Why you should care
Because understanding this one Russian might help you understand Russia.
Getting a gander at the marvelous, that which truly generates marvel, is rare. Possibly because the mind stalls in the face of imagining the unimaginable and because too much greatness in one place just boggles the mind. So it goes when one considers a win-loss record that looks like this: 887–2.
For non-touts, that means 887 wins, two losses. And when you take a look at the holder of this record, Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, he is exactly what you might expect. That is, he’s 6-foot-4, 290 pounds and fully deserving of the names that have at various times been used to describe him: the Russian Bear, Alexander the Great and, the one that stuck the longest, the Experiment.
To the untrained eye it might just look like people picking each other up and smashing each other to the ground.
“Every Soviet bad guy in the movies — most definitely Ivan Drago from the Rocky series — was based on this guy,” said fight writer Dallas Winston. He won Olympic gold in 1988, 1992 and 1996, and in 2000 he won the silver medal that generated one of the world’s most frightening photos of a silver medalist on the award stand ever. Karelin also won 21 European and World championships, meaning he routinely beat the best in the world while being the best in the world.
Not at all bad for the Siberian son of a former amateur-boxing truck driver father and a homemaker mother who had the unenviable task of giving birth to a 15-pound baby Karelin. She forbade the 15-year-old Karelin from pursuing his nascent wrestling career after a leg break mid-match; she even burned all his gear to lay down the law — a law that was promptly disregarded by Karelin who, now two years into his chosen sport, decided to rehab his healing leg by running through Siberia’s waist-deep snow. Six years later, in a learning curve that would break most men’s necks, he was winning his first Olympic gold in Seoul.
Now, in the age of Lance Armstrong, saying that Karelin never failed a drug test for performance-enchancing drugs doesn’t mean as much as it might have, but it’s significant that, at the very least, he was never caught. Greco-Roman wrestling, with its emphasis on throws, depends on upper-body brio — bear hugs, headlocks and arm drags — but none of freestyle wrestling’s trips or leg grabs. To the untrained eye it might just look like people picking each other up and smashing each other to the ground, but try just the first part of that — with a child even — and you can see why Karelin routinely bench-pressed 450 pounds or so to get ready for his events. Bench-pressed and trained every day in workouts that would put Rocky to shame: the snow runs, rowboating, kettlebells for hours and, of course, wrestling on top of it.
When he lost the gold to American Rulon Gardner in 2000 by one point — a wrestler he’d beaten before — he quit the sport. He earned a Ph.D., worked as a cop and now sits in the Duma. “What’s not to love?” asks coach Mike Riordan, a Greco person of note himself. And he’s right. On top of his post-sports achievements, Karelin invented moves that still color how people compete in Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling.
“There was a time when it would have been possible to sanely claim that he was the baddest man on the planet,” Riordan says. But now that he’s wearing a suit and playing politics, it’s not as easy to tell as it once was. Which is why we dug this up. Dig it.