VAN NUYS, Calif. -- The simple surroundings suit the men in the room.
They are Russian, Armenian, Iranian and American. Young and old. Heavy and slim. None of that matters though, not to Sarkis Darmandjian, otherwise known as Coach Sako, whose repurposed two-car garage has, for 13 years, housed SK Golden Boys Wrestling Club in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
Everyone in the room speaks the same language, he said. All wrestlers do.
Coach Sako is old school. A proud Armenian, he grappled his way through life and wants the same for anyone he comes in contact with.
He's quick to regale guests with tales like the time he spoke out against the Russian boycott of the 1984 summer Olympic games. Visiting professors at the University of Minnesota, where Sako trained for the U.S. Olympic trails, were KGB, he exclaimed. They didn't bother him much. The CIA checked in on him once, but that was a story for another time. At this moment Sako was serious about talking wrestling.
"That's Jeff Blatnik," he said, pointing to a faded newspaper clipping affixed to a wall. "I used to train him." Blatnick famously wrestled his way to a gold medal in Los Angeles, well before pioneering UFC fans knew him as a color commentator. Blatnick chuckled at the mention of “Coach Sako.” The Armenian didn't coach him, Blatnick said, but they did train together from 1982-1984.
That connection to mixed martial arts is hardly unique to Sako's life.
On the mat this Wednesday evening was UFC veteran, and fellow Armenian, Manny Gamburyan. So too a relative newcomer to the joint, someone special, Sako says.
Kamal Shalorus, a native Iranian, is nine days out from a fight, his first for the UFC since Jim Miller stopped him in March. He's in good spirits and claims to be in terrific shape. His weight, 162 pounds, is 25 less than at similar stages in previous fight camps. And Shalorus, like Sako, is well versed in the universal language of wrestlers, which Blatnick explained harkens back to the beginning of civilized life.
Shalorus, head shaved and broad-chested, finds himself far removed from the sheep farm he grew up on. His family warned him not to leave.
It would be dangerous. Too dangerous. Life threatening. But he went because he had to. Life called out to him. First he moved to London.
While wrestling for England, he met an American girl, a Texan from Austin. He followed her, fell for the liberal enclave, reveled in Americana like Thanksgiving, and realized the generosity of people often dispels the words of politicians and actions of governments.
"Everyone scared me," he said. "They said don't go, you will die. But something flashed in my mind. I said I'm going to follow my star. No matter what, I have to go. I'm going to see the different world. And I'm glad I did."
After his Olympic wrestling dreams went quiet, Shalorus, 39, found mixed martial arts -- an “awesome” sport, he said. Trained in the Texas state capital, he started fighting in 2008 and signed with Zuffa a year later. Shalorus is a powerhouse, the kind of physical specimen who will boast the body of a ripped 25-year-old when he's twice that age.
Over the last year, Shalorus departed Texas for California, settling in multicultural Los Angeles, which claims the largest Persian population in the world outside of Iran. Living among that group is Shalorus' new manager, Nima Safapour.
"I don't know if there's another manager that can culturally understand him the way I can," Safapour said. "His family, his mentality, the way that he sees things. Similar to Ed Soares or Alex Davis with the Brazilian fighters. You're not going to connect with someone unless you're really from that culture. So we just automatically hit it off culturally, but individually as well. We had a lot of synergy.
“We see the world in a very similar way. We're very proud of our background but understand there's a world outside national boundaries as well. Sometimes human beings can be a little too tribal in the sense that we create boundaries for ourselves, which makes it difficult for us to interact with people that are different from them. You look at a person like Kamal, who lived and travelled all around the world and found a place for himself everywhere he's gone; we're talking about an individual who's very open minded to the world and people.”
Like many exiles of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Safapour and his family settled in the U.S. He grew up in the Bay Area, went to college at UCLA, studied law at Columbia University, and eventually landed in Southern California. Three and a half years ago, Safapour, 35, gave up practicing real estate and corporate business law to manage fighters.
He met Shalorus at a Zuffa fighter summit in Las Vegas and they hit it off. Shalorus said he was looking for a change, a chance to reinvent himself after the Miller stoppage, and the possibility of connecting with a larger Iranian community than the one Austin had to offer was intriguing.
"I caught his attention because I was an Iranian manager," Safapour said. "He caught my attention because he was an accomplished UFC fighter from Iran."
Soon enough, Shalorus became part of the family, so much so that he settled into Safapour's place as a roommate. They often talk about traveling the world, and life back in Iran. Neither described himself as overly political, but sometimes these things can't be avoided.
On the day of my visit to the Golden Boys Wrestling Club, an Iranian nuclear scientist was blown up in Tehran. Tensions remain high in the region, with talk of Iran shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point between the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the open ocean.
Presidential candidates on the Republican side speak of inevitable war with Iran.
"I see what's going on but politics is so heavy sometimes," Shalorus said. "I'm not qualified to discuss what's going on in countries because my education and my information is not enough. But I know people have a hard time in Iran. I hope people one day have freedom to talk, freedom to choose what kind of life they have, because my sisters and brothers my people live there. I wish all the best for them and I'll do anything for them.”
Shalorus embraced the opportunity of Western nations, though he does pine time to time for his farm in Azerbaijan, where much of his family moved when he was a boy.
"We are farmers and sheep herders. I miss my sheep. I miss my dogs. I miss my horse. It's very simple," he said. "No mortgage, no credit, nothing. Anything you have is yours. You work and after work you're finished. Here sometimes work isn't finished. You have to do so much stuff. We have a very poor life but at the same time you're free to live. I miss that."
Shalorus will return home for three weeks following his match this Friday in Nashville against unbeaten Russian Sambo fighter Habib Nurmagomedov. In a manner of speaking, Shalorus plans to do so well before the long flight; he has remembered his wrestling roots, something Coach Sako happily took credit for.
"His wrestling is good," Coach Sako said. "He's been practicing."
Shalorus smiled and remembered what his father used to say: “You wrestle, we watch and we laugh.”