Thursday, July 23, 2009

The awe inspiring

I promised a friend that this week's post would be something about physical fitness. Why not? Everyone loves an athlete.

This blog is dedicated to a handful of the greatest athletes in history, all wrestlers.

Ironically, Alexander Karelin(e) came to the attention of Americans by losing. It was the 2000 Olympic games and the ancient sport of Greco-Roman wrestling (which differs from freestyle wrestling in that the athlete's need to stay on their feet) was suddenly on everyone's radar. A huge American farm boy named Rulan Gardner defeated Karelin in the finals of their sport 1-0. That is - he only scored 1 point and Karelin none. Doesn't sound like a big deal, does it? That's because you don't realize how good Karelin was and how startling one point could be.

Karelin had started wrestling internationally in 1987. It is hard to find records but he apparently lost at least once that year but became the world junior champion. The year prior he had one loss to the world champion (who he later regularly beat). In 1988 he never lost a single international match. He went into the the 1988 Olympics and won every match right through the finals. He did the same thing in '89, '90, '91 and '92, another Olympic year. Never lost a match, not one right through the Games and picked up his second Gold there. Then, in '93, and '94 he again never lost a match. Not one. Astonishing. Even Michael Jordan missed shots. Even Greg Louganis lost diving competitions. Even Muhammad Ali lost fights. Karelin just never lost.

Going seven years without a loss would make anyone an all time great. Here's what makes Karelin greater still. In '94, he not only didn't lose a match in international competition, he didn't lose a point. That seems almost impossible as he fought huge powerful men determined to beat him. And then in '95 and '96 he again never lost a point including in the Olympic games, taking his third gold.

And he kept not only winning every single match, but winning them without losing a single point. A SINGLE POINT! And again in '97, '98 and '99 and into 2000. Only a pulp fiction writer could conceive of someone so dominant in his sport. Bobby Fischer lost chess matches. Tiger Woods loses all the time. So does Federer and Nadal. Everybody loses. Not Karelin, not even a point.

In 2000 Karelin was now nearly 33 years old and still a phenomena. He had always been astonishingly strong. More than one sports enthusiast thought him the toughest man in the world. His signature move was a reverse suplex, virtually unknown in the heaviest Greco-Roman weight division, 286 pounds and up, because you had to lift 300 pounders off the ground into the air and body slam them into the mat. Not like in pro-wrestling where the victim was giving you a helpful bounce off a friendly surface from a standing position, but bending over and picking up a huge mass of resisting thrashing athlete like a sack of potatoes and . . . .

With all these years of not losing, for many of them not even a point, his opponents did not know what to try anymore. They literally feared him physically (it hurts when you are lifted in the air and smashed down on the ground) and were in awe of him. It is quite possible that no athlete, at least since there are regular leagues and events, has ever had the same dominance in any sport for so long a period of time.

His competitors called him "The Experiment," as in science experiment, giving an explanation as to why he was so much better than they were. Karelin had his own reason. He simply said he worked out harder each day than any other athlete did any day of their life and maybe so. As so often happens, he is actually rather intellectual and a nice guy. A Siberian whose parents were exiled there because they were intellectuals, he was elected to the Russian parliament in 1999.

The 2000 Olympic games would be Karlin's last. He started out as usual winning all his matches without losing a single point.

That's when he met Rulan Gardner, a less classical looking but great athlete himself with a wonderful story, but with nowhere near the career Karelin had. In fact, he was probably the second best wrestler in his family, although his older brother, Reynold, was no longer competing. But, he was four years younger than Karelin and a huge man, virtually unmovable. He had missed the last Olympics because he missed the weigh-in by, literally, seconds. He had never won a world championship or an Olympic title (although almost few had other than Karelin for well over a decade). They had met only once before and Karelin, of course, had won.

Gardner acknowledged later that Karelin was much stronger than he was, but he got his one point early on, by escaping from Karelin's grip, not by scoring himself, adopted a low center of gravity and beat perhaps the most dominant athlete of all time. Even still, he later admitted, although he kept telling himself he could win, he never really believed it until it happened. And his own fame came not so much because he won, but because of who he beat.

Despite that one single point at the end of his career, I nominate Karelin as the most dominant athlete in any modern sport period. But, now that I said that, let me name two other wrestlers who can challenge that assessment.

Dan Gable is another wrestler whose career is legendary, and some would say as amazing as Karelin's.

