It’s Wednesday afternoon in the end of January when we turn the car into Diagnosvägen in Huddinge. You can hear shouts and laughter from the mat in the wrestling gym Huddinge BK where the children’s training just started. We’re here to meet with Zakarias Berg, the young wrestling talent who’s described as Sweden’s big future hope. When Zakarias walks in to the gym he greets everyone with a smile and it’s obvious that he feels like home here. We’ve read articles that describe him as a cocky guy with a lot of attitude, but when we start to talk to him we realize that he’s not only polite and down-to-earth, but also mature in spite of his young 21 years of age. We sit down in the lounge, start the recording and listens to Zakaria’s story.

From Skellefteå to Stockholm

I was only three when we moved from Skellefteå to Stockholm, so I never started talking with a dialect. My parents were very young when I was born, my mom was 17 and dad was 20. They felt that Stockholm suited them better so we moved and first came to Västberga, then Solna and when it was time for me to start school we ended up in Ekerö.” Short after his school start he got a flyer with information about trying different sports. He dropped football and hockey fast, but the wrestling gym Skå IK which was located about two minutes from his home, got his interest to grow.


Wrestling got Zakarias hooked and he started competing straight away. After a few years, when he was 12, he decided to change gym to Huddinge BK to be able to develop more. “It’s might sound early to start getting serious about the sport when you’re only 12, but I’ve always been serious with wrestling. And if you look at the young kids training here at the gym I can promise you that half of them are already world champions in their minds. I guess all wrestlers are dreamers. I also think the combat element does something to you. You get addicted to the feeling of winning, and that feeling can’t be found anywhere else. We start competing very early, I mean the lightest weight class we have is 16 kg, and then comes 18 kg, 20 kg and 24 kg. I remember winning my first competition and it was an incredible feeling, a boost I really enjoyed!”

In school he quickly got famous as the wrestling guy, and in games like King of the Hill he didn’t have much competition. Zakarias was serious with school and really put effort in to it, but it wasn’t always easy. “School work was never easy for me, I had trouble concentrating for longer periods of time. But I’ve always fought to reach my goals and one of them was to get in to Blackebergs High School, which I did. I studied the Economics program and everyone in my class was very ambitious and smart, so it was difficult for me to compete with them. But I got my grades and graduated in the end. But I have university. Right now, all my focus is on wrestling and I don’t even know what I want to do later, but I think that if you have a strong will and some entrepreneurial spirit you can do it without a university degree.”

The Olympic dream

In the summer of 2016, Zakarias was the youngest wrestler getting on a plane to the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. The Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) had previously said that it was the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo that he should focus on, so the fact that he got to participate four years earlier was not according to the plan. “I’d been selected to compete in an Olympic qualification tournament in Serbia. It started well when I beat the bronze medalist from the 2012 Olympics with 8-0, which was a shock to me. But in the quarter final I screwed up against a guy I’d beaten before, and the Olympic dream was gone. I was disappointed and just wanted to shower and go to bed. Shortly after the tournament in Serbia I received a phone call.” When Zakarias answered he was told that the other Olympic candidate in his weight class would have qualified in a tournament in Mongolia but had torn his Achilles tendon and couldn’t participate. They asked Zakarias to get on the first possible flight to Mongolia to replace him. The Olympic dream was suddenly back!

”I went straight to the airport and travelled for 30 hours, via Austria and South Korea, until I reached the final destination Ulan Bator, capital city in Mongolia. I was suffering from a heavy jetlag and when I arrived at the hotel I didn’t manage to fall asleep until four o’clock in the morning. At 08:00 AM we were at the tournament and I had barely slept for two hours. It was the worst possible preparation for a competition and I remember thinking that if I pull this off it proves that competition preparations don’t matter at all, it’s all in the head!” After a few caffeine pills and a thorough warm-up the tournament started. Zakarias won the first bout but lost his second against a short wrestler with a difficult style. Luckily that wrestler advanced to the finals which meant that Zakarias got to re-qualify back into the tournament. He beat one Estonian wrestler and one Japanese which meant next match was for the third place and the final Olympic slot.


”Before that match I felt an extreme pressure. I suddenly realized that I have the chance of going to the Olympics four years earlier than planned, and it’s only a match of six minutes between me and the ticket. I was close to burst into tears so I started running up and down the stairs like a mad man to keep the body active and not break down. My opponent scored two points early, but I still had a good feeling. I chased him like crazy and in the end he tried to throw me, I got him down on his back and was awarded four points. At that point I knew the victory was mine! It was an indescribable feeling to win a ticket to the Olympics. But there wasn’t time to celebrate, I had to go straight to the airport and start a 25 hour travel home.”

