As Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh released the leg of his trapped opponent, he rolled onto his back, a wide smile on his face. And then in one swift move, he used that momentum to roll back further, pushed himself up into a vertical handstand, before landing on his feet. Replays showed the crowd cheering as Shadloui made his fourth Super Tackle of the night, and then how those in the stands rose to their feet when the Iranian defender put in the acrobatic celebration.

He likes to put on a show, and the charismatic defender basks in the applause he gets.

“They love me,” he said, with a shrug and smile, to Scroll.in during a conversation in Pune, when asked about how crowds react to him.

On Saturday night in Hyderabad, as the Patna Pirates took on the Dabang Delhi in the Pro Kabaddi League at the Gachibowli Stadium, Shadloui put in a performance that will not soon be forgotten. The 22-year-old left-corner defender locked in eight Super Tackles, picked up a record 16 tackle points in a single match. He even got in a few more points through raids to end with 19 points to his name on the night. It wasn’t quite enough for Patna to win, but his performance was one for the ages.

Shadloui's celebration (Courtesy: PKL)

Last year, in his debut season at the marquee league, the young defender walked away with the ‘best defender’ award – with 89 tackle points from 86 successful tackles. This year he had a slower start. Going into the match against Delhi, he had picked up 37 tackle points from 12 matches. But with the after his record-breaking effort, Shadloui zoomed to joint-second in the leaderboard with 53 tackle points (at the time of writing).

The particular tackle that prompted the hand stand was his fourth of the night, and through the match he had effectively cancelled out the threat of Delhi’s star raider Naveen Kumar. But Shadloui has made a habit of reducing mighty raiders into pummelled heaps on the mat. He’s been training for 12 years to do so.

Kabaddi star in a volleyball haven

The Iranian recalled playing football in the street, as a 10-year-old, when a friend came up to him to talk about a new sport that had been introduced to Orumiyeh, in the West Azerbaijan Province of Iran.

His city is known as a hub for volleyball, but there was a fascination for this sport that had made its way to Orumiyeh from India.

“It looked nice and I liked the tackles,” Shadloui said. “I used to wrestle earlier, but the whole tackling thing looked different. I liked that you can fight, you can tackle, there aren’t many rules for that. I started to play.”

By then, Shadloui played football, volleyball and also wrestled, but the art of tackling in kabaddi sat well with him. But he did have to convince his father a bit.

“My father was a professional football player in the Iran league, so he understood sports and was a big support for me when it comes to sport,” said Shadloui.

“The first time I told him about kabaddi, he wasn’t too keen. He said it’s too dangerous. But then when he came to watch us practice, he was okay with it. He understood I was more dangerous to them.”

It wasn’t until he made his debut in the PKL that his mother and sisters got to watch him play – more for fear that they object to the brutal nature of the sport.

“Now that they watch it on television and don’t have a problem. They see that I’m the one making the tackles, so that’s fine,” he said.

Taking his first steps in the sport as a pre-teen, and developing his skills while in Orumiyeh, Shadloui – who stands at 6-foot-4 – was selected to play in the Iran kabaddi league in 2018. There he caught the attention of national coach Gholamreza Mazandarani, who brought him into the national camp.

The youngster had even made the cut for the 2018 Asian Games team, but couldn’t board the plane to Jakarta due to an error with his accreditation.

“It didn’t come through, and it was my bad luck that I didn’t get to go. But I’m going to be there the next time (2023 Hangzhou Games),” he added with a grin.

Since last year, the defender has been sizing up the star Indian raiders and has studied their games. It’s information, that he asserted, will help the Iran team in drawing plans if and when they face India at the delayed Asian Games next year.

“I got to see Naveen, Pawan (Sehrawat), Arjun (Deshwal)… I know what they are capable of. For them too, they know how I play, but it’s better for me,” he said.

Fan favourite

At the elite continental event, Shadloui will be wearing a jersey that may not garner much support from fans in India. But when he wears the green of the Pirates, he’s one of the most captivating athletes on the mat. By his own admission though, he was surprised at how quickly he became a star name.

“Last season, it was a bit difficult because everything was new for me. It was the first time playing with professional players, the lights, the sounds... but it was still a very good experience. I was surprised at how popular I got with the people here. In India, there are more people that like this sport. There’s more respect. That’s good for us players because people come to watch and support. I like this,” he said.

Shadloui celebrates another Super Tackle (Courtesy: PKL)

In between Season 8 and 9, he returned home to Orumiyeh and spent time working at the gym he runs at his home.

“In the off-season, I enjoy,” he said. “My gym is big and I’ve been running it for two years now. I’m the trainer there, and I spend a lot of time working there.”

When he isn’t working, or tormenting raiders on the mat, he’s off-roading and camping in the nearby mountains.

“That’s how I relax,” he said.

When he’s playing though, there isn’t much calm. Tall, powerful and quick on his feet, Shadloui is an explosive defender – you only need to look as far as Saturday to get a glimpse of his exploits.