thing like you can here. Here, I can focus on my wrestling. All I do is focus on my wrestling. Sometimes I need to do other stuff, but it’s not hard. You just have to follow the rules.
5PM: What has been your most frustrating moment as a US athlete thus far?
Ildar Hafizov: I don’t know of any frustrating moments. Probably referee judgements. When you’re wrestling with the other athletes you are trying to raise the same flag. You are trying hard, you are trying to do your best, and sometimes people can screw your whole match just because they don’t like foreigners. This is frustrating to me. I understand. I came here a little while ago. But — I have the exact same goal as the people who were born here. They are chasing a good life; I am chasing a good life, as well. They want to live good; I want to live good for my family, as well. Not just for myself, I want my family to live good.
That’s why I’m wrestling. I’m building up my career in wrestling from the Army. People, like my coaches, will say, Oh, they don’t know how to referee. But it’s like, I know they don’t know how to referee, but they are screwing my match and screwing my life after it. If I am mentally tough and I can live with that, then it’s Fine, you screw me one match? Okay, I’ll get it back from another competition or another match. But if they screw you on the main match of the year — and by “main match of the year” I mean the World Team Trials or the Nationals, the main thing — they can screw you for one year. They can throw you one year back. Again. And you say Really? One year? Again? Without going anywhere? Without wrestling camps, without competition. It is so harmful. If you’re not competing against foreigners, if you’re not going to the big international competitions, you will not grow.
How they want people to grow is by just taking the #1 guy. How can the #2, #3, #4, and #5 guy be better? What if a #1 guy has been there for years? How can they build the backbone of that weight? How can they build the base? If they are taking the #1 guy everywhere, how can they build a good base if the #1 guy gets injured? They take the #1 guy everywhere, and if he’s sponsored? Fine. If he’s winning, he’s competing. But let’s say he gets injured right before a good international tournament and you have to take somebody else. Who are you taking? You don’t have anyone good enough to go and represent the country.
This is frustrating for me and the Greco style, especially. I see how freestyle is good in this country, very good. Freestyle, folkstyle are so good. I love how they do their practices, I love how they set up everything. But I don’t understand why on a basic level, in schools and colleges, they can’t put in a Greco program, as well. They will rise so much faster in the Greco style. It can be raised a whole lot because wrestling is huge in the States. If you see the sports, they are so huge into watching wrestling. I don’t understand why they won’t push Greco like that. They would be so awesome and grow so fast, and there will be results after it, too. You will start from the beginning and kids will improve so fast. And not just start at the age of 15 because they thought that Greco was maybe easy. No, they will start at the beginning so they can know the culture. The Greco-Roman wrestling culture. They know the code and they will bring more results. It is frustrating to me that people don’t put it in their program. I wish the US had more Greco programs. Not only in Northern Michigan, just only place where they have it and it’s big. That would be a lot better.
5PM: You bring an inside and outside perspective to this topic. You didn’t come up through this system but you bring an inside perspective because you are a representative of this country and you are a citizen of this country. So do you think it’s that simple for the US? If we had a situation where everyone’s introduction to wrestling was either Greco or freestyle, do you think that would catch the US up internationally within a generation’s time period?
IH: Look at freestyle wrestling. You have a good example. The freestyle program is working. Why is it working? Because folkstyle is pretty similar to freestyle, and freestyle is big because of folkstyle. If they can wrestle folkstyle, they can wrestle both. If you put Greco programs in the schools also, they will be wrestling Greco from the beginning. Not from age 15, not from age 20. From like, age seven. Or ten. They will have at least five more years to be in the system and know how to wrestle. You have a good example. Freestyle is working perfectly, so you don’t have to create anything new. You just have to figure out how they work. At least try. It will definitely benefit the program. It will definitely bring more improvement for Greco.
5PM: How about just the way Americans compete in Greco? How has coming over here and practicing and competing against our athletes influenced the way you wrestle?
IH: Here, if I am wrestling with a guy who has a folkstyle background or a freestyle background, they have some more tricks and stuff that they use in folkstyle. Sometimes they use it in Greco and it’s helpful. Like sometimes Ryan (Mango) will use his folkstyle skills and I’ll say, Whoa, wait, hold on: show me that move. So he showed me the move and sometimes it is actually working. I had never seen it before. You’re always focusing on Greco and wrestling Greco, you don’t need to use it. But you can use it as a tool to put into the Greco style. It’s different.
In Uzbekistan, if you notice this, they don’t have folkstyle at all. They have Greco or freestyle. If they don’t have a program in school, you have to go off school to join wrestling. I chose Greco right away when I was a kid. I never chose freestyle. It’s not even interesting to me, freestyle. I was telling Max (Nowry) how I hate leg-grabbers. Don’t grab my legs, I hate it (laughs).
5PM: When it comes to par terre top, it’s such a strong position for you and you have the cleanest lift, the most technically sound offense. No one argues this point. How do you decide which technique you are going to use? Does it depend on who the opponent is, how long they are? What goes through your mind when you get a chance on top?
