Padecky: In Santa Rosa and far from home, Kyrgyzstan wrestler turns focus to mixed martial arts

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Their voices were soft, quiet, respectful, the kind you hear in a library, the kind which make the speakers purposely invisible. David Terrell and Aiaal Lazarev weren’t betraying their subject matter. Coulda been talking about doing laundry.

Then I innocently asked The Question and everything changed.

“David, will Aiaal have a problem with the physical contact?”

Terrell runs NorCal Fighting Alliance and is training Lazarev to be a mixed martial arts fighter.

Terrell heard the question, smiled, and faster than it takes the reader to read this sentence, thrust his left hand inches from Lazarev’s face, turned his palm to face a punch from his right hand and delivered a straight solid blow to his palm that can be best described as this: The sound of a watermelon hitting concrete after being tossed from a 10th-story window.

Lazarev didn’t flinch, didn’t even blink. Only smiled.

“Our winters can get to be 55 below zero,” said Dimitri Ushkanon, who via cellphone was helping his countryman with his English. “Only tough people live there.”

“There” is Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous land-locked republic in Asia, commonly known as the Switzerland of Central Asia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 Kyrgyzstan achieved independence, became known to the world after the peeling back of the Soviet curtain.

Enter Lazarev into this unveiling, a man difficult to ignore even if he never said a word. He’s 6-foot-5, with 275 pounds hidden. Yes, hidden. Lazarev doesn’t look like he weighs 275 pounds any more than an orange looks like it weighs as much as a watermelon. He is cut, as they say, cut as if by a sharp chisel. A cheeseburger carries more fat.

This is what an Olympic wrestler looks like and Lazarev, 33, is indeed that. Representing Kyrgyzstan, competing in the super heavyweight class, he reached the Round of 16 at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

So what is Lazarev doing in Santa Rosa, 6,778 miles from home? After realizing his Olympic dream, Lazarev went looking for another challenge. Not a guy who thinks shuffleboard would provide it, Lazarev zeroed in on the one activity that made sense: time to be a mixed martial arts fighter. Ushkanon, a Muay Thai master and fighter who has taught at Terrell’s place, let Lazarev know Terrell’s operation would be the perfect fit.

It took about one minute to be convinced Terrell was the answer or, this case, the following paragraph.

Terrell was an Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor, competing for the UFC middleweight title in 2005. Because of injuries, Terrell was forced to retire with a 6-2 UFC record — a promising career cut short. He then opened his club and since has trained eight fighters who advanced to the UFC.

“When you have an athlete of this caliber,” said Terrell, recently inducted into the Piner High School Hall of Fame, “Aiaal could be a champion volleyball player. It’s a pleasure to work with someone who has a high work ethic with all his skill. And his power? Aiaal has crazy power.”

Lazarev is so strong that once he cracked an opponent’s ribs just by grabbing him around the midsection. With no intention to maim. Just to get — excuse this blatant understatement — the guy in a favorable position.

Lazarev is so accomplished and popular that he is treated like a rock star in Kyrgyzstan. He is stopped on the street for his autograph or a picture or a simple conversational exchange. In the 10 years he was a professional wrestler there, Lazarev was accompanied wherever he went by his own masseuse. He could give you a nice tour of Europe and Asia: Lazarev medaled in wrestling matches in Spain, Belarus, Mongolia, Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Bulgaria, Qatar, Thailand, India and Kyrgyzstan.

His family provided that example. His father is a lawyer and a bilingual teacher. His brother is a scientist. His sister is a lawyer. His mother is a teacher. He has a degree in kinesiology. In other words, Aiaal is not a thick-skulled bonecrusher who grunts for a living and eats raw meat.

Terrell is not sure if Lazarev has ever had a hamburger. He doesn’t drink, smoke or eat the typical American diet. He comes from a country that demands its inhabitants earn their way. Thirty-one percent of the people there live below the poverty line. It is the second-poorest nation in Central Asia.

“Aiaal feels a great responsibility,” Ushkanon said.

In a sense, Lazarev is still an Olympian representing his country. National identity is a powerful motivator placed in front of us every four years. The rest of the time? Steph Curry or Tom Brady or Aaron Judge play for a lot of reasons, but not usually for America.

“If I can do this,” Lazarev said, “anybody can.”

He works out six nights a week at Terrell’s place. Housed in a cabin in Forestville, Lazarev lives a lifestyle spartan to most Americans.

“It’s not problem,” said Lazarev, with the quiet firmness of someone who is not easily discouraged. Lazarev didn’t come to America to go to Disneyland. He came to fight, to push himself physically and mentally, to find what’s hidden. Just like that pretend punch from Terrell, none of that makes Aiaal Lazarev flinch.

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