With millions of social media followers and a massive fan base, Amir Aliakbari is already an icon in his home country of Iran.
Now, he's aiming for international stardom in ONE Championship.
The next step will come when Aliakbari (10-3) returns in a heavyweight MMA clash against former world title challenger Mauro Cerilli (14-4) at "ONE on Prime Video 1: Moraes vs. Johnson II" on Friday, August 26.
He knows that a victory is essential amid the only losing streak of his professional career, but he's also excited for his first appearance in North American primetime.
Before the 34-year-old battles Cerilli at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, find out how he made it from rural Iran to competing against the top heavyweights in the world's largest martial arts organization.
Early life in the countryside
Although Aliakbari now resides in a bustling capital city of almost 9 million people, he spent his early days in a much smaller part of his country.
"I was born in Eastern Azerbaijan Province," he says. "But I live today in Tehran."
The heavyweight had a modest upbringing in the region that borders Azerbaijan and Armenia, growing up with his father, mother, and five siblings.
"I have a brother and four sisters," he says. "My mother and father used to work on a farm, but they stopped working a long time ago, and now they also live in Tehran."
Entering His National Sport
For the young Iranian, athletics were always a major factor in his life – especially the country's national pastime of wrestling.
With so much prestige attached to it, legions of young men flock to the sport, and Aliakbari followed one of his sibling's footsteps onto the mats.
"I started practicing wrestling when I was 10 years old. My older brother was a wrestler. He encouraged me and introduced me to the world of wrestling," the AAA Team representative says.
"In my family, my brother was the only member who used to practice this sport. But wrestling is the most important sport in Iran, and it is natural to have two or three wrestlers in every family."
Along with setting an example, Aliakbari's older brother was also his main source of motivation and support as he pushed forward in his new endeavor.
"Because I loved this sport, (my brother) always used to encourage me to train and to improve my skill," Aliakbari said.
Becoming a world champion
Given the immense popularity of wrestling in Iran, the level of competition is extremely high, and very few athletes reach the top. Still, Aliakbari's rare talent quickly became evident.
Recognizing this, he committed himself to training and focused on forging a career on the mats.
"After practicing for some time, I felt that I had what it takes to be successful," he recalls. "Therefore, I decided to take it seriously."
From there, Aliakbari began to succeed on the national circuit, competing in the Iranian Premier Wrestling League from 2007-08.
Then in 2009, he won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Asian Championships.
And in 2010, he solidified himself as the very best in his sport by claiming gold at the World Championships in Russia.
Making The Switch To MMA
After continuing to rack up accolades, Aliakbari left wrestling in 2014 and initially considered retiring from life as a professional athlete.
However, something else piqued his interest.
Upon seeing so many successful champions from wrestling backgrounds in mixed martial arts, the Iranian decided to try his hand at the all-around sport.
"I faced some problems in wrestling, so I stopped practicing," he says. "Since I loved MMA, I directed myself towards it."
With a renewed sense of purpose, Aliakbari moved to Thailand and began training in all aspects of combat. And just one year later, he was ready to compete professionally.
As Iran's biggest wrestling star to make the transition, there was a huge amount of interest surrounding the heavyweight's MMA debut – and he lived up to the hype with a 17-second TKO win.
The 34-year-old then competed on big cards in countries around the world – including Japan and Russia – and built a 10-1 record despite facing more experienced rivals.
That earned him a contract with ONE, and while Aliakbari has suffered a pair of surprising losses, he expects to turn things around against Cerilli while showcasing his full potential in the organization.
"I've tried to solve the problems that I had suffered from recently, and I am in much better shape and ready to return," he said. "I think the fight is going to be entertaining. My opponent is a strong fighter, and I will try to give all that I have. I promise everyone a fight that is full of enthusiasm."
This story first published at ONEFC.com.