New York, Uzbek Immigrants Invigorate High School Wrestling

An influx of immigrants from Uzbekistan, which has a long history of success in fight sports, have transformed New York’s high school wrestling competition.

At least nine high schools in Brooklyn and one in Queens have Uzbek immigrants on their wrestling squads.1

Jahongir Davronov, 14, who came to New York in 2010, said his father also wrestled in his homeland. “The people of our country were made for wrestling,” he said.

Zafar Iskandarov, 18,one of the city’s top wrestlers, has brightened his team’s fortunes. But what is most remarkable is that while he stands out among peers for his skill, he no longer does for his background. When he started at Brooklyn International he was one of only three Uzbeks at the school, but Uzbeks are becoming perhaps the defining force in Brooklyn wrestling. Brooklyn International now has 20 Uzbeks among its 350 students, and 10 of them are on the wrestling team, with more to come.

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At least nine high schools in Brooklyn and one in Queens have Uzbek immigrants on their teams. Those with the most Uzbeks — New Utrecht, Midwood, Madison, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Forest Hills — have been among the top teams in their divisions. Midwood had a record of 3-4 in 2012, its last year with no Uzbeks, but has been 20-5 since.

The booming Uzbek population and its unquenchable desire to wrestle “has given the sport a shot in the arm,” said George Hero, the wrestling coach at Midwood High School where 12 of the 52 wrestlers are from Uzbekistan, a former part of the Soviet Union. “The numbers are through the roof.”

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, many high school teams drew Russians, Ukrainians and Poles, followed by immigrants fleeing conflict in the Balkans, helping to fuel an expansion of wrestling in the city.

There are now 78 boys’ wrestling teams in the city’s Public School Athletic League, compared with 25 in 2005. (Two years ago the league opened wrestling to girls, and there are now 20 girls’ wrestling teams).

But the Uzbeks’ arrival over the last five years has been of a different magnitude.

“The Uzbek influx has certainly brought a great deal of energy and excitement,” said Ken Bigley, the Public School Athletic League wrestling supervisor and the director of programming for Beat the Streets, a nonprofit group that promotes wrestling and provides supplies to the league.

At Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, there was such a clamoring from Uzbek students that the school started a developmental wrestling team this year and hopes to start competing next season. “We have 22 kids on the roster and 15 are from Uzbekistan,” said the coach, Michael Granelli. “They all want to do this one sport.”

With a population of 30 million, Uzbekistan is not in the same league as wrestling powerhouses like Russia and Iran, but the sport has helped put it on the global stage. Since its first Olympics as an independent nation in 1994, Uzbekistan has won six gold medals, and four have been in wrestling. Fight sports in general are hugely important there: Uzbekistan has won 21 Olympic medals over all and 18 were for wrestling, boxing or judo.

A repressive government and a weakening economy have propelled an exodus of people from Uzbekistan, and many of them have landed in Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Kensington, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, as well as Rego Park and Forest Hills in Queens. The number of Uzbek immigrants in New York has doubled in the past decade and stood at about 23,000 in 2013, according to a Census Bureau estimate.

Farhod Sulton, the president of the Vatandosh Uzbek-American Federation, which operates a cultural center, a mosque and a newspaper in Gravesend, said he believed that the figure was low and that the number now is probably around 50,000. (The difference in the numbers most likely is that the census does not count children born in the United States to Uzbek immigrants.)

Many, it seems, have children who wrestle.

At a recent tournament of 14 schools at Brooklyn Tech, Uzbek competitors from different teams gathered, arms around one another as they talked amiably, their bond stronger than any school rivalry. The city championship is being held on Feb. 17; the state tournament culminates on March 1.

Five of the young wrestlers — Farruhjon Yodgorov, 14, and Doniyorkhon Mukhamadiev, 15, of Brooklyn International, Bekzod Aninjonov, 14, and Jahongir Davronov, 14, of Midwood and Jahongir’s brother, Jonibek Davronov, 15, of Franklin D. Roosevelt — all live near one another in Kensington and went to the same middle school.

“We are all friends here,” said Farruhjon, adding, “In the summer on Ocean Parkway, you see all the Uzbeks sitting on the benches watching the cars go by.”

Doniyorkhon said many Uzbek wrestlers joined Beat the Streets and practiced at the same Brighton Beach wrestling club.

Hasan Usmanov, 14, a freshman at Edward R. Murrow High School, which just finished its first competitive season with a 5-4 record, said he often saw friends and their relatives from the neighborhood watching wrestling matches.

“It’s kind of a family thing,” added Hasan, who arrived in New York in 2009. “My cousin wrestled and my grandfather wrestled in Uzbekistan.”

Jahongir, who came to New York in 2010, said his father also wrestled in his homeland. “The people of our country were made for wrestling,” he said.

Ben Walsh, the Brooklyn International coach, said many Uzbek students had not wrestled before but had trained in boxing, judo or other martial arts.

“They all have a good background for this and can handle the grind of practice — the amount of suffering is tremendous in wrestling,” Mr. Walsh said.

Five Uzbek students from Brooklyn International earned medals in Division 2 at the city individual championships, which ended on Tuesday.

Uzbekistan, like other former Soviet republics, features freestyle wrestling, which emphasizes more standing and trying to throw opponents down than the folkstyle used in New York high schools, in which wrestlers grapple more from a mat, Mr. Bigley said. “But they pick up on the differences quickly,” he said.

Chris Friedrich, the coach of New Utrecht, and Mr. Walsh said their Uzbek competitors also warmed up differently, with tumbles and flips and other acrobatic moves. Non-Uzbek wrestlers are copying the moves, which help athletes learn to control their bodies, Mr. Walsh said.

“They’ve influenced me, and now I’ve tweaked the way I coach,” Mr. Friedrich said.

For the Uzbek athletes, high school wrestling has become more than just a way to maintain cultural traditions. “It helps with assimilation,” Mr. Hero, Midwood’s coach, said.

Zafar said his Brooklyn International teammates “helped me improve my wrestling, but they also helped me improve my English.”

Mr. Hero said wrestling kept students focused on their schoolwork and opened their eyes to the possibilities of college.

“If you’re struggling in school with a new language, it’s a lot easier to go to school every day when you, your teachers and your peers know you excel at something else,” Mr. Walsh said, adding that Zafar had difficulty in the classroom when he first arrived but had greatly improved. “With wrestling, they learn how effective hard work can be.”

Jahongir, the Midwood wrestler, said: “Without wrestling, school can sometimes get boring. This is the best thing in my life.”

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About Ahmed Islamov

I was born and raised in Uzbekistan and lived in that country for about two thirds of my life. I left the country about 14 years ago but sustained tight bonds with my family and friends living there. I know and communicate personally with hundreds of people including blue-, white- or pink-collar workers. I am naturally very attached to and concerned with everything that is going on there.
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