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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."