Wrestling Legend Aleksandr Karelin: “I am grateful for my strength. It makes me self-sufficient.”


Aleksandr Karelin, born September 19, 1967 in Novosibirsk, Russian SFSR is a Hero of the Russian Federation and was a dominant Greco-Roman wrestler for the Soviet Union and Russia. Universally considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, he won gold medals at the 1988, 1992 and 1996, as well as a silver in the 2000 Olympic Games. In this old article from sports illustrated 1991, we get a rare insight into the man:

“During an early afternoon in Pittsburgh, Alexander Karelin, 23 years old and the most dominating wrestler in the world, is relaxing on a hotel-lobby couch. It is a substantial piece of furniture, and that is a good thing; the 6’3” Karelin’s 290 pounds demand it. He has come to Pennsylvania from the Soviet Union for an exhibition match. Nobody passing through the lobby is paying him much attention. “Men of my size are usually not flexible,” says Karelin. A mischievous expression spreads across the vast plain of his face.

He rises and walks to a chandelier hanging perhaps eight feet above the floor. Lifting his right leg straight up above his head, he gives the chandelier a slight nudge with his size-15 sneaker. Now everyone has noticed him. “What’s that man doing?” a woman screams. Karelin pads back to the couch, wiggles both of the ears that protrude like funnels from the sides of his head, looks up at the chandelier swinging gently back and forth, and grins like a schoolboy.

“I didn’t like myself before I began wrestling,” he says later over a meal of pizza (nine slices) and apple juice (six large glasses). “Wrestling helped me to be at ease. Occasionally, I still wish for the privacy of being a little fellow nobody sees. Teenagers sneer, ‘Look at this guy! The legs! The ears!’ And older people see my face and say, ‘My god! Look, quick! A criminal!’ “

Karelin sighs, uncrossing his mammoth legs. “I’m also a favorite of drunkards and others who seek to prove their strength by confronting me,” he says. “Of course, I am grateful for my strength. It makes me self-sufficient. When I bought a refrigerator, I carried it myself up the stairs to my apartment on the eighth floor. 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.”

For wrestlers, the world championships, which are held in non-Olympic years, are as prestigious as the Olympics. Taking his place among the family of Soviet heavyweight champions—a venerable lineage as prized as beluga caviar—Karelin was the Greco-Roman gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was first again at the ’89 world championships in Martigny-Ville, Switzerland. But it was last October, at the world championships in Rome, that Karelin gave a performance of such strength and skill that he became that dearest of commodities in a land of scarcity. Karelin became a Russian folk hero.

The world championships were a three-day double-elimination tournament. In his first match, Karelin laced Bulgaria’s Rangel Gerovsky, a canny opponent whom he had barely beaten in the ’88 Olympic finals. Karelin was nervous. Yet once the five-minute bout began, things proceeded as they always do for Karelin, who has never lost in international competition (including last weekend’s European Championships in Aschaffenburg, Germany). He quickly built a 6-0 lead, and then with slightly more than a minute gone, he locked Gerovsky’s right arm in a bar and drove it against the Bulgarian’s shoulder.

Despite his size, Karelin’s appearance is deceptive. His complexion is milky and his limbs don’t have exceptional definition. “I think of him as a cougar,” says Jeff Blatnick of Niskiayuma, N.Y., the 1984 Greco-Roman superheavyweight Olympic gold medalist, who was thrashed by Karelin in an international meet three years later. “A cougar looks calm, maybe even a little fat, until he’s ready to attack. Then everything ripples.”

Karelin is so strong that the muscles in his legs and arms bulge to slightly obscene proportions when they are driving a man to his back. At this they are most effective. Gerovsky was pinned at 1:35.

Over the next couple of days, Karelin made a mockery of the tournament. Slawomir Zrobek of Poland was pinned in 1:07, Andrew Borodow of Canada in 1:21. Hidenori Nara of Japan lasted only 26 seconds, and Hungary’s hulking Laszlo Klauz descended with a thud at 2:58. Beyond dispatching these opponents with alarming haste, Karelin was also dulling their will. In truth, they felt fear, and what they feared in particular was the move that has come to personify Karelin. His reverse body lift sets him apart from other heavyweights for two reasons: Nobody else can do it, and nobody can stop it.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, a competitor may not attack his opponent’s legs, as is permissible in freestyle wrestling. Confined to upper-body grappling, Greco-Roman emphasizes throws and encourages body slams. The reverse body lift has long been employed by lightweight Greco-Roman wrestlers but was not considered a viable ploy for a heavyweight. “Normally, for a heavyweight, it’s simple to defend,” says Blatnick. “People who weigh 280 pounds just don’t get lifted that way.”

Karelin begins the move on his knees, alongside the hips and facing the feet of his opponent, who is lying prone on the mat. He reaches across, joining his hands around the man’s hips, and hoists. After raising his opponent off the mat with his arms, he gathers his legs below, giving himself the leverage to complete the lift. When Karelin reaches his feet, the two wrestlers resemble a plus sign, with the opponent held snug at Karelin’s hip, facedown and parallel to the mat. Then Karelin arches and hurls the unlucky man head over heels onto his back. Severe impact. Finally, Karelin descends onto the man’s body. More impact. At the least it is five points for Karelin. At worst, broken bones or a crushed face for his opponent.

“When it happened to me, every hair on the back of my neck raised up,” says Blatnick. “I was doing everything humanly possible to prevent him from lifting me off the mat. I weighed 265 pounds. I was in good shape. I was scared—intense fear. I don’t like flying through the air like that. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t get hurt. Don’t get hurt.’ With him, it’s almost a victory if you don’t get thrown.”

That was the prevailing feeling in Rome. In his early matches, Karelin used arm bars, half nelsons and gut wrenches, but never the reverse body lift. Each time he tried it, his opponents turned off their stomachs toward Karelin. That move effectively countered the lift, but in doing so his opponents also exposed their shoulders. Karelin had only to flick them onto their backs for the pin. Mike Houck, the U.S. Greco-Roman team coach, was observing this, aghast. “I was watching top heavyweights roll over for him instead of getting lifted,” says Houck. “They get to a point where they are so totally dominated that that’s it.”

In the final, Karelin faced a former world champion, Sweden’s Tomas Johansson, who was a bronze medalist in the 1988 Olympics. From the start, Johansson was less than enthusiastic about the day’s business. “I do not like to seem immodest,” says Karelin. “But if I am asked, I must be truthful. Yes, I see fear in the eyes of most of my opponents. In the match, Johansson tried hard to resist it, and when he couldn’t, he allowed himself to be pinned rather than submit to the lift. This move not only involves losing points, it involves losing face. Tomas, he did not want to fly.”

Johansson landed on his back for good at 2:50. Not only had Karelin pinned all of his opponents but he also had gone through an entire world championships without giving up a point. Almost unheard of. Afterward, as the Palazetto resounded with glee, Karelin removed the straps of his singlet, tucked them into his waist and cheerfully struck a series of bare-chested poses of the sort that most Italians see only when they visit Michelangelo’s David in Florence. “Sometimes we look at him and we ourselves are surprised,” says the Soviets’ Arsen Fadzaev, a six-time freestyle world champion. “He’s like a statue.”

With those achievements comes suspicion. Although Karelin has passed every drug test he has taken, some skeptics insist that such a physique must have been created with steroids. Others speculate that he owes his size to growth hormones. The latter group has given Karelin one of his many nicknames: the Experiment.

“It’s normal,” says Karelin. “It’s human nature to be jealous when somebody is very successful. I’ve been through every single official doping control. Even when I don’t have to, I volunteer because nobody believes I’m a natural man.”

“In this respect, the wrestler’s grapevine is pretty reliable,” says USA Wrestling associate director Greg Strobel. “Nothing’s been said about him.”

“He is simply unique,” says a Soviet Greco-Roman coach, Vichislav Mironov. “To look at him people say, ‘Oh sure, we know what they did to him.’ Wrong! He is from Siberia and that’s important. They grow them like that there sometimes. The harsh climate endows people with special strengths.”

Novosibirsk, 1,750 miles east of Moscow, is an industrial city of 1.4 million people who endure wintertime temperatures as low as —50° F. For months its snow-covered sidewalks are traversed by men and women swathed to anonymity in wools and furs. Days are short and grim. Gray buildings line streets that eventually give way to the endless pine forests that long ago gave this brooding part of the world its name: Siberia, the Sleeping Land. Dostoyevsky put it differently. He called Siberia The House of the Dead. Today, within some of those gray buildings are more than 100 universities and research centers, an opera house admired internationally for its architecture and its programs, a ballet company and a circus.”

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