Gable was a free-style wrestler. His legend started young. As a high school freshman, he wasn't allowed to wrestle varsity and lost one unofficial match to a teamate. The next year he started wrestling varsity and didn't lose a single match. The key to his greatness was similar to Karelin's. It all had to do with working out. He said that if he could walk off the mat, he considered the workout a failure. That was a slight exaggeration, but not by much. He won every match the next two years and all three state championships.

On to college at Iowa State. Gable wasn't allowed to wrestle varsity as a freshman there either, but did his sophomore year. He not only won every single match but the NCAA championship. He repeated the performance the next year. No losses. NCAA champion. Then, as a senior, the same thing happened right through the NCAA championships up to his last match as a collegian. As Karelin had his Gardner, Gable had his Larry Owing.

Owing was a little younger than Gable. When he was a high school senior, Gable was a sophomore and they both tried out for the Olympic team. Gable blew him off the mat. When Owing went to college he wrestled in a different weight class his first time he could have faced Gable, but the next year, he deliberately dropped two weight classes just to face him in the championship. Gable was famous for his conditioning. Owing decided to match him in that department and seemed to do it.

Owing let it be known - he wasn't there to win the championship, he was there to beat Gable. At his coach's persistent persuasion, he was seeded no. 2 after Gable, which meant that he would face in the finals (142 pound class) if they both won, and they did.

Gable, the invincible wrestler, had heard about Owing's message, and admits that somehow, it got to him. For the first time in his career, someone else was in his head. He watched Owing wrestle. He thought he made mistakes but nevertheless he kept pinning everyone, often using a move called an inside cradle.

The final came. The word was out. This would probably be the greatest match in wrestling history.

Before the match, Gable even gave an interview, something he had never done before. Gable kept waiting for the inside cradle and distracted, he found himself down 7-2 at the end of the second period. He had only one period left against a wrestler who might possibly have been in as good as shape as he was.

That's when Gable put on a performance of a lifetime. He quickly score 8 points to Owing's 2 and he had time to spare. With 30 seconds left, he had a 10-9 lead. It looked like he could just ride the time out, but he got up and wrestled. With seconds left he went for an arm bar. Owing countered the move by grabbing Gable's leg and sweeping it. He had never done that move before. Gable went to the ground in slow motion. Later he said it was a judgment call to count it, but the referee did. Owing won 13-11.

There was a 15 minute ovation as people recognized the greatness of the match they had just seen. At the awards ceremony, Gable got many more minutes of applause for his career. But he had lost and "The Machine" and finished his college career 181-1.

30 years later, Gable said the match wrankled still. But, he also said it changed him as a wrestler and later as a coach. He never let his guard down again. He met Owing one more time, in the Olympic trials two years later - 1972. No one had scored a point against Gable in the trials yet when they met. Gable wiped the mat with him and won 7-1. But Owing could be happy that he had scored the sole point against him as Gable went on to the Games and took gold without losing a single point there. In fact, in his post-college free-style wrestling career he lost only a handful of times through 1976, when he retired.

In my humble opinion, Karelin's record in the sister sport is more amazing than Gable's (see my one reservation below). He never lost for 13 years until his very last match and went 6 years with out giving up a point, almost doing the same thing in consecutive Olympics. He won the European championship twelve years straight. Besides, he was not only the dominant wrestler for all those years in his country, but in the world. Gable wasn't but that one Olympics. I say all this being a little emotionally partial to Gable, as I had watched his career when young and had even remember his legendary match with Owing (I can't remember if I saw it live on tv or on tape the week after).

However, there is one thing Gable did with which Karelin can't compete. Gable turned coach. He coached Iowa State, his alma mater, for 21 years. During those 21 years, his team won the Big Ten Championship 21 straight times. 21 out of 21. During the same period they won 15 national championships, at one point 9 in a row. That probably makes him the greatest college coach in history (better than John Wooden at UCLA) on top of being possibly the greatest freestyle wrestler in history.

Yet, there is another freestyle wrestler who is probably as great as he was, and more recent in time too, but who has nowhere near Gable's fame outside of wrestling circles.

His name is Cael Sanderson. He started with a high school career almost as great as Gable's, only he wrestled varsity for four years, not just three, as the rules had changed. Wrestling was a family thing with him. His father was his coach and three of his brothers won state championships too. Cael won four state championships himself and finished 127-3 (Gable did not lose in high school). Off to college, he also wrestled at Iowa State and smashed Gables records, winning 159 matches while losing none (Gable was 118-1). Gable won two NCAA championships, and one second place in three years and Sanderson won four (although Gable was not allowed to try his freshman year). Although it did not seem possible, Sanderson eeks him out in their college careers, almost like Robin Hood splitting the arrow.

