Nearly two years ago, an Iranian judoka refused to return to Iran after reportedly being ordered to throw a world championship semi-final match in Japan to avoid facing off with an Israeli counterpart in the final.
Since the incident in August 2019, Iran was banned from the International Judo Federation (IJF), a charge that was later dropped by The Court of Arbitration for Sport on Monday for having “no legal basis.”
Meanwhile, Iranian and Israeli judokas Saeid Mollaei and Sagi Muki have gone on to develop a very public friendship. Their rapport recently culminated in Mollaei’s visit to Tel Aviv last month to compete in the two-day IJF Grand Slam representing Mongolia.
US media giant MGM/UA Television and Israel’s Tadmor Entertainment decided the moment, as well as all the unique experiences of Muki and Mollaei, had the makings of great TV. The two companies have acquired the life rights to the pair to create one.
The scriped television series will run over the course of six episodes and feature actors playing the parts of Muki and Mollaei. A seven-episode documentary is also in the works, according to Tadmor CEO Emilio Schenker.
The series is the second project to come out of an exclusive first-look tv deal announced by the two companies.
“We have an agreement with MGM that we signed over a year ago. MGM really wanted us to be their eyes and ears in Israel to what’s going on in the market,” Schenker tells NoCamels.
“There are not many opportunities in entertainment to do something fun and important. We saw this as a real opportunity to send a message to the world that friendship and love are above everything,” he adds.
Under the agreement, MGM/UA Television and MGM International TV will work closely with the Israeli production company to develop and co-produce original scripted series in a variety of genres.
Schenker says the partnership currently has 15 projects in development at different stages. He tells NoCamels that Ariel Weisbrod, an avid judo fan and head of Scripted and Documentary Content at Tadmor, came to him with the idea of creating a series and documentary around the story of Mollaei and Muki.
“When [MGM/UA President] Steve Stark heard about this he was very excited,” Schenker adds.
“Sagi Muki and Saeid Mollaei are both inspiring and groundbreaking athletes whose rivalry and impossible friendship has transcended the world of judo to captivate sports fans and hearts across the globe,” said Stark in an announcement. “We are thrilled for the opportunity to partner with our great friends at Tadmor Entertainment and the IJF to share their very emotional and life-changing story with the world.”
The companies are also working with the International Judo Federation to develop the series.
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“The incredible true story of Iranian Saeid Mollaei, one of history’s bravest athletes, who despite threats from his handlers, refused to give in and chose to compete against his friend Sagi Muki from Israel,” the series’ logline reads. “As a result, Mollaei was forced to flee from his country and live as a refugee in Germany.
“Soon these two incredible judoka will meet on the mat for the first time during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. This is a story of bravery, friendship against all odds, and the true spirit of sport.”
“I think what they did was go beyond politics,”Schenker tells NoCamels, “They showed us that time and friendship has no borders.”
The series will feature exclusive, never-before-seen footage and interviews of the athletes from the dramatic heights of their careers, including the moment in 2019 when Mollaei was forced to throw a match at the World Championships in Tokyo that Muki would go on to win.
Mollaei was then granted refugee status in Germany when he challenged the Iranian government and told IJF officials what happened after deliberately throwing a match in the semi-finals to Belgium’s Matthias Casse to avoid meeting Muki in the finals. He later told officials that he was afraid to return home and feared for the safety of his family.
Mollaei began exchanging messages with Muki over social media. In November 2019, Muki congratulated the Iranian competitor when he made his debut under the IJF Refugee Team at the Judo Grand Slam in Osaka, Japan. He was granted Mongolian citizenship in December to be able to represent the Asian country in the then-upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, now set to take place this summer.
The two finally met at the Paris Grand Slam tournament in early 2020 and Muki posted a photo on social media of the two embracing with an Instagram caption that read “Friend for life!! Tag Israel and Iran people for peace!” The photo went on to gain more than 10,000 likes.
In February, when Mollaei arrived in Israel, Muki posted the same photo on social media with a message that read “Welcome brother.”
“This is a great message to the world,” Muki told Israeli radio, according to the BBC. “This is something that can even bring Iran closer to Israel. It simply shows how sports can bring together people and break boundaries.”
“It’s my honor and privilege to be part of this extraordinary project with my dear friend Saeid,” Muki said of the scripted series. “We want to forward the message that sport is above politics and we are all one family. When Saeid and I meet in the final, the first winner is already set: our friendship! I truly believe with the help of this project the second winner will be the understanding between our people.”
“I am truly honored beyond words by the project. I am a sportsman and now I am a free man too. Through what happened, Sagi became my friend, as did many other people around the world. It is a fantastic opportunity to show that judo and sports are an amazing way to break barriers,” Mollaei added.
This is the second project to come out of MGM’s first-look deal with Tadmor Entertainment, following last year’s announcement of a new documentary series “Eichmann – The Devil Speaks,” which will premiere in December 2021 on Israeli Public Broadcaster KAN.