Russia's once-invincible Kareline toppled
How the mighty are fallen. In surely the biggest shock in the history of Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling, the "Toughest Man In the World" was finally toppled on Wednesday night after 13 years of invincibility.
Russia's Alexander Kareline had not lost a bout at international level since 1987 and has only had one point scored against him in a decade.
Not for nothing is he known as the "World's Toughest Man" and the Russian Bear. A fourth successive Olympic gold in the 130 kg category for Goliath looked a certainty.
Then the unthinkable happened. American Rulon Gardner outfought and outthought the mighty champion in the final and the mighty Kareline was beaten at last, his awesome strength totally spent.
"Yeah baby. This is a historic day for U.S. wrestling," said Gardner's coach Dan Chandler, whooping with delight. "He wrestled a perfect match and buried the greatest wrestler in the world."
In the dying seconds of a titanic contest that Gardner won by just one point, you could see the look of exhaustion in Kareline's eyes.
Gardner refused to be intimidated. The Russian Bear could never get him into the clinch or lift him from the mat. So often before, it had been sudden defeat for his opponents. This time it was grinding defeat for Kareline himself.
The ultimate tough guy, who loves listening to Pavarotti and reading Pushkin, has always prided himself on being a gentle giant who turned ruthless in the ring.
But age caught up with the 33-year-old who is now a member of the Russian parliament and took time out from his Duma duties to train for his fourth gold in a row.
Even Olympic supremo Juan Antonio Samaranch was on hand to witness the Kareline coronation that everyone had expected.
The last time Gardner and Kareline met was two years ago in the world championships. The mighty Russian landed the match 5-0 after it went into overtime.
'WINNING IS THE ISSUE'
Kareline's record had been extraordinary -- three Olympic gold medals, 12 European championships and nine world championships.
He trains by rowing for hours across a lake and by running up snowy slopes. He once bought a fridge and carried it up eight floors to his apartment.
He has been approached by Hollywood but the firm answer is no. "I am a Greco-Roman wrestler, not a Hollywood star. Winning is the issue," he told them.
He is the first to admit that psyching up opponents with his past record is a speciality. "Everything I don't get with my physical ability. I get it with my reputation."
And to that he should add courage.
At the European championships in Budapest, he tore a muscle in his rib cage and could barely lift his right arm. He never dreamt of quitting for one second and recorded one of his most glorious triumphs.
The Russian Bear won his seat in the Duma (Russian Parliament) appropriately enough as one of the leaders of a pro-Kremlin party known as The Bear.
Kremlin insiders say that his influence on Premier Putin -- a judoka in his youth -- is so great that the president chose Boris Ivanyuzhenkov, Kareline's former sparring partner, as sports minister.
But all those years as the Iron Man just crumbled away at the turn of the new century. At The Millennium Games, it was time to step aside. It took just nine minutes and Gardner was the new king.
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