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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Alexander the Great': Opponent's Nightmare

Among some 30 or 35 gold medals that Russian Olympic bosses are expecting their country to win in the Summer Games starting next week, one, in the Greco-Roman wrestling superheavyweight division, is a foregone conclusion.


They think Alexander Karelin, who has not been defeated since 1988 and earned the tag "Alexander the Great" among his rivals, is a sure bet to win his third Olympic title in Atlanta.


"I have never lost a wrestling match to a foreign athlete," Karelin said at Podolsk's Olympic training center while getting ready to dip into a pool on a rare day off.


"My only losses came at the hands of old Soviet teammates. The 1988 nationals were the last time it happened."


Since then, the Novosibirsk native, who turns 29 in September, has won nine European, six world and two Olympic titles and has become a living legend in the wrestling community.


"He is the backbone of our team," said head coach Mikhail Mamiashvili, himself a 1988 Olympic champion in the 82 kilo category. "All the other wrestlers look up to him for courage and inspiration."


Mamiashvili said Karelin's strength comes not just from his physical might or superior technique but mainly from his character, his will to win.


The superheavyweight proved that point in his last two major international appearances, first winning the 1995 World Championship with two broken ribs, then taking this year's European title despite a serious shoulder injury in March.


"Enduring pain is part of wrestling," said Karelin, who sports a five-inch scar on his right shoulder, an ever-present reminder of recent surgery. "I'm so used to the pain from all these years in wrestling, it's no longer on my mind when I'm on a mat."


Nevertheless, the wrestler declined to comment on his physical condition with less than two weeks before the Olympics.


"I can't say if I'm 70, 90, or 100 percent ready," he said. "Only the final result will tell my fitness."


Karelin said winning in Atlanta will be his toughest challenge yet.


"It is difficult to win two Olympic gold medals," he said. "To win three in a row is even tougher."


Only one other wrestler, the great Soviet superheavyweight Alexander Medved, won three golds in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Games in the freestyle category.


The main difference between the two styles of wrestling is that in the Greco-Roman form athletes cannot use their legs for throws, instead relying on upper body strength.


Among the athletes that should challenge the 130 kilogram Russian, Karelin names his former Soviet teammates, Ukrainian Pyotr Katak and Sergei Mureiko of Moldova, as well as Swede Thomas Johansson and American Matt Gafarri.


Besides training and competing, Karelin finds time for his family, wife and two children, and numerous public appearances to make political pitches for the new Russia.


"I'm a personal ambassador of Boris Yeltsin in the Novosibirsk region and I played a big part in his recent re-election campaign there," he said.


"I'm a true believer in a new democratic Russia. There's no turning back. I don't want my children to live in a communist society again."


The Russian Greco-Roman wrestlers are expected to dominate several of the 10 weight classes in Atlanta.


"I think five or six guys are capable of winning gold medals," Mamiashvili said. "Our strength comes from our tradition in the sport and that we have wrestlers from many various regions. It's a truly multinational squad.


"Zafar Guliev, in the 48 kilo division, is an ethnic Azerbaijani, Samvel Danielyan (52 kilos) and Mnatsakan Iskanderyan (74 kilos) are Armenians, Gogi Koguashvili (90 kilos) and Timur Edisherashvili (100 kilos) are Georgians, and Alexander Ignatenko (57 kilos) is a Ukrainian," the coach said.


"But we are all Russians because we represent this great country. We are a big family and it makes us even stronger."