IH: How tall they are is definitely key. If they are tall, I will try to gut them first and then try to lift them. But if he is short, then I will try to lift him first. It’s easier to lift shorter guys from the ground because they don’t have long legs hanging, so it’s easier to throw them and earn four points right away. With longer guys, you have to play the game.
Everything I do, I am looking at how they defend. It’s like the way my coaches taught me in Uzbekistan, look at how they react to everything you do. If they react this way, you are doing a gutwrench; if they react the other way, you have to lift them. Or, you have to fake or do something to get a reaction from the opponent. If you’re not getting a reaction it can be so hard. When you’re in practice and you have to lift a dummy, just a regular dummy, it’s so hard to lift because there is no reaction. If it’s a dummy and even if it’s only 45 pounds, it is so heavy because you’re not getting what you want. There are no moves, and it’s hard to lift weight from the ground.
But it’s so easy to wrestle when the opponent reacts to your moves. It is so easy to lift when he reacts and you’re watching how he reacts. You just have to turn the right way, how you want it. If it’s a gutwrench and he reacts and turns his body, then he has already half-turned. All you need to do is pull him harder a little bit and do the other half. Sometimes when you try to lift and he reacts, he loads himself on your leg. You just need to stand up.
You need to be able to see the different positions, the different moves, and the different reactions. It is not only one move. It is not just one lift and one gut. If everyone is doing one lift and one gut, they are used to it and you need to do something else. You always have to educate yourself. Watch videos and stuff to see how people are doing this and that in different situations.
5PM: Now standing up you are also dynamic. You try to create a lot of scores, you underhook, two-on-one, and these angles have opened up a lot of throws and even scrambles that way. Do you feel a sense of urgency to score on the feet since there are a lot of athletes, especially internationally, who try to wait around for passives?
IH: I will say that the Asian school and the European school are different. The Asian school, like all Asians — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Japanese — they can all score on the feet. They can all throw. But if you look at the European style, they can all pummel. They can all pummel hard. So this is the main thing that is very different. Someone may have a good pummel and good go, go, go but they can’t throw, and someone might have a bad gas tank but can throw. They can’t go hard but they can throw. Being taught by the Asian school, I can throw. And now that I’m in the United States I try to do the gas tank so I can go, too. It will be more helpful and I can use it as a tool.
If you can go hard on the feet and they put your opponent down in par terre, and you have a good gas tank, you can get him in par terre. If you can go hard on the feet but you have a bad gas tank, even if they put him down you can’t do shit. It’s hard. You need to know who you’re wrestling first. If you wrestle against the Asian guys, you have to expect good bodylocks and throws because they can throw. If you’re wrestling a European guy, you are probably expecting to go hard on the feet. You need to watch your opponents first. That’s what I think.
5PM: A couple of weeks ago in the Army report after the Pan Am Games, Spenser (Mango) said that sometimes it is like you need to have a bad match almost as a way to get it out of your system. Do you think that’s true? The other most recent example would be the matches between you and Mike Fuenffinger this year, but also, the Armenian (Vazgen Khachatryan) in 2017. You lost to him in Paris but then you really destroyed him at the Military Worlds. Is that true, that sometimes you need to have a bad match to get it out of your system because the next matches you wrestle are usually excellent?
IH: I think so. I think I am learning from every match. When you’re wrestling you learn something. From every match. You learn little things, little tricks, maybe you missed something. When you’ve lost that match, you need to learn something from it. The match from Pan Am Games, I lost to Columbia (Dicther Toro Castabeda). For a while, I had not been turned, but he turned me. I had scouted him, he had a lift on the left side and he turned me on the right side. He tried to turn me a second time and I was already expecting that, so I defended. But the first time he gutted me.
Going back, now I know what to expect, but not just from him. It was my fault because I didn’t respect that side. That is probably why I didn’t defend it the first time. I didn’t respect it enough, it was my fault. Now I am learning from my fault and I can wrestle better. Whatever Spenser says is right. He is definitely the coach, he was an athlete for years, he wrestled a while ago, and he knows everything about it. That’s why I have good conversations with him and he always tells me the truth. He will tell me what I need to work on, what I need to do. Sometimes he says for me to just go eat my food and rest. It’s all you need right now. I very much respect his opinion. He knows what he is telling me. He knows exactly what I need. So if he says something, it is true. I believe him (laughs).
5PM: That was actually my next question, how is it being coached by Spenser? Is he a good fit for you?
IH: Oh, he’s great. He is really great. He is pretty much the same age as me but a couple of years older. He is a two-time Olympian, six-time World Team member. Come on, man. He is a great example for us. Even now when he comes to practice and someone needs a partner, he just jumps in and wrestles with us. And he would never say Oh, I’m hurting, I can’t go. He is always going. If you ask him, he will always help you, he will always go, always wrestle with you. He would never say Not today. He never has any excuses. I think he is great. If you ask him for help, he will never say he can’t. He’ll say Alright, let’s go.
