The Alexander of Wrestling: Aleksandr Karelin
The recent decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to drop wrestling from the 2020 edition of the Olympics has been met with a range of emotions ranging from shock and anger to utter disbelief. The upheaval that followed the decision was justified considering that wrestling has been a core part of the Games ever since the modern Olympics were first held in Athens in 1896. While the Greco-Roman style made its inception from this very first edition of the modern Olympics, the freestyle became a part of the Olympics itinerary in 1904.
But this article is not about why wrestling was dropped from the Olympics or why it should be reinstated. It is not about what is right and wrong with IOC or FILA, the governing body of wrestling. It is about a wrestling great, a miraculous individual who goes by the name of Aleksandr Karelin and is considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler the world has ever known.
On a freezing September day in 1967, there came into the world a massive 15 lb. baby who was named Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Karelin by his parents. He grew up in the freezing lands of Soviet Siberia and if the harsh climate taught this boy one thing, it was how to become strong and unrelenting, a trait he retained even in the face of the most humungous of opponents in his later career as a wrestler.
This budding wrestler showed signs of genius right from the day he started to grapple at the young age of thirteen. He had chosen the Greco-Roman style of wrestling which is considered by many as the toughest of all wrestling styles due to its reliance on sheer upper body strength. He wrestled so passionately that he broke his leg a couple of years later in a match but that didn’t stop him from becoming the greatest of his generation and many more to come.
He began his professional career as a super heavyweight as he competed in the 130 kg category of the Greco-Roman style in the year 1987. He took the wrestling world by storm and ruthlessly plundered any wrestler who had the misfortune to face him. He went on to win the European Championships held at Kolbotyn and the coveted Olympics gold at Seoul the very next year. Such was the dread that this 6’4’’ monster had generated in his opponents, that very often they would give up without a fight in the fear of being bruised up by him.
He won the first of his 9 World Championship gold medals at Martigny in the year 1989. His dexterity on the mat and brute strength won him the nickname of the “Russian Bear” and “The Experiment”. He was even called “Alexander the Great” thanks to his feats on the mat. So invincible had he become that he won a match against one of his opponents in the 1990 World Championship in 26 seconds flat – a feat unheard of in the history of the sport.
But apart from his immense track record in wrestling, Aleksandr Karelin is all the more famous for the dreaded “Karelin lift”, a wrestling maneuver so unbelievable that many dispelled it as a rumour until they saw it with their own eyes. He called it the “reverse body lift” where he hoisted his hapless opponent in the air and sent him crashing down on the mat like a log of wood. The WWE fans may associate this maneuver with Antonio Cesaro who uses a variant of this move, the “delayed gut wrench suplex” in his matches. Although other wrestlers had also used this move to great success in the past, Aleksandr Karelin was the first to do so in the super heavyweight category.
Coming back to his wrestling career, Aleksandr Karelin went on to win 12 European Championship gold medals and 9 World Championship gold medals. He won the Olympic gold in Greco-Roman style wrestling a record 3 times but had to be content with only a silver in his final appearance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The events that led up to his 2000 Olympic silver have become a part of wrestling folklore. He was undefeated in his 13-year long career and it had been 6 years since he had last given up a point. He entered the 2000 Olympics as a clear favourite and everyone felt that it was just a matter of time before he completed the formality of winning his final Olympic gold. The predictions seem to unfold perfectly as Aleksandr Karelin demolished his opponents one by one without giving up a single point in four matches to reach the final. The guy facing the legend was the then-American No. 1, Rulon Gardner. The bout that ensued is still considered as one of the greatest wrestling matches ever and has come to be known as the “Miracle on the Mat”. Both the wrestlers seemed to be too good for the other and it was Rulon who finally won the gruelling match by the narrowest margin possible, 1-0. Rulon then went on to win a World Championship gold in 2001 and a bronze in the 2004 Athens Olympics, a very pale record compared to that of the mammoth opponent he had defeated in Sydney.
The only defeat in Aleksandr Karelin’s illustrious career prompted him to immediately retire from competitive wrestling and he left his shoes behind on the mat after the match as a sign of his retirement.
Aleksandr Karelin had also competed and won in the solitary MMA match in his career against another legend Akira Maeda, and so great was Aleksandr’s dominance in the match that Akira announced his retirement soon after. This has led on to more than a decade of speculation as to what Aleksandr Karelin could have achieved had he decided to pursue a career in MMA post-retirement.
Dr. Aleksandr Karelin (yes he had a Ph.D. in physical education too) was awarded a rank of Colonel in the Russian Federal Tax Services and he has carved out a great political career for himself after leaving his wrestling days behind him, and is presently a Duma deputy holding the post of the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs.
So this was all about the Russian wrestling legend, Aleksandr Karelin. Sadly, he could be the last wrestling icon we will ever have if the IOC doesn’t reverse its decision to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics. No more wars, no more Aleksandrs.