Once an Uzbekistan star, Ildar Hafizov seeks international glory as an American

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | April 21, 2017, 2:12 p.m. (ET)

Ildar Hafizov throws Jesse Thielke in the finals of the 2016 Olympic Team Trials. Photo by John Sachs, tech-fall.com.  

Three years ago, Ildar Hafizov moved his wife and daughter to the United States to continue pursuing his dream of being a World and Olympic champion.

Originally from Uzbekistan, Hafizov saw significant success competing for his home country.

He represented Uzbekistan well as a 2008 Olympian, finishing 11th, and in the World Championships in 2007, 2009 and 2011. In 2007, while still competing at the Junior level, Hafizov produced a fifth-place finish at Senior Worlds in Baku, Azerbaijan.

In 2010, he traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., for the Dave Schultz Memorial International, which he won.

Not only did that experience give him a gold medal but also a new dream: to create a better life for him and his family while wrestling for the USA.

“I came here to find a better life and to change something,” he said. “I came here for the Dave Schultz tournament in 2010 and I really liked Colorado Springs and the United States. I went back and told my wife about the U.S., and we decided to move. First, we had to apply for the green card. We applied twice and won the second time.”

Tasked with gaining citizenship and the ability to wrestle for the U.S., Hafizov turned to the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). After joining the Army, he was quickly granted citizenship but was still not eligible to compete for the U.S. until the proper United World Wrestling paperwork was filed.

So he wrestled unattached at the Bill Farrell International in New York City, where he earned bronze, in early-November of 2015.

Just weeks later, the process was complete and Hafizov was able to wear USA on the back of his singlet.

He traveled to Finland for the Vantaa Cup and earned his first international medal competing for the U.S., a gold. His success as an American was just beginning.

The next month, Hafizov tore through the 59 kg bracket at the 2016 Senior Nationals, recording four technical falls to earn a spot in the finals against Army teammate Spenser Mango, who had dominated the weight for years.

Hafizov was awarded the national title as Mango defaulted out with an injury. As a result, the former Uzbek wrestler was qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City.

There, he made a similarly impressive run to the finals. As the top-seeded wrestler, Hafizov took out Greco veteran Max Nowry, 5-0. The win advanced him to the semifinals, where he faced Ryan Mango. Hafizov took a solid 8-4 victory and put himself in the best-of-three finals against former U.S. World Team member Jesse Thielke.

Thielke dominated the series with a 10-0 technical fall in the first match and a 9-3 win in the second match to win the Olympic spot, leaving Hafizov as the alternate and with lessons learned.

“I can’t make as many mistakes as I did before. Don’t rush,” Hafizov said. “Now I’m prepared more mentally than I was before. I’m more confident than last year.”

With valuable experience under his belt, Hafizov was ready to continue his climb toward World champion status.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Having just proven himself as a legitimate American contender, he suffered a torn ACL in August. After surgery, he spent six months in the recovery process.

“I think the injury was probably a really good thing for him because he pushes so hard every single day,” WCAP coach Glenn Nieradka said. “It made him take a break, which he probably didn’t want and wouldn’t have taken. The injury was beneficial in the long run. He’s an extremely hard worker and sometimes he trains a little too hard.”

He made his return to the mat in late-February, where he made his presence known, winning the 2017 Armed Forces Championships. He looked even more dominant, recording all three wins by tech fall and surrendering only two points on the day.

Shortly after, he traveled to Denmark for Thor Masters and showed he’s also a force on the international level. Hafizov ran through the bracket, taking out five international opponents in relentless fashion, including a fall in the finals over Poland’s Michael Tracz.

Now the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the nation at 59 kg, Hafizov spends countless hours a week preparing for next Friday’s 2017 World Team Trials in Las Vegas.

Hosting six of the country’s top-10 59 kg wrestlers, WCAP seems to be the best training ground for Hafizov. Every day, he has the opportunity to wrestle almost every opponent that could challenge him for the World Team spot every day.

But Hafizov notes that the one with the strongest mentality will rise above at the World Team Trials.

“Everyone knows each other and knows what to do,” Hafizov said. “I think who is mentally prepared better will win. It’s not about secrets or throwing. It’s all about the mentality and how you prepare. How you prepare yourself is how you wrestle.”

The coaches in the WCAP room have been impressed with the talent he brings to the room, making every wrestler better by his unique technique.

“His technique is by far the crispest in the room,”Nieradka said. “His style is relentless. All these guys learn from him. You talk about 59 being deep because it’s iron sharpening iron in here. He’s a complete asset to have around.”

Former Iran Olympic coach Ali Asgari, now a WCAP coach, described the intensity and dedication Hafizov brings to practice every single day as something he’s never seen before.

“I coached Iranian guys in 2012, and then I came here to start coaching,” Asgari said. “By far, Ildar is the most dedicated athlete that I’ve ever had. I was the strength and conditioning coach for a lot of Iranian gold medalists. They’re great athletes, but I’ve never had an athlete more dedicated and more motivated than him. Every single session, he goes 110 percent. Wrestling is not you against him. It’s your lifestyle versus his lifestyle. Ildar is really dedicated. He has great nutrition planning, is well rested and is always in that tip-top condition. He’s ready all year long. We have really high hopes for him.”

The coaches aren’t the only ones with high expectations for Hafizov. His family boasts about him regularly and his daughter leaves him no choice but to accomplish the goals she has set for him.

“My daughter keeps telling people that her daddy is a World champ, and I say, ‘no, not yet,’” Hafizov said. “One day when I got back from competing in Denmark, I went to pick her up from daycare and her teacher said, ‘you’re a World champ? Your daughter keeps saying that.’ I told her no, but now I have to live up to those expectations.”