x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

He's 77 but don't pick a fight with Iraj Dor Tolouee

Iranian boxer Iraj Dor Tolouee, nearing 80, shows no sign of hanging up his gloves as he teaches a new generation how to punch.

Iraj Dor Tolouee shows his best hook at his gym in Al Nasr Leisureland.
Iraj Dor Tolouee shows his best hook at his gym in Al Nasr Leisureland.

DUBAI // For a few minutes, he stood his ground, dodging punches from his opponent. Then, at the right moment, he unleashed a right hook that ended the match in his favour.

The champ, wearing glasses and a button-down shirt, won without breaking a sweat against his 15-year-old opponent. Iraj Dor Tolouee is 77 years old. 

He has been giving boxing lessons for more than 24 years in a small room inside the Al Nasr Leisureland sports facility in Dubai. "I have had students that were police and army members to young boys trying to learn self-defence against bullies in their schools," said Mr Tolouee, who has taught about 3,000 people over the years. 

"They see an old man, and think, 'Aha, I will win against him.' But it is not the age or size that matters, but the state of mind and confidence."

The key, he said, is to "know when to hit". Lining a wall of the boxing classroom, photos and newspaper clippings recount the story of the former middleweight Iranian boxing champion, who stands 170 centimetres tall and has weighed an average 60 kilograms throughout most of his life. The wall captures his career's beginnings as a young boy training in the streets, all the way to national and international championships in Asia and Europe.

In 1959, he won the World Army Championship in Ivory Coast. But the highlight of his career was when he met his hero Cassius Clay, who became a good friend, in a training camp at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In that competition, in which Tolouee participated as part of the Iranian boxing team, the 18-year-old Clay, who later became known as Muhammad Ali, won his first gold medal in the light heavyweight division.

"I, like the rest of the world, was mesmerised by how he moved in the fighting arena, and then how gentle and friendly he was outside the arena," said Mr Tolouee, who said he has not lost touch with the world champion. 

The two boxers' lives have taken very different paths, with Ali becoming a boxing legend, and Mr Tolouee, who has a son and daughter, retiring in 1965 to a "more stable" career as an engineer to support his family.

"He told me to never neglect my education," Mr Tolouee said, recalling a piece of Ali's advice. "And he was right," he said. 

Mr Tolouee quit his position as vice president of Iran's boxing federation at the onset of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979 and moved permanently to Dubai, where he has been running a construction company by day and coaching at night. "There wasn't that kind of support in Iran to promote sportsmanship as a proper career. All the athletes had to have jobs on the side on which to live on and support their families," he said.

His son, Amir, 37, followed in his father's footsteps and coaches boxing at night while working as an architect during the day. 

"My father taught me the importance of being able to balance sport, business and family life, and not lose track of my goals," Amir said. 

The younger Tolouee is planning to build a website dedicated to his father, and athletes like him from Iran who never got the recognition they deserved. "He is an inspiration to us, and proof that age is but a number," he said.

Mr Tolouee's much younger students remain in awe of their coach's stamina and relentless energy. 

"He is always smiling and fresh, even when has been coaching non-stop for two hours," Ghazi Saeed, 15, from Syria, said. Punching away at a speed bag, Ghazi tries to keep up with his coach, who directs and punches along at an imaginary bag. "Like this! Like this!" Mr Tolouee said, before turning and ordering more push-ups from the other students in the room.

"The coach helped me realise that I don't have to always fight to prove my point," said Ghazi, who comes three times a week and trains for two hours after school. 

Having taught Ghazi's uncles in the 1990s, Mr Tolouee and his classes have become part of a family tradition. "All the men in the family come to him to learn boxing," Ghazi said. 

But it is not only males taking up classes with Mr Tolouee. The coach has noticed an increase in the number of women showing interest in his classes over the past decade. It is a trend he doesn't necessarily understand.

"I am old fashioned. Why a delicate flower wants to learn boxing?" he said, going through his file of women clients. 

"Look, beautiful!" he said, pointing to a photo of a flight attendant who joined his class earlier this year. 

"But if it makes her feel good about herself, then I did my job well," he said with a smile. 

rghazal@thenational.ae