Marbella jiu-jitsu champion's fateful fight

The Marbella resident greets crowds at the Championships in Lisbon before his accident.
The Marbella resident greets crowds at the Championships in Lisbon before his accident. / SUR
  • Babak Alimoradian's challenge for 2020 European gold became the fight of his life

It wasn't a typical venue for a press meeting. I arrived at the Hospital Quirónsalud Marbella and made my way to the first floor where I was asked to wait outside room 101. Inside, a nurse and spinal specialist spoke with their patient, and my interviewee, Babak Alimoradian.

Once I was allowed in, I found Babak, a well-known Marbella athlete and entrepreneur, sitting up on the bed. He looked so different from the 'Persian Tiger' Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion that you see bursting with energy on his Instagram account. I took a seat on the sofa beside the bed and listened as Babak began to recount the story of the day that has changed his life.

The tale starts around 2pm, on Sunday 26 January in the European City of Sport 2020. Babak was moments away from realising a long-held dream since becoming a black belt in jiu-jitsu - winning the European Championship gold medal.

Babak tells me the crowded stands of Lisbon's Odivelas sports complex were animated. The European Jiu-Jitsu Championships, where some 4,000 world-class athletes had been competing over six days, were reaching their climax. On the stadium floor, covered in yellow and blue mats, were the finalists and black belt masters of this grappling martial art. In one corner was Babak Alimoradian, about to face his opponent for the European gold medal, in the Middleweight Master 4 Black Belt category.

His wife, daughter, son, brother, friends and fans were all in the crowd, with many more followers watching online. Babak and his challenger shook hands and the fight began. Yet within just seconds the mood of anticipation and excitement was transformed to shock. Babak had suddenly become motionless, lying face down on the mat.

The referee at first thought he'd been knocked unconscious following the sudden unexpected impact between both competitors as they began their fight. But it rapidly became clear that Babak was conscious and able to move his head - his body, however, was frozen, paralysed.

Life can change in a split second. Babak tells me that his day had started surrounded by his family and friends, with laughter and excitement setting the tone of the morning. However, by the afternoon his family and friends would be on a rollercoaster of emotions. Babak's eyes fill with tears as I ask him how his family reacted to seeing him incapacitated on the arena floor.

"I knew instantly that I was quadriplegic. I couldn't move, the weight of my body was pressing me down into the mat. Yet I wasn't scared, fear didn't enter my body," says an emotional Babak.

"My behaviour was instinctive; I just knew I had to focus all my energy and inner strength to get through those moments. I was not willing to give my body a choice - I wasn't going let fear take hold. I knew I had to be alright for my family. I wasn't about to give up, and I wanted to get on that podium!"

Born in Iran, to a German mother and Persian father, Babak took up wrestling from the age of six - a sport that is intrinsic to Persian culture, where the focus on physical power is equalled with an emphasis on developing inner, emotional and spiritual strength.

Babak went on to practise Olympic freestyle wrestling throughout his education in Germany, representing the country regionally and at a national level. Later he won an Athletic Wrestling Scholarship to Boston University, where he reached a ranking of sixth in the USA.

A little over ten years ago Babak took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. With similar holds and locks as wrestling, he has become a champion in his short ten-year-plus career in this martial art that centres on grappling and ground contact. The 45-year-old father-of-two has won the European Championship three times (2011, 2013 and 2015) and the World Championship twice (2011 and 2013).

Since becoming a black belt, Babak won silver in the European Championships in Lisbon in 2017.

2020 was to be his year to win gold; but life had other plans for him. "As I prepared to walk onto the mat to compete in that final fight for gold, I was totally focused on the moment. I wasn't thinking about my opponent. I wasn't thinking about the result. I was just preparing myself to be the best I could be and go out and do what I love."

The championship match was the fourth fight of the day for Babak. His opponent, André Luis Monroy Ushirobira, had probably studied Babak's style. Ushirobira was immediately ready to defend against a winning submission.

As both fighters jumped, they slammed against each other. Ushirobira's body turned, so his hip bone smashed against Babak's neck, causing trauma to his spinal cord, paralysing him on the mat.

Looking back at the video of the fight, one sees that Ushirobira is noticeably distraught. Everyone was in shock. Medics ran over to the mat, yet Babak's family, seated in the spectators' area, were unable to get past security to the arena floor. They watched powerlessly as events unfolded.

Babak was taken to a Lisbon hospital for immediate tests and scans. "Amazingly, the results came back confirming that the bones in my spinal column were not damaged. The force of the impact had caused real damage to my nerve endings, provoking temporary paralysis," confirms Babak. Over the next few hours, sensation returned to Babak's limbs. Surrounded by his anxious family, he was able to begin to move his arms and legs. Remarkably within about four hours Babak was on his feet again.

Meanwhile, in his absence from the competition, Babak had been awarded the silver medal in the European Jiu-Jitsu Championships 2020. Thoughtfully one of his teammates had collected the award. Babak may not have made the podium ceremony, but he had his own presentation, outside the Lisbon hospital, with his daughter Melisa, and his son Arman who draped the silver medal over his neck.

So, like all good stories, this sporting tale is not just about overcoming adversity, or conquering fear, it's about love too.

"For me, the most overwhelming feeling from this entire experience," explains Babak, "has been the love and support I have been shown by friends, family and fans over the past few weeks. I even received a message from Ushirobira too, my opponent, checking-in to see how my recovery is going."

Babak feels an immense sense of gratitude, not only for his health and wellbeing but also for his friends and family.

"I want to share these experiences for the benefit of others; I want to inspire others through coaching, and training."

As he stands up from the hospital bed, and asks for a hand to put on his jacket, Babak tells me he realises that he's got to slow down a little, to accept the age of his body, rather than the youthful age he feels in his head.

His recovery has been remarkable; something new for his spinal specialists who want to share his case with their peers. Usually recovery for this kind of spinal and nerve trauma takes months, a lengthy and difficult process. Yet already Babak is already walking and is regaining more mobility and greater strength each day.

He's already planning to coach others passionate about Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He wants to share his skills not just on the combat mats, but his insights into creating inner strength and confidence, and coping with the challenge of fear that holds so many of us back.