When Ramin Abraham won the IHSA state wrestling tournament this past February in Champaign, many observers had a surprising reaction to this historic achievement. It was an incredible accomplishment, but one that had been expected by everyone who was paying attention. After all, the recent Evanston Township High School graduate, whose nickname is “the Beast from the East,” had gone wall-to-wall as the number-one ranked 220-pound wrestler in Illinois, winning just about every match in dominant fashion and giving up just two offensive points all season. In order to understand how significant winning was for this young man, however, one has to look back at his story a little further.
Ramin was born in conflict-stricken Syria and lived there for the first 12 years of his life. His family then fled the war, moving to Lebanon to seek refuge. Unfortunately, they were not welcomed in the way they had hoped, as the schools in Lebanon only spoke Lebanese and French.
Due to the worsening racial disparity and treatment they received, the Abraham family reached out to cousins already in America. They knew that in America, their children would be able to have a multi-lingual education, but would learn by speaking Syrian. They finally made the move to Evanston the summer before Ramin and his older brother began their freshman year of high school.
“When I first got here, it was very hard,” said Ramin of his initial impression of ETHS. “I didn’t really know any English, but I did my best to pick it up along the way. Paying attention in class was really hard because most of the time, I really didn’t know what the teachers were saying. Even taking the ACT was just about impossible because I spent half the time trying to read the questions.”
Before he found wrestling, Ramin was, as head wrestling coach Rudy Salinas describes it, “a profound soccer fanatic.” He loved the sport, and had played it since he was a child in Syria. So when freshman boys soccer coach Marx Succes introduced Ramin to coach Salinas as a potential prospect, Ramin was very hesitant to even entertain the idea of playing another sport.
“The whole thing was a pretty long process,” Ramin said with a laugh. “I tried to quit after my first day of practice because I thought it was boring. The coaches really had to be stubborn with me to keep me on board.”
After a freshman season with only a single loss (due to disqualification in a match he had been winning) Ramin informed the coaches that he would not be coming back the following year, and that he intended to focus solely on soccer for the remainder of high school. However, Coach Salinas worked him and worked him and, eventually, got him back in the wrestling room.
“I would love to take all of the credit for myself, but it honestly took a village.” said Coach Salinas. “From his soccer coaches who would get in his ear, to our alumni that fostered his interest in the international aspect of the sport, everyone had a small part to play in getting Ramin to remain a part of this team.”
As that sophomore season went on, Coach Salinas began to sense there was something different about this athlete. “The athleticism, the quick feet, it was different for sure. He used it in a way that people hadn’t been using it previously, and with it brought forth motion and reaction, something that most people can’t simply create on their own,” Ramin was evidently using his soccer footwork to be successful on the wrestling mat in a way that had not been done previously. As he became more successful, his misgivings about the sport began to fade away.
Ramin made history throughout his sophomore and junior seasons, tying the record for Evanston’s youngest Central Suburban League champion as well as breaking the record for youngest state qualifier and medalist. Even though he had only started the sport his freshman year of high school, it was clear that his capacity to learn and adapt went beyond that of any ordinary individual. “It proves, once again, that you don’t have to be a club wrestler.” remarked Coach Salinas. “At the end of the day, Ramin did what he did through his own work ethic and motivation, and that is a lesson for all to learn.”
At the State championship his senior year, the expectations were high, with good reason. Ramin had already run the gauntlet. The eventual sixth-, fifth-, third-, and second-place finishers were all area wrestlers, opponents Ramin had defeated at least once this year. In his words, he knew he was good enough to beat them all; he simply had to do it one more time.
An easy pinfall and major decision against opponents from Minooka and Palatine Fremd earned him a semifinal berth, wherein he would face a familiar opponent: Maine West’s Jacob Bellizi, whom Ramin had beaten in the Wheaton Warrenville, Central Suburban and IHSA Regional Tournament finals.
The three-time State Qualifier from Park Ridge proved a tough test, but Ramin still prevailed by a score of seven to three, wrestling a cautious and conservative match and forcing the physically imposing senior to make mistakes.
This broke him through to the State final, Evanston’s first finalist since 2010, when Miami football recruit Jeffrey Brown took home the State title at heavyweight. Ramin would face an opponent who was just as familiar, but much tougher than anyone he had faced in the tournament thus far. Ramin would step on the mat against Lake Park’s Demarco Lee, a puzzling challenge for anyone in the country.
The 6-foot, 7-inch returning State medalist had scored the only offensive takedown of the season on Ramin and had frustrated him with his length and athleticism. Ramin had still been victorious in that match by a 5-4 score, but the match was controversial, as he won in the closing seconds on a stalling penalty point that was hotly protested by the Lake Park coaching staff. In the State finals, Ramin attempted to change his game plan in order to make the victory more clear-cut.
“I knew what his plan was going to be” said Ramin. “He wanted me to wear myself out and use his length against me, so I shortened up. I made him come to me.”
The 4-3 decision was definitely not the prettiest of his career, but the victory was without a doubt his most important. From not liking the sport to reaching the mountaintop in almost a movie-like fashion, Ramin had reached the pinnacle of high school wrestling
At the time of print, Ramin’s record in the last calendar year stands at 85 wins to a single defeat. The defeat came in June, at the hands of Oklahoma star Konner Doucet, currently ranked #2 in America and committed to wrestle for the storied Oklahoma State program. This occurred at the Junior National Duals, where Ramin represented Team Illinois and took out several nationally ranked foes, including a pinfall against #8 Daniel Striggow of Orno, Minn.
Despite state and national successes Ramin really is not sure where his journey goes next.
“I am training and fundraising for individual nationals in July, but after that, things are kind of still up in the air. I am verbally committed to study Physical Therapy and wrestle at Loras College in Iowa, but based on my recent success, that may change. I have gotten interest and offers from Big Ten schools and other Division One programs, and I look forward to having the opportunity to compete at the highest level. As for after college, I want to come back and live in Evanston, and make a family in this community that has done so very much for me.”
When asked about the legacy that Ramin left behind on the program, Coach Salinas said, “Ramin learned to love wrestling, but along the way fostered a lot of love for his community. I am certainly aware of my position as the head coach of the team in this particular environment, and I know these things don’t always go right, but in this situation, I really just couldn’t be prouder.”
(Anyone interested in helping Ramin and other Evanston wrestlers fundraise for the Cadet/Junior Individual National Tournament in Fargo, N.D., should contact Head Wrestling Coach Rudy Salinas at firstname.lastname@example.org)