Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27, 2000: Rulon beats Goliath

SYDNEY - In one corner stood Aleksandr Karelin a giant of a man. Karelin was virtually universally considered the greatest greco-Roman wrestler of all time, a title he earned. Starting with the beginning of his career in 1987, he walked into the ring of the gold medal match in Sydney undefeated in his career.

In the other corner stood Rulon Gardner, the youngest child of nine kids who grew up on a Wyoming farm. He was a teacher and an accomplished heavyweight wrestler, and was full of confidence that he could beat Karelin. The two had only met once, with Karelin winning 5-0, a blowout by heavyweight standards. On September 27, 2000, he would get another chance at the giant.

And giant is the right term for Karelin. Though wrestling at the largest weight class, Karelin still towered over his opponents, including Gardner. Karelin's huge stature is part of what made him so intimidating. That and his gaudy record - including a six-year stretch where no opponent had even scored on him - meant that most of his matches were over before they began.

Gardner refused to be intimidated, though. Througout the gold medal match, he stared down the giant Russian, refusing to yield. It wasn't a surprise that Gardner couldn't score, but it was surprising that Karelin couldn't get on the scoreboard. Everything the Russian tried, Gardner withstood.

Then, a slip. With both men locked in a hold with their arms around each other, like a giant bear hug, Karelin's fingers slipped ever so slightly apart. It was just a fleeting moment, barely noticeable. In fact, the match referee needed to see a replay just to confirm it, but it was official: Karelin had slipped up. Gardner was ahead 1-0.

It may seem like the slimmest of margins, but it was a monumental point. The great Karelin had given up his first point in six years. Now, this young American that nobody had even heard of just had to hold on until the final horn. Growing increasingly frustrated and fatigued, Karelin threw everything he had at Gardner, but to no avail, and with three seconds left in the match, he bowed his head and put his hands on his hips. He had been defeated for the first time ever.

For Gardner, jubilation. He leapt into the arms of his coaches, waving an American flag around the ring. After the referee held Gardner's arm up to declare him the winner, the big man did a cartwheel, following the tradition of his fellow American wrestlers that had won gold in Sydney. Meanwhile, the Russians were shocked. One member of the press corps could be seen with his forehead against the table, pounding his fists in disappointment. Their hero, their Goliath, had been beaten.

Karelin never wrestled again. After having competed since 1987, he stepped away from wrestling one match short of lifetime perfection to enter politics and has been elected three times to Russia's state Duba.

Gardner earned instant celebrity status with his victory, becoming known as a giant killer. He won the world championships the following year and took home the bronze in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, unable to sustain anything close to the type of career Karelin had. In fact, Gardner has gotten the most notierity after wrestling for his stunning survival abilities. In 2002, he was stranded on a snowmobile trip and had a toe amputated because of frost bite. In 2004, he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle. And in 2007, he was a passenger in a small plane that crashed, yet he somehow survived, including sleeping outdoors overnight with no shelter or fire, before being rescued the next day by a lost fisherman.

Those stories of survival would be the most remarkable part of most people's lives, but Gardner isn't like most people. Most people don't get a chance to beat a real-life Goliath.

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