When it was time for his Olympic debut, Zakarias faced the toughest possible opponent, an Iranian wrestler whose strategy was to push his opponents to the edge of the mat. Zakarias got frustrated and escalated the intensity but it was unfortunately not enough. Even if the Olympic journey was short, it was a remarkable experience for the young Swede. “The best moment from the Olympics was without a doubt when I walked up to the mat for my match. My family and the whole Swedish cheering section were shouting and the adrenaline in my body kicked to the maximum level. I used to only feel anxiety in those situations, but it has changed and that feeling is what I live for now, it’s even better than winning.”

A Swedish wrestler in Germany

When we meet, Zakarias has just returned from Germany where he has been a lot over the passed year. After a bronze medal in the World Championship for juniors 2015 and performing well for a long time the German wrestling gym KSV Ispringen had got their eyes on the Swede. “I signed a contract for at least eight matches, and I’m then a representative for Ispringen in the German wrestling league. My training is still here at home but when it’s time for a match I travel down over the weekend to compete. The season didn’t start well for me when I went down the first time. I lost the first two bouts and it felt like shit. But I managed to turn it around and now when the season was finished I had eleven straight wins. Our gym ended up on second place in the league and we were really close to win in the final. The league will change a lot for next season but it looks like I have good chances to get another contract.”

A normal week consists of running, rowing or circuit training in the mornings and wrestling in the evening with two rest days. Zakarias explains that it’s his very competent trainers who plan all the training. “The guy who’s teaching the kids in there right now, Jimmy Samuelsson, won the World Championship 2002. He knows how to become the best. Then we got Neno [Jovanovic] who’s been assisting coach in the National Team and Mohammad Babuldath who until the end of last year was the head coach of the National Team.


Many fighters struggle to get the economy to work, and it’s the same for Zakarias. We ask him if it’s even possible to make a living out of wrestling. “Yes, if you live very ascetic maybe! At the moment I get some money from the SOK, 6000 SEK per month. There are some tournaments that hand out prize money, like Haparanda Cup for example, where the winner get 800 Euro. The prize for second place is a hand blender, so it’s fair to say that the winner takes all! There’s also a tournament called Golden Grand Prix where the winner gets like 10 000 dollars, which is really good. I haven’t chased any sponsorships yet, since you have to be very active in social media for that, and I’m too much of a perfectionist to just upload something. If I’m going to upload something it has to be really good and that takes time and becomes a distraction. We’ll see if I can try to get better at that.”

An inspiring future

Many successful MMA fighters have wrestling as their foundation and background, and Zakarias admits that it would be fun to try sometime. “I mean, it would be nice to try for fun, but I’m not up for a permanent change into MMA. I’ve went to look at a friend who started training MMA and you can see that with a strong wrestling foundation you have a huge advantage. I used to watch the UFC a lot, but now it’s only when [Conor] McGregor is fighting, or one of the Swedes of course. I’m very inspired by people like McGregor and Muhammad Ali that have such a genuine self-confidence. Other sources of inspiration have always been our great Swedish wrestlers, such as Martin Lidberg, Ara Abrahamian, Jimmy Samuelsson. When they were in the end of their careers I was in the beginning of mine, and it was awesome to train by their side on the mat.”

It’s truly exciting that Zakarias has achieved so many great results and still has pleanty of years left to wrestle. “We usually say that wrestlers peak at the age of 27. But if you stay free from injuries you can keep going much longer than that. I train with Ara [Abrahamian] every Tuesday and he’s around 40. Sure, he gained a little weight and his stamina is not exactly as it was when he was on top, but besides from that he’s still as good! His physique is still incredible.”


Next up for Zakarias is the Swedish National Championship 3rd-5th of February and Huddinge BK will send several wrestlers. We ask him straight away if Huddinge BK is the best wrestling gym in Sweden. “Yes, if you look at youths, juniors and seniors I believe we’ve been awarded prize for Best Gym four years in a row. The gym was started in 2005 and now we start to see the results; we’re superior when it comes to young talents. Sparta from Malmö are good when it comes to seniors, so between them and us there’s competition. It’s fun and needed for it to be exciting. You need someone to beat, someone you really don’t want to lose against!”

FighterInterviews wishes Zakarias good luck and a lot of success in the future!