The Spectacular Life and Times of Kamal Shalorus
By Frank Curreri
?How old are you?? is a simple question, unless your name is Kamal Shalorus.
Every year, on August 27, the unbeaten MMA fighter and friends celebrate his birthday. But the truth is, Shalorus has no idea on which day, or which year, he was actually born. And he has never met anyone who does.
?The government of Iran says I?m 37, but I?m not,? says the former Olympic wrestler, who estimates his actual age is closer to 29. ?Maybe I was born in 1978, maybe 1979, maybe 1975. I don?t know. I said, ?Mom, what happened?? She said, ?Oh yeah, we had another son before you and he passed away. We could not go to city (to the hospital) because we had no money and it was snowing, so we just gave his birth certificate to you ? It?s very common where I come from.?
As best anyone can tell, Shalorus, who now resides in Austin, Tex., and is slated to face Will Kerr in a battle of lightweight newcomers at WEC 44, is not running some sort of Danny Almonte scheme or fibbing about his age to fool fans or promoters. There is ample reason for the mystery surrounding when Shalorus took his first breath: the Andre Agassi look-alike was born and raised in a foreign land that would make many Americans rethink their perception of what poor is.
In the tiny village where Shalorus grew up, amid the rugged and remote mountains of northern Iran, he said most children were given one pair of shoes that were expected to last until their 16th birthday. Kamal shared a cramped home with his parents and siblings, nieces and nephews. If the family wanted water, they hiked to a natural spring and carried the water back. When Kamal became sick as a young child, his parents took him to a local veterinarian ? an animal doctor for medical care because the nearest hospital was too far away. When he wasn?t attending school, 15-hour days on the farm were common. He regularly fished in the nearby Caspian Sea, and hunted big game, including rams.
?If you have a good shot, you try to shoot (a ram) under the shoulder one time,? Shalorus said. ?If the kill takes more than three shots then people don?t respect you. They will say, ?You didn?t fight manly.? One shot, people respect you.?
War, and constant reminders of the bitter relations between Iran and Iraq, was a fact of life. The Shalorus family lived near the Russian border, and though whatever Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decreed was law, culturally the Shalorus clan identified more with the Russians. Their boots were from Russia. The television broadcasts they watched were from Russia. The military trucks and fighter jets they often saw passing by belonged to the Russian military.
Sometimes, according to Shalorus, Iranian military officials visited his school. They were not recruiting soldiers, they were handpicking them. If they deemed a male student to be 16 years old and strong, they might pluck him from the classroom and enlist him in the army. No questions, no protests, no age verification, Shalorus said.
?Ten of my friends went to war and they died,? Shalorus said, noting that a government policy spared him from being forced into army service. ?My big brother went to war voluntarily and he liked it. They can?t take two persons from the same family.?
Wrestling was a family affair, at least for the males. Kamal excelled at the physically demanding sport from a young age and his extraordinary talent enabled him to travel to various countries as a member of the Iranian Junior National Team. It proved to be a mind-blowing, life-changing experience.
?Basically, until like 18 years old you don?t understand nothing? living in the village of Heris, the soft-spoken Shalorus said in his thick Iranian accent and broken English. ?You think this is the (good) life because you have never seen something else. When I became 18 I started competing in Russia. And then the Turkish team asked me to be a sparring partner for the National Team. I used to be scared of foreigners, because we never saw them. We thought, ?If they see us, they?re going to kill us,? because we had never been. I went to Istanbul ? and saw so many different people smiling, and then we talked to them. I say, ?They?re better than our best friend, they?re very kind.??
Then he returned home, holding a secret in his heart that he dared to reveal to his mother, and no one else.
?It?s so amazing in Istanbul,? he confided to her. ?I?m not going to stay here. I?m leaving.?
His mother was dismissive.
?Yes, I?m leaving,? he repeated to her.
Kamal never shared his intentions with his father or siblings, fearing they would try to talk him out of such a wacky idea.
?I kept it secret from my brothers. Even my dad, I didn?t tell my dad,? he said. ?They would think I won?t survive, because they don?t want something to happen to me. They would have stopped me.?
Kamal covertly began studying the English language, and applied for a passport in Britain ?because they don?t have no good wrestling team,? he explained.
Nine months after he first planned to leave his village, Kamal went out to work one day with his father.
?We came back from the farm, we worked like maybe 18 hours, me and my dad. He was getting old. I held him in my arms and he was sleeping. His clothes were all muddy and he smelled good for me. I hold him in my arms and I smelled him. I said, ?This is my last day.??
The son never officially said goodbye to his father. On a rainy night, Kamal?s mother drove him to a bus station, and he stepped out of the vehicle and ventured into the great unknown. He represented Britain in the 2004 Olympic Games and was been ranked among the Top 10 in the world in freestyle wrestling. He was granted British citizenship and met an American tourist, who happened to reside in Austin, Tex. The woman became his girlfriend and Kamal relocated to Austin in 2006 and began training in mixed martial arts.
Roughly two years later he made his MMA debut, winning by TKO in a mere 66 seconds over Jeff Davis. The ?Prince of Persia,? as some Austinites have come to refer to him, finished three of his next four opponents, with his only blemish being a draw with a hard-nosed finisher named Mike Bronzoulis. Shalorus had swarmed Bronzoulis from the opening bell, and pounded him with punches throughout the opening two rounds, but an illegal knee to the head of a downed fighter cost Shalorus a point deduction and the victory.
Shalorus, who is part of Pat Miletich?s team, has competed in top submission grappling tournaments, including a win over Joachim Hansen at Abu Dhabi?s European Trials. But Shalorus? submission grappling game seems ultra-conservative, in stark contrast to his swing-for-the-fences strategy inside the cage.
?I love wrestling. Wrestling makes me so relaxed,? he said. ?It?s like listening to opera or a symphony when I wrestle. Grappling is different because ? I play strategy and for points. In cagefighting I just go to fight ? I just want to kill.?
As for Kerr (8-1), Shalorus shied away from predicting how the bout will end and said he doesn?t know much about the hard-charging Bostonian, who took the fight on short notice after a hand injury forced Alex Karalexis off the card.
?He seems like a very well-rounded fighter,? Shalorus said of Kerr, whom he believes will have difficulty coping with his Olympic-level wrestling. ?But my takedown is different. He?s not going to know where it?s coming from. I?m not going to shoot a simple double leg. It?s a very different style of wrestling. My punching is better and my wrestling is better than his. It?s going to be a very good fight for me, for sure.?
As ferocious as Shalorus appears to be inside of the cage, he is a consummate gentleman outside of it. Because of his perpetually positive personality, he makes friends easily. His biggest fan is his mother, who still resides in that small Iranian village, and calls her son from time to time. Kamal?s father died years ago. An older brother, still sore over Kamal?s globetrotting, doesn?t say much to Kamal. He sacrificed everything he knew in search of something better. And Kamal thinks he may have found it, even if one of his passports says he is 29, and the other says he is 37.
?I love America. (It?s) better than Europe,? he says. ?No raining. Good weather. People more friendly.?
But there are some comforts of home that he wishes he could take with him. Those old worn-out shoes, the ones he wore almost every day until he was a teenager.
?The shoes looked like they were from first (world) war,? he said. ?Very old, strong Russian shoes. Leather. Heavy. Kind of like a boot. I wish they made them in America. They last forever.?