Karelin 'the Great' saw fear in eyes of his opponents

Best Olympic wrestler No 1 Armed with an atypical physique, brute strength and unrivalled technique, Alexander Karelin dominated the mat for over a decade.

Alexander Karelin, the Siberian wrestler, right, claimed he could see fear in his opponents’ eyes when they came face to face.
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Alexander Karelin was a worthy exemplar of the sport of wrestling, the oldest and most common form of sporting combat. If he were not quite Zeus grappling with Cronus for mastery of the universe, certainly he conjured images of the semi-divine Hercules throwing the giant Antaeus.

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For 14 years, Karelin was both the dark nightmare and towering reality in the ancient Greco-Roman form of his sport. The man-mountain from the depths of Siberia did not lose an international match from 1987 into 2000, and for the last six years of his unbeaten run he did not surrender so much as one point in competition.

He won Olympic gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 1996, and so powerful was his reputation that the Olympic president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was in the arena before the superheavyweight final at Sydney in 2000, fully expecting to hang an unprecedented, for wrestling, fourth gold medal over Karelin's neck.

The Russian brought a rare combination of strength and athleticism to the sport; he said he once carried a refrigerator up the stairs to an eighth-floor apartment; but he also could extend his leg over his head and, while standing on the other leg, touch the ceiling with his toes.

"I am grateful for my strength," he told Sports Illustrated in 1991. "It makes me self-sufficient …

"Always, though, I am conscious that I am not a typical man. I can win a wrestling competition with a decent enough score, but because I am not typical, I must win in atypical ways."

Karelin did win in atypical ways. He often used a reverse body lift to pin opponents, a move usually associated with the lighter weights because the move was not thought possible among the big men of the 120kg-and-up division. And later, simply his presence in a singlet across the mat seemed to paralyse opponents.

Jeff Blatnick, the American who won gold in Greco-Roman at Los Angeles 1984, described being a victim of Karelin's reverse body lift.

First, he was surprised that Karelin could pluck him up, while facedown on the mat, because he weighed more than 120kg, nearly as much as Karelin.

And, once airborne, Blatnick described a sudden preoccupation not with winning or losing, but with escaping serious injury as Karelin brought him over his head and slammed him to the mat, back first.

"I do not like to seem immodest," Karelin said in the 1991 interview. "But if I am asked, I must be truthful. Yes, I see fear in the eyes of most of my opponents."

He was born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in 1969. His father drove a lorry and his mother worked in an office, and both were small people. Alexander, however, was 6.8kg at birth.

He was a tall and thin youth mocked for outsize ears, but a wrestling coach in Novosibirsk asked him to try the sport, and he quickly excelled in it, taking up the more technical and formal Greco-Roman discipline.

He was the world junior champion in 1987, and a year later, in Seoul, he won the first of his Olympic gold medals while competing for the Soviet Union, defeating the Bulgarian Rangel Gerovski, a former world champion, 5-3 in the final.

Even before his second Olympics, he had been awarded several nicknames: the Russian Bear, Alexander the Great and, in a thinly veiled reference to rumoured (but never substantiated) steroids abuse, The Experiment.

Asked about that latter nickname, Karelin reportedly said that others did not understand his dominance because, "I train every day of my life as they have never trained a day in theirs."

At Barcelona in 1992, competing for the post-Soviet-break-up Unified Team, he pinned the 130kg Swede Karl Johannson, another former world champion.

At Atlanta four years later, now representing Russia, he did not yield a point, winning the gold with a 1-0 victory over the Iranian-American Matt Ghaffari.

By the time he arrived in Sydney for the 2000 Games, he also had won the world championship eight times, and was the overwhelming favourite for another championship, even at age 31. He had never lost, remember.

He had won four matches without trouble in Sydney when he met the American farm boy Rulon Gardner for the gold medal, with Samaranch in audience.

Karelin had overpowered Gardner in 1997, throwing him three times in a 5-0 victory, but in Sydney, Gardner fended off Karelin's repeated moves to seize him around the waist.

At the start of the second period, the Russian made a damaging mistake for the first time in his international career, allowing his hands to come apart as he clinched Gardner. The American was awarded one point.

Karelin was the aggressor until the final seconds, when he stood panting, hands on knees as he bent over.

Gardner was the shock winner and Karelin had tasted defeat, which has been known to happen to the semi-divine. Hercules died upon a funeral pyre of his own making, according to myth, but Karelin's destruction was at least as much about Gardner, a solid and stolid opponent, who perhaps had been lucky, too.

Karelin's career ended that day, September 27, 2000, but he did not disappear back into Siberia.

He twice was elected to the state duma in Novosibirsk. After relocating to Stavropol, north of the Caucasus, he was elected to the local legislature again.

And, despite his fearsome reputation among wrestlers, perhaps the most demanding of all Olympic disciplines, Karelin has a PhD in physical education and is known for his love of Dostoyevsky as well as poetry.

The top 10 Olympic wrestlers

1. Alexander Karelin, Soviet Union, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 – Until a shock upset in the Sydney gold-medal match, "Alexander the Great" had not lost in 11 years.

2. Alexander Medved, Soviet Union, 1964, 1968, 1972 – Won three consecutive golds in freestyle, including the superheavyweight title in 1972.

3. Saori Yoshida, Japan, 2004, 2008 – A gold-medallist in the first two stagings of women's wrestling; she hopes to make it three in London next year.

4. Bruce Baumgartner, US, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 – One of the few heavyweight freestylers to win medals at four Olympiads, including gold at Los Angeles in 1984 and at Seoul in 1988.

5. Buvaisar Saitiev, Russia, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 – The ethnic Chechen won gold at 74kg in 1996, 2004 and 2008. He was ninth in 2000 after an upset loss to the American Brandon Slay.

6. Wilfried Dietrich, Germany, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 – Won five medals at four Olympics, twice in Greco-Roman and the others in freestyle. Was the freestyle heavyweight champion in 1960.

7. Ivar Johansson, Sweden, 1932, 1936 – Captured three middleweight golds in two Olympics, the Greco-Roman golds in 1932 and 1936 at the freestyle gold in 1932.

8. Arsen Fadzayev, Soviet Union, 1988, 1992 – Won gold at 66kg for the USSR at Seoul in 1988 and for the Unified Team at Barcelona in 1992.

9. Armen Nazarian, Armenia, 1996, 2000, 2004 – Won Greco-Roman gold at Atlanta in 1996 and at Sydney in 2000, and a silver at Athens in 2004. Competed in weight classes from 52kg to 58kg.

10. Hamza Yerlikaya, Turkey, 1996, 2000 – Captured Greco-Roman gold in consecutive Olympiads, at 82kg, in Atlanta, and at 85kg at Sydney.


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