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In most sports, there are always debates about who is the greatest of all-time. Baseball can argue about Babe Ruth vs Willie Mays. Basketball can argue about LeBron James vs Michael Jordan.
However, there is one sport where there is absolutely, positively no doubt who is the greatest of all-time.
When it came to Greco Roman wrestling, there is one name that unquestionably stands above all others: Aleksandr Karelin.
Learn more about the G.O.A.T. of wrestling on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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The story of Aleksandr Karelin sounds like it is from fiction.
Born in the Siberian town of Novosibirsk, in 1965, Aleksandar came into the world making a big impression. Literally. His birth weight was 5.5 kilograms or 12 pounds.
He was a big kid growing up who excelled at every sport he tried. Soon after he began wrestling, he was big enough to compete at the super heavyweight level, where he stayed his entire life.
At the age of 14, he began training with his coach Viktor Kuznetsov, who remained his coach his entire life. By the time he started wrestling competitively the next year he developed an interesting trait.
He didn’t lose. Ever.
In 1985 he won the World Junior Championship. In 1986 he won the Junior European Championships. In 1987 he won the World Junior Championships again.
His first loss ever came at the 1987 Soviet National Championships where he lost to reigning champion Igor Rostorotsky by one point. The next year he beat him at the national championships while recovering from the flu and a concussion.
After his first loss, his legend began to grow.
His training regime was the stuff of fables. This madman from Siberia would run through the woods with a log on his back. He would row down rivers. When asked who his greatest opponent was, he replied “my refrigerator”, because he would bear hug a refrigerator and then carry it up to eight flights of stairs in his apartment building.
One of his nicknames, along with the obvious Alexander the Great, was The Experiment. He earned that nickname because people were sure he had to have been using performance-enhancing drugs because of his success. When he was asked about it, he replied:
“No one can completely believe that I am natural. The most important drug is to train like a madman – really like a madman. The people who accuse me are those who have never trained once in their life like I train every day of my life.”
His signature move was called the “Karelin Slam” where he would literally pick up his opponents, often weighing 300 pounds or 135 kilograms, and throw them to the matt. The move award 5 points which were the most possible in the sport. It was a move that was often performed in lower weight classes, but almost never at the super-heavyweight level because of the strength required.
This is the sort of thing would you normally see in professional wrestling, but Karelin performed it over 800 times in competition.
With his 1987 loss, he started an incredible winning streak. He won the world championship nine times from 1989 to 1999. He won the wrestling world cup twice. He won the European Championship twelve times. Biggest of all, he won the Olympic gold medal in Men’s Greco Roman Wrestling super heavyweight division in 1988, 1992, and 1996.
Not only was he the first three-time gold medalist in the sport, but he also became the first person ever to win medals for three different Olympic teams. In 1988 he competed for the Soviet Union, in 1992 he competed for the Unified Team, which was the team they threw together after the Soviet Union fell apart but the remaining countries hadn’t created Olympic teams yet, and in 1996 he competed for Russia.
At each one of these Olympics, he was also the flag bearer for the team in the opening ceremony. Even holding the flag was a feat of strength for him as he held the flag outright with one hand.
Coming into the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he was the overwhelming favorite to win a fourth gold medal.
He was on a 13-year winning streak, dating back to his only defeat in 1987. In fact, over the previous six years, not a single point was scored against him in competition. He was completely and absolutely dominant.
Going into the gold medal match in Sydney, his lifetime record was 887 wins and 1 loss. The gold medal match was to be his final match as a competitor as he decided to retire afterward.
His opponent was American Rulon Gardner. Gardner was a good wrestler. Good enough to make it to the Gold Medal round, but he was no Aleksandr Karelin. No one was.
During the match, Karelin looked dispirited. He wasn’t the angry madman people were used to. Gardner stunned the crowd by scoring a point against Karelin. The first time anyone had scored a point in six years.
Gardner held on to win by a score of 1 to 0.
His last match ever and for the first time in 13 years, Karelin had lost.
While it would have been a storybook ending, it didn’t really change his legacy.
He was voted the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of the 20th century by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles. He was inducted into the International Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003, and he was also named a Hero of Russia.
The impression might have given you was that Aleksandr Karelin is a brute or a muscle head. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He came from a family of intellectuals who wound up in Siberia because they were exiled there by Stalin. He himself earned a Ph.D. and a law degree and was elected to the Russian Duma.
To this day, Karelin has a hard time talking about his loss in the 2000 Olympics. It was a black mark on an otherwise perfect career.
Despite losing his last match, Aleksandar Karelin will go down as amateur wrestling’s GOAT: The Greatest of All Time.