5PM: What’s the biggest difference in making this Team in 2019 compared to your first US Team in ’17?
Ildar Hafizov: 2017, let me think. Not a huge difference. I wrestled against the Army guy (Hayden) Tuma. The Final X was different this year, I’ll say that.
5PM: Did you like the Final X format?
IH: It’s good because it will teach you. It is in front of a big audience and you wrestle. Sometimes when you go to Worlds or you compete in big gyms and arenas, you can lose yourself a little bit. Like, Oh wow, it’s so huge. You will be frustrated. But when you wrestle in the Final X matches, it is one mat and everyone is watching you, so you have to go and do your job. I think it’s great. It will teach you more, I think.
5PM: We talked about this in May with your neck stuff from last year. Now that you’re over 30, do you have to treat your body differently and pay more attention to injuries?
IH: Oh yeah, it doesn’t matter what age you are, you always have to treat your body in the proper way. If the doc tells you to treat yourself, you have to treat yourself or else you will pay for it later. If you’re not recovering the proper way, you will pay later. Maybe not one year later, maybe not two years later, but five years later you will pay for that. You will be having pain, you will be having different injuries because of that, because you didn’t recover properly. This is the main thing. Not even surgeries and stuff are the main thing. The main thing is how you recover from injury. If you recover the proper way, you will be good for years. But if you don’t and you get lazy — or you don’t take enough time to recovery properly — you will pay later for that. That’s for sure. You will pay. I know that.
Now at age 31, I don’t have a specific way how to treat my body but I always look out, even for small injuries. If I need to take some time off the mat, I will tell Spenser. But I will do something else, like run. But definitely, if you need time off the mat, take it. Don’t ignore it. I think your body will always try to tell you what to do. You will feel it. At least I feel what to do. Maybe it comes from experience, I definitely feel what I need to do and when.
5PM: You are going to have family and loved ones coming to see you in Kazakhstan. Does that kind of pump you up a little more going into the Worlds, or does it add a little pressure?
IH: I don’t feel pressure. I’m definitely more excited. I haven’t seen my family for a while now. Instead of Final X and wrestling in front of people who you don’t know, you will wrestle in front of people you know. So now it’s easy. In the arena, they will cheer for you because they know you. My father never had the opportunity to cheer for me in big events like the Worlds, Asian Championships, nothing like that. Now he has the opportunity to see me compete and it definitely pumps me up. I am excited to go. I’m working hard everyday, putting time in on the mat, putting time in wrestling, so I definitely want to know what I’m worth right now. I want to know how the Worlds will end up for me. I am going to do the best I can. I want it.
5PM: Counting Raleigh, this is a process that started before the summer. Then it was Final X, the two camps with the Pan Am Games in between — along with no traveling to Europe for a camp or tournament. Has this slate of training worked out well for you? Do you feel ready to go physically and mentally?
IH: Yeah, I am definitely ready to go. It doesn’t matter how many times we went out or not. If we put more matches in overseas, it would have been good. But now it’s too late to bitch about it (laughs). It definitely benefits you (to wrestle overseas) more because you see Tracy (G’Angelo Hancock), he has been overseas all the time and has competed well internationally because of that. Because he wrestles in practice with the guys he competes against. This has made his wrestling easier because he knows his opponents. Sometimes it would be easier for us if we go overseas more and compete against those guys. Or train with them sometimes, not just compete, but train.
But now? If I say, Oh, I need more matches and I need to do this and do that… I mean, come on. That’s like baby cry. What’s done is done. What we have right now? We have it. It’s not like in fucking two weeks you can push harder to be better. No. You can be worse if you’re not pushing, but you can’t be better. Because you have already built up what you’ve built up. You already have your skills, you already have your conditioning if you work on it. You already have what you need. You already have what you have. You can’t put more on it right now. It’s too late. It’s too late to start running on treadmills and do some extra stuff so you can say, Oh, I will be better. No, you will not be better. Two months ago? Yeah, you would have gotten better. But now it’s too late to think about it.
People say It’s never too late. Okay, it’s never too late to get better but it won’t give you too much pump if you start running right now. If you compete against runners, maybe you will be better. But not against wrestlers.
5PM: Army/WCAP’s “Ninja Squad”, where all of you light guys have banded together and have created your own unit, so to speak, inside of the program. How has that changed things over there, the fact that all of you lightweights have raised your games on that team?
Ildar Hafizov: I think the Ninja Squad has set up the best requirements for now. We are on the good side right now, so we’re doing good. Everyone else should look at us and how we work. Not because we are the smaller guys, but because every other guy — like Max, Ryan, Mike, Ellis — looks out for each other. If you are not doing it the proper way, you have to fix it. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, they will tell you. They will fix you. Nobody will say, Well, I… No, we will fix you. We fix each other. We play with Max but we’ll work together. The Ninja Squad has been great.
Follow Ildar Hafizov on Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule.