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Miracle on the mat

American Gardner stuns Karelin in huge upset

Posted: Wednesday September 27, 2000 12:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday November 14, 2000 11:47 AM

  Alexander Karelin, Rulon Gardner Rulon Gardner's (right) strategy to stay away from lifts and wear down Alexander Karelin worked like a charm. AP

SYDNEY, Australia ( -- Rulon Gardner beat the unbeatable.

The American, with no major title to his name, upset Russian Alexander Karelin.

It was a match no one thought Gardner could win. But he ended Karelin's string of three Olympic gold medals and the Russian's 13-year unbeaten streak by winning the Olympic super heavyweight wrestling gold medal 1-0 on Wednesday.

"When did I think I could beat him? About 10 minutes ago," Gardner said. "I kept saying, 'I think I can. I think I can.' But it wasn't until it was over that I knew I could."

Karelin is universally considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, a man who had never lost in international competition, who had not conceded a point in 10 years.

And Gardner beat him, stunning a crowd that included IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who had come to present Karelin with his fourth gold medal -- the medal he will never get.

"What does this mean? He just beat the best wrestler in the history of wrestling -- a wrestler who had never been beat," U.S. national Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser said.

Sports Illustrated at the Olympics
Jack McCallum witnessed the epic battle and looked for a sign from the veteran Karelin. See the Russian had something else in mind for Wednesday.  

The upset was so stunning that virtually no one in the crowd in the Sydney Exhibition Hall, outside of Gardner's immediate family, could believe it. Nor could Karelin, who, Gardner said, "Mumbled a few words at me in Russian toward the end. I don't know what he said.

"'He's so big and nasty, it's like a horse pushing you," Gardner said. "I'm not as strong as him, not even close. I knew if I let him push me around, get even two or three points on me, it was over."

But Gardner, a former University of Nebraska wrestler, who walked onto the football team but quit to wrestle full-time, said beforehand that he had a strategy to counter Karelin's dreaded lifts and relentless pressure. That he even expected to "have some fun with Karelin." from the Olympics
The 33-year-old Russian, nicknamed the "Siberian Bear" was the aggressor in the first three minutes.

But several attempts by Alexander Karelin to lift Rulon Gardner, 29, off the mat clearly tired the three-time Olympic champ. From that point on, Karelin was bent over clutching his knees at every available break in the match. Gardner earned a point when Karelin lost his grip during a 60-second period when the wrestlers must maintain a chest-to-chest hold on one another.

In the final 30 seconds, Gardner repeatedly shoved Karelin away as the crowd counted down the time. With six seconds to go, Karelin stopped and stared at the American silently acknowledging the end of the match -- and the end of his amazing winning streak.

As the buzzer sounded, Gardner's coaches exploded out of their seats and onto the mat to mob him. About a minute later, Gardner broke free of the celebrants and executed a cartwheel in the middle of the mat eliciting a final roar from the crowd.

Karelin, meanwhile, lowered his head and walked off the mat to his coaches. As he was exiting Sydney Exhibition Hall, the big Russian stole a quick glance at Gardner, who was taking a victory lap with the American flag draped over his shoulders.

Next, a dejected Karelin shuffled in front of the podium as Gardner took the top spot on the medal stand and the gold medal from IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

And for the first time in Olympic or world competitions, Karelin listened to another country's anthem.
-- Adam Levine  


Gardner, his chest spilling out of his tight blue U.S. singlet, proved early that he wouldn't be outmuscled by a man whose last loss of any kind came in the 1987 Soviet championships.

Karelin, whose throwing skills are so renowned that he has a lift named for him, tried to throw Gardner around in the first two minutes but couldn't. Gardner stayed chest-to-chest, shoulder-to-shoulder, never letting Karelin get leverage or a chance to toss him to score points.

The key moment came after the first scoreless three minutes. At that point, the wrestlers begin the second period with a clinch and must remain locked until one executes a scoring move or releases his lock.

As the two powered each other to the side of the mat, Gardner managed to keep his hands clinched, but Karelin's slipped apart. It took 90 seconds of replay by the mat judges to confirm that Karelin's hands had separated, but it was clear that they had.

The score went up: 1-0, Gardner - the first deficit Karelin had faced since the 1988 Olympic finals.

"He had a great lock on me, and another three or four inches I would have let it slip," Gardner said. "But I always wrestle kind of unorthodox, and our feet got tangled and I got under him. Maybe it confused him. But I said to myself, 'He broke' and I got the point."

Karelin seemed to tire as the nine-minute mark approached, taking fewer and fewer scoring chances, realizing what was about to happen. Finally, with about 8 seconds left, he quit wrestling, dropped his hands and conceded the first international defeat he had ever sustained.

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"But I wasn't going to come out of my stance," Gardner said. "As soon as I do that, he could come at me and try to throw me and who knows what the judges would do? But if he did that as a sign of respect, I appreciate it."

Karelin declined to talk to reporters.

The 29-year-old Gardner, had an advantage in wrestling only his second match of the day. It was the 33-year-old Karelin's third.

"I pride myself on being in shape," Gardner said. "The coaches kept saying, 'He's tired. He's mentally tired,' but I didn't listen to them. I couldn't. If you let up for one second, he can throw you."

Karelin is so strong that he once carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs rather than ask for help, but, on this night he didn't have the strength to win.

The youngest of nine children on a dairy farm, weighing 57 kilos (125 pounds) by fourth grade, Gardner was teased by kids about his shape and called "Fatso."

Gardner said his childhood "was kind of tough" because of the teasing, but, "I used those insults as motivation."

Also Wednesday, Armen Nazarian, the 1996 silver medalist from Bulgaria, pinned 1999 world champion Kim In-sub of South Korea in 2:34 at 58 kilos (1273/4 pounds).

Filiberto Azcuy of Cuba repeated as a gold medalist, so dominating Katsuhiko Nagata of Japan that the sport's mercy rule -- a 10-point lead -- was invoked after Azcuy opened a 11-0 lead at 69 kilos (152 pounds).

Hamza Yerlikaya of Turkey won his second gold medal, winning by referee's decision after tying 3-3 with Sandor Istvan Bardosi of Hungary after nine minutes at 85 kilos (1871/4 pounds).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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