Cael's Olympic shot came in 2004 in Greece, where he won fairly handily (strangely, he won each match 3-1) but not good enough to match Gable's shutout performance (or come close to Karelin's 6 years of doing so). He also won a silver medal in the world championships and three national championships before retiring to become a coach too. It is still too soon to know if he will be the coach Gable was, but in three years his team won three conference championships and came in second in the NCAA championship's once.

Is it possible Sanderson isn't as famous as Gable or Karelin because he didn't have his Gardner or Owing? Maybe. I haven't given John Smith his due either,(I won't dwell on him but there are those who consider him the greatest freestyle wrestler ever), as he was the first to win four NCAA championships, and also won four world titles (Sanderson never did) and two Olympic Golds, plus coached 5 NCAA championship teams. On the other hand, his 5 losses in college are 5 times as many as Gable's and Sanderson's put together. Still, it would not be unfair to give him the nod over them given his international record.

Who was the best of them? I'd have to go with Karelin (setting aside coaching; if you include coaching, then it is Gable). Leaving aside the 13 years undefeated and the 6 years unscored upon, Karelin won nine World championships, more than the other three put together, and has only one less Olympic Gold than the three of them too. Add 12 European championships, and that he is the greatest wrestler in Russian/Soviet history. That's important because the history of the world championships in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling has been the Soviets and then the Russians winning the team title virtually every year with a few exceptions (fewer in Greco-Roman). Thus, just to get to where he was in the international world, he had to first defeat the best wrestlers in the world from his own country. My only reservation is I can't get his domestic record although it appears that it would make little difference. I will update this post someday if I can obtain it.

Are there any athletes in any sport I'd put up against Karelin for sheer dominance? Edwin Moses won 122 straight 400 meter high hurdle races over almost ten years, two Olympic Golds (and it would have undoubtedly been three if the U.S. competed in 1980) and a bronze in the last race of his career in 1986. He is almost in Karelin's class. I've written here about Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish long distance runner who revolutionized the sport (posted 4/11/2007) and he might come close. Most boxers stayed too long and ruined their records. Dempsey had his Tunney, Ali his Frazier. Marciano was undefeated but fought an old out of retirement Joe Louis and made his record on the "bum of the month" club. I'm partial to Louis among them but he was knocked out by Max Schmeling once and then tried to come back when old. Arguably, Wilt Chamberlain was so dominant in basketball for a few years that he set records that almost certainly will never be challenged unless the game totally changes. Yet, his teams consistently lost to the Celtics. Michael Phelps would have to swim at the same level for nearly a decade to match Karelin. The astonishing sprinter Usain Bolt would have to continue to blow everyone's doors off (and I mean that literally) for another dozen years to match Karelin. I doubt either of them will do it for that long.

I'd say Karelin tops them all. Name your challengers and we will debate them. You better tell me why though. Names aren't enough.


  1. I'm more familiar with Gable than Karelin, not sure who impresses me more, might have to go with Karelin for the length of his dominance. Can't compare individual athletes to team sport athletes. But I would throw Bob Beamon and Carl Lewis into the conversation. For a long time no one could beat either one in a meaningful event. Though Lewis wasn't perfect like Karelin, Beamon was, though for not as long. Dunno. Interesting post.

  2. I think Beamon is best known for "the jump". I don't think he is even close. Lewis is a good shot though, although I wouldn't make him king, he sure had a long dominant career.

  3. Think Beamon went undefeated in the long jump for a few years. Also, I forgot Edwin Moses. He was undefeated in the 400m hurdles for what, 12 years?

  4. Good post.
    Also have to throw in Al Oerter in discus.
    I think it's a little interesting that these seemingly inhuman records are in comparatively minor sports. I think these types of events would garner nmore attention if people realized that they have a better chance of really seeing athletic perfection as opposed to the more popular team (major) sports.

  5. I don't remember if that is so with Beamon although it is not my memory, but Edwin Moses I mentioned in the post as probably being the closest.

  6. Re: Don.

    Al Oerter had the amazing Olympic streak but he was not always the best discus thrower in the world all that time, although did hold the world record for a while. He was not even the favorite in '68.

    As to the team v. individual concept, I think people know, but they just like team sports better. On the other hand, I've never been a team guy myself, that is, with few exceptions, I'd rather see great athletics than any particular team win. But, I can't recall ever meeting anyone else who felt this way.

  7. gymnastics....why couldn't you have written on gymnatics???? ugh!!! come on now....

  8. Someday I will. But I doubt it will be what you were thinking about.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .