Platform’s Elaheh Mansourian Opens Up About Iranian Martial Arts Representation And UFC Aspirations – MMA Crossfire
Wushu World Champion Elaheh Mansourian uses her platform not only to elevate women’s athletics but also to achieve the highest level of competition in combat sports.
It’s a simple goal that took a lifetime of training and careful planning to overcome the pitfalls of politics and successfully challenge the societal gender boundaries of Mansourian’s homeland of Iran.
The Mansourian sisters, Elaheh, Shahrbanoo and Soheila, are all Chinese Wushu Martial Art World Champions. Their story was captured in the documentary titled Platform, released in July 2021.
The award-winning documentary, distributed by Venera Films in New York, helped the world learn about the history of the Iranian sisters and how they succeeded in martial arts despite many obstacles.
“The first expectation we had was that we wanted the Iranians to see this (documentary),” Mansourian said in July 2021, speaking in his native language, Farsi, and through an MMA interpreter. Crossfire from its training center in China. “And we wanted to bring hope to the lives of Iranians. The Iranian people have a very difficult life and there is a lot of sadness in the country so we wanted to show that reaching your goals is possible even with so much difficulty.
“We wanted to bring hope to the Iranian people. The first reason we made the film was for my country, Iran. Afterwards, it was the world. We really wanted the world to see this with so many limitations and so many inequalities that there aren’t many opportunities for women in sport in Iran. Most of the opportunities are for men, so we wanted to show that it is possible to fight and achieve our goal.
The sisters train and travel frequently, making it difficult to keep track of their family life. For example, Elaheh would have to stay until around December in Shanghai to complete her training. She may be able to stay longer.
The Mansourian sisters achieved much of their success as amateur world champions during the Ronda Rousey era of the UFC. When Shannon Knapp dutifully built Invicta FC, a 2012 women’s MMA organization that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
It was a level of competition that was thought to be unthinkable for women in North America just nine years ago. But now that women’s mixed martial arts continue to advance globally, there might not be a better time for athletes like Mansourian to move forward to the UFC.
Elaheh won gold at the 2013, 2017 and 2019 Wushu World Championships, with a silver medal at the 2009 Toronto tournament and a bronze medal at the 2011 Ankara Games.
“Before we started shooting the film, we already had gold medals,” Mansourian explained. So we had our successes and we were a little tired after that. We reached this level of world champions and gold medals, but no one knew us in Iran. We were sort of tired and very disappointed. But we had a decent income and we just wanted to retire, start a family, and continue our life teaching Wushu. But when the film arrived, little by little, the Iranians got to know us because before, they didn’t pay attention to us.
“People would take pictures with us in the streets, they would recognize us because women’s sports are not shown on television in Iran, so people would never see us,” Mansourian said. “Even in the news, there was no video of us when we were in a game and competing or receiving medals. But with this movie people started to know us and we started getting requests for talk shows to be on their shows for the very first time.
Even with the exposure of Platform, there is no room for naivety. Mansourian knows she is starting from scratch to prove that she can compete with the best. Then there is the time. Without an official mixed martial arts record, Mansourian must compete in the cage, develop, and allow time for administrative processes and systems to do their job. It brings pressure and expectations from a nation eagerly celebrating success and nothing else.
This is another level of planning, training and necessary action. Nothing is guaranteed.
“I feel a certain pressure,” Mansourian admitted. “I feel responsible, because with this movie a lot of people know me, and I’m famous now, so because I’m famous now, I kind of feel like I have a certain responsibility, and I have to help other women too to achieve their goals. I encourage a lot of young children to continue this sport of martial arts, and I try to explain to them that there is a future, and I really try to work for that future, to make sure that when they get to a higher level, they have a decent life, they have a decent income.
Impacting his country’s base is one of Mansourian’s proudest accomplishments. It is something close to his heart, that every athlete should have the support and respect of the governing sports organizations to foster success.
