Karelin holds off American challenger Russian standout prevails for super-heavyweight gold

Atlanta Olympics

July 24, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Would you want to wrestle a man who once carried a refrigerator up eight flights of stairs, who hasn't lost a Greco-Roman match in nine years, who makes other extremely large men quake with fear?

Thought so. But Matt Ghaffari of the United States isn't like most people. He has an obsession to beat Alexander Karelin, the behemoth of the Centennial Summer Olympics. He actually carries a picture of the man in his wallet, and has a poster of him on a wall.

Last night, these two gigantic human beings met in the super-heavyweight (286 pounds) final at the Summer Olympics. It was sweaty. It was merciless. And when it was over, after five minutes of regulation and three minutes of overtime, Karelin had won, 1-0, to claim his third consecutive Greco-Roman wrestling gold medal.

"It was like facing King Kong," said Ghaffari, who is 6 feet 4, 284 pounds. "I always thought, if you wanted to beat Alexander Karelin, you'd have to teach techniques to the strongest animal on earth -- a gorilla."

But nobody beats Karelin.

The man from Novosibirsk in Siberia just might be the strongest, meanest, most feared Olympian of all. He's 6-4, 300 pounds. He likes winter. He likes wrestling. He likes inflicting punishment.

But underneath his Hollywood villain exterior of sunken blue yes, Mount Rushmore chin and peach-fuzz hair, he is an intellectual. He likes classical music and classical books. He speaks eloquently about his sport and his country.

Yet he has a sense of humanity and a sense of occasion. He liked the fact that as they entered the arena last night, the wrestlers were serenaded by the "Rocky" theme.

"Yes, I did see the movie," he said. "It is very beautiful. As to the music, it makes the occasion more solemn. Music is particularly appropriate when you leave the platform and you are with the shield, not on the shield as the ancient Greeks."

It was Ghaffari who was defeated, for the 12th straight time, by Karelin. But it was no disgrace. He hasn't even scored a point off the champ. Ghaffari wept when he got his silver medal.

"I must have thought of this match 100 times," Ghaffari said. "I wanted to put the gold medal around my father's neck."

Ghaffari had a story to tell at these Olympics, of his flight from Iran in 1977 when he was 15, of living alone in Paramus, N.J., for a few months, before his mother, and then his father arrived in America. He was a volleyball player who became a wrestler.

He wanted to win badly for his country. But he and his family knew that Karelin would block the way. The first time Ghaffari's wife, Amy, ever saw Karelin, she feared the man would rip her husband's arm off. Ghaffari's mother, Jila, said Karelin looked "unhuman."

"We have a mutual respect for each other," said Ghaffari, a blue-collar guy who left the mat wearing a Cleveland State T-shirt and a baseball cap advertising an automotive center in Liberal, Kan. "We haven't gone to movies or dinner yet. We joke around. I make fun of his haircut."

Brave man.

Karelin had shoulder surgery in April. He was weaker than usual. But it didn't matter. Nobody got a point off him at the Olympics. The 1-0 final decision on a take-down didn't even bother him.

"If you say it's 1-0, it doesn't mean much," he said. "But if you say it's 1-0 for the gold medal, it means a lot."

How many straight matches has he won?

"I don't keep such statistics," he said.

And how will he celebrate his latest triumph?

"I'm not one for passive relaxation," he said. "If you sit back and relax, you become kind and passive, and it's not good."

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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