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Championship Wrestler Speaks of Abiding Love for the Sport

June 9, 2011 By:
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At his Center City home, Zion Bakshi reflects on his wrestling days.
Standing with his arms crossed, Zion Bakshi gazed at a collage of photos and clippings harkening back to his life as a wrestling champion.

Back then, more than 50 years ago, wrestling in Israel didn't pay the bills, so he traded in his beloved sport to study engineering in Philadelphia.

But the 75-year-old Center City resident still mulls over his glory days, perhaps now more than ever as Philly prepares to host the annual North American JCC Maccabi Games in August. The competition started in 1982 as an offshoot of the Maccabiah Games in Israel, where Bakshi twice proved his skill as a gold medalist.

The way Bakshi sees it, he was born to wrestle the way Shirley Temple was born to entertain.

When he first watched his cousin practicing in Jerusalem, "I loved it like you get in love with a beautiful girl, it's the same feeling," Bakshi said.

He jumped on the mat at age 12, "and, of course, I love it, so I stayed," Bakshi said.

Plus, he was good. "You know, there's some ego in it," he said. "You know you are strong."

His short build suited the sport, said his younger brother Jacob, 71, but his proclivities worried their parents. His father thought "I would break my neck," Bakshi explained.

Even though practices sometimes lasted more than three hours a day, "Zion found a way to do it behind his back," Jacob Bakshi said, speaking by phone from his home in Netanya, Israel.

Since Bakshi's parents hadn't realized how engrossed with wrestling he'd become, he didn't tell them that his team was scheduled to compete in a worldwide wrestling series in Italy in 1953. He snuck out to meet his ride to the airport in the middle of the night. By the time his sister confessed his whereabouts the next morning, he was in Naples.

He returned home with a trophy designating him as the "most valuable" young wrestler. If that wasn't enough to appease his parents, he also presented them with a gift: a carrot juicer.

With the international accolade, Bakshi became a minor celebrity: Newspapers interviewed him, his photograph appeared on a chewing gum wrapper, and fans would ask for his autograph, Jacob Bakshi said.

"Israel was very young," Jacob Bakshi said. "For us to get some kind of medal outside of Israel was very unusual."

That same year, Bakshi made his first appearance in the Maccabiah Games, a two-week competition held in Israel roughly every four years since 1932.

Because the games are only open to Jewish or Israeli athletes, they're not as competitive as the Olympics or other worldwide contests, Bakshi said. For those international competitions, Bakshi said, it was enough just to compete at the "top." At the Maccabiah Games, though, he "wanted to win, as an Israeli."

He succeeded, taking home gold medals at the fourth and fifth Maccabiah Games.

Being recognized as a wrestling champion in Israel "pushed me more and more," he said.

He continued wrestling in the army; later teaching at the Wingate Institute, a sports training facility outside Netanya.

After serving in the Six-Day War in 1967, Bakshi decided to leave wrestling while he was still on a winning streak and moved to the United States to pursue another dream -- engineering.

Despite the distance from home, a few years later, old teammates invited him to rejoin them for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It was tempting, Bakshi said, but he knew there wouldn't be enough time to get back into wrestling with work, school and raising two boys.

That decision may have saved his life. During the games, Palestinian terrorists took hostage and killed 11 Israeli athletes. One of them was a close friend, weightlifter Yossef Romano. "God gave me the 'second life' -- what shall I tell you," Bakshi said.

He still missed the sport, though, to such an extent that he couldn't bear to even watch live matches other than his sons' high school competitions.

"I left when I was at the top and everything was beautiful," he explained. "It's like when you get divorced from your wife and you never want to see her again."

Even when Bakshi was invited to the Maccabiah Games in 2005 to present the medal to the winner of his former weight class (52 kilos, or roughly 114 pounds), he purposefully avoided the arena beforehand.

Though the Philly Maccabi Games don't include wrestling, he offered competitors the advice he gave his sons: "If you think that you're good, don't let it go, continue until you get the max."

Then, he said, "Once you are in the top, leave!"

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