“And I really fought, I keep fighting for the salary of the Wushu fighters in Iran for women, because I think it’s very important, and I really want to participate. I also try to integrate Wushu sports in different parts of Iran. For example in Isfahan, there is a, there is a team called Sepahan, they are very well known for their football, which is football, which is called football. But I tried very hard to include Wushu as well. So now they have a Wushu team, and their wife, their Wushu team, their Wushu women team, they actually earn, their salary is higher than the men. Our argument is that Wushu is harder for women, so we should have a higher salary. And, at the moment, Sepahan is a very famous team, they have 25 different and different sports for women, of which Wushu is also included.
These more modest but meaningful victories emboldened Mansourian as she rose through the ranks towards her ultimate goal: the UFC.
The opportunity that Mansourian now pursues is neatly housed within the octagon, located between what is said and what is done. But Manosurian has a very important supporter: UFC strawweight world champion Rose Namajunas.
When asked what she would say to White, Mansourian thoughtfully set out her case.
“If you choose me to be in the UFC, I’ll be the one, the only Muslim athlete who can represent a big world. There are no Muslim women in the UFC at the moment. I can be there and represent a bigger world, and I can fight in my hijab, and I can bring all these Muslims to the stands to be included in the UFC. And that can bring more income for the UFC, and the UFC can develop that way. I think that’s the idea that it will be inclusive. It will be inclusive. And I promise I can help provide grants for, more grants for the UFC. For example, if the company wants to sponsor our clothes, clothing, and hijabs, you can make money with that. I don’t want any money with this. I just want to be included. I want to represent the Muslim world.
The UFC currently provides each fighter with a “fight kit” or uniform that all fighters wear. Theoretically, it could be changed to include a hijab for Muslim female athletes on the roster.
There’s also Invicta FC, the Dana White Contender series, and The Ultimate Fighter to consider as options.
Older sister Sorella, 33, was also training at a UFC fight camp in Dubai, working on her MMA background.
The fact that the UFC has strengthened its presence in the region, with fights at Fight Island in 2020 and 2021 has led to the appearance of local talent on the cards.
Manosurian also has a very strong supporter. UFC Strawweight World Champion Rose Namajunas.
“I am the UFC,” confirmed Elaheh. “I try to watch the fights. I really think it’s important to me, because the whole world is watching UFC and as a Muslim woman I can do it. It’s my job and I want the world to see it. It is very important in the Muslim world and also for the Iranians. I now train in MMA. It’s very difficult, it’s very hard. I really want to make sure I can get there, so I’m training really hard for that.
“I look at Rose. She has the belt. We follow each other on Instagram, ”Mansourian said. “I watch his fights very closely. I truly admit that she is a very fierce fighter. She lost her belt but tried really hard and it was a year later or because of COVID it was two years later and she got her belt back. I am also Conor (McGregor) and and Khabib (Nurmagomedov).
Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from mixed martial arts in 2021 and started his own organization, Eagle FC.
“I like to compete in 56 kg (around 125 pounds),” Mansourian said. “I prefer the lighter weight. I am very tall and I am very quick with my hands and feet. But the struggle is also very important for the Iranians. Wrestling is the number one sport in Iran and Iran is very good at it. I have this Wushu style of wrestling and am working on my style for the floor. Technical things. I would like to fight against Rose.
“She’s a heroine for me, so I really want to try this and challenge myself… There is another Chinese athlete Welei Zhang and I want to fight against her too,” Mansourian said.
Namajunas is expected to defend her belt this year against former champion Carla Esparza.
The year 2021 has proven that dreams can come true. British flyweight Jake Hadley has reached the octagon after long questioning and proving himself in the Dana White Contender series.
Meanwhile, Mansourian and his sisters keep pushing and watching Rose and Conor do their thing.
“You will see me one day at the UFC. I’m really working on this.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to MMA Crossfire reporter Anya Wassenberg. Check back for an update on Mansourian’s progress