It's a rare occurrence in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) that defenders are the focal point of conversation. Raiders often steal the spotlight, and even in cases where defenders notch up High 5s, they get overlooked.
However, for one man - Iranian left corner Mohammadreza Shadlou - it's taken just a little more than a season with the Patna Pirates to become a household name.
Featuring in his debut season as part of PKL 8, Shadlou picked up 89 tackle points from 24 matches, including 10 High 5s. He left even the best of raiders scratching their heads for ways to get away from his defensive prowess.
While the well-built Iranian's skills are now well-established in the Pro Kabaddi League, his association with the sport is one that happened only by chance. In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Shadlou spoke about match-day phone calls from his family to calm him down, the differences between India and Iran on the kabaddi mat, and more.
"I was 12 years old when I first saw a kabaddi match, I just went to support a friend who was playing in that game," he said. "I didn't know anything about it but soon I fell in love with the sport and kept on practicing. Now I am playing in the PKL."
"In my younger days, I played a lot of sports like football, volleyball, wrestling, boxing etc but I really enjoyed the tackling and raiding in kabaddi, so I took it up more seriously."
Shadlou has three sisters who are all invested in kabaddi, but they are nowhere close to how deeply his father and mother follow the sport. With a beaming smile on his face, the Patna Pirates corner shared how his parents always made it a point to keep him relaxed before a match, knowing how he houses loads of tension inside him.
"My family really loves kabaddi. My parents watch every match on the TV and before every match, they call me and tell me not to take stress. They see that I am always stressed but they calm me down and after the call I am relaxed."
While his parents' everlasting support has fuelled Shadlou's terrific performances on the mat, the Iranian endured a rocky start to his kabaddi career. In fact his father often stopped him from playing the sport in the initial years, even though he had decided to take it up as a career option.
"For the first three to four years, my father did not allow me to take up kabaddi because he thought it's a very dangerous sport, but I still continued. Once he saw me do well, he started supporting me a lot and now my family loves kabaddi."
"Fazel Atrachali is very big in Iran, we have faced off in many tough matches" - Mohammadreza Shadlou on Puneri Paltan captain
Kabaddi is a sport that has reached the nooks and corners of India, with many youngsters eager to experience their share of the Pro Kabaddi fanfare. But that is not the case in Iran.
Kabaddi isn't commonly played in Iran's schools or colleges. And so Shadlou often had to make trips to a club in his village in Chiyaneh, where he trained rigorously to achieve his one goal - to be the best player.
In his short yet glittering local career, Shadlou had to fight it out against big names such as Fazel Atrachali and Mohammad Nabibakhsh to prove his worth.
"I've watched PKL's previous seasons on my phone and back in Iran, I have played in the Iran League where Nabi, Fazel have all featured in very tough matches. Fazel is a very big player and everyone loves him because he is very smart with his tackling."
"Same way, I think even I am a very good defender, I have my own plans and thinking. Even before PKL 8, I was a very good defender and I got picked by Patna Pirates after the Iran federation submitted my name for the Pro Kabaddi League."
Shadlou has made the corner position his own, a very important role on the kabaddi mat that fully suits his 'never-say-die' attitude. Playing in the corner also comes with the added responsibility of managing the rest of the defensive unit too, something that Shadlou enjoys.
"As a corner defender, you have a lot more chances to tackle. You also can control the rest of the defensive unit since they can all see you, so I think that's the best choice."
Shadlou also shed some light on the playing styles that differentiate how Indians play the sport versus the Iranians, specifically on the defensive front.
"In Iran, we don't have specific raiders and defenders. If I am a raider, I should tackle and if I tackle, I should be able to raid. That's why Iranian players are good all-rounders. But I don't like raiding, I feel I can get easily injured if I raid! (laughs)"
"Mainly, the Indian raiders have better movement and speed than Iran raiders. But the Iran defenders are a lot stronger. Indian defenders go for a lot of advance tackles, they have less control so that's the big difference."
"I had a lot of headache, I couldn't sleep" - Shadlou on his PKL debut for Patna Pirates
Although Shadlou put on a stellar showing for the Pirates and dominated raiders with his aggressive tackling, settling into the team atmosphere and understanding his teammates early on in PKL 8 were big challenges.
"I had a lot of tension, that was my biggest problem (laughs). After the first match, I went to my room and my head was paining a lot because so many lights and that much of sound was very new for me. I was not able to sleep and even in the morning I was just sitting in my chair."
As for the Pro Kabaddi star power that he was up against for the first time, Shadlou knew it was a small challenge that could be overcome with a strong mentality.
"The start of PKL 8 was very hard for me, it was my first season in Pro Kabaddi. I played against Indian raiders like Naveen (Kumar), Pawan (Sehrawat) for the first time but I knew I could do it. I think I am the best and I know I can always do well."
"For me, all raiders are the same. When raiders come to raid, I don't see who they are. I have a fixed line in the mind. If they come into my side of the line, I go for the tackle, otherwise I don't. I don't look at how much of a big star they are, all of them are same to me and I have plans for them."
Shadlou further explained how star raiders and their skills didn't pose much of an issue, but that it was the language barrier that took a Herculean effort to overcome.
"First when I came to India, I had a big language problem. I couldn't speak to the players or the coaches. Ram Mehar coach didn't know much English and so it was very hard for the first 3-4 weeks."
Exposure to Hindi movies did the trick, though, and opening up his ears to any bit of the language helped. Adding to that the Iranian's fondness for Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan and his movies, and Shadlou carved a nice little comfort zone.
"It was tough but I learnt a little Hindi (Thoda, Thoda!). I have watched Hindi movies, my favourite actor is Aamir Khan, and I love his movie PK."
Shadlou signed off by listing a few players he loves watching on the mat. And one of those is legendary Indian kabaddi superstar Ajay Thakur.
"I enjoy Naveen's raiding and I feel Sagar (Tamil Thalaivas right corner) is young and very good. Fazel is also excellent and I really liked Ajay Thakur when he was playing."
"I watched Ajay Thakur play when I was a very young child, when he played for India in the 2016 World Cup. I was watching the match on the phone in the kabaddi club, and in his time he was a great player. He had a great jump, he single-handedly beat Iran in that World Cup so he is one of my favourites."
Just the way Thakur made a telling impact with his raids, Shadlou's tackles have more often than not elicited voracious applause from fans. Needless to say, he'll have to play a major role in helping the Pirates emerge out of their current slump (3 losses and 1 tie from 4 matches).
The Iranian's continued association with the Pirates was delayed due to some visa issues. But his four tackle points from their previous encounter against the Bengal Warriors should keep him in good stead for the remainder of Pro Kabaddi 2022.