A Bruiser and a Thinker: Soviet Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin
is a rare combination of massive physique and imposing intellect
by Nicholas Dawidoff
May 13, 1991
During and early afternoon in Pittsburgh, Alexander Karelin, 23 years old and the most dominating wrestler in the world, is relaxing on a hotel-lobby couch. It is a substantial piece of furniture, and that is a good thing; the 6 ft. 3 in. Karelin's 290 pounds demand it. He has come to Pennsylvania from the Soviet Union for an exhibition match. Nobody passing through the lobby is paying him much attention. "Men of my size are usually not flexible," says Karelin. A mischievous expression spreads across the vast plain of his face.
He rises and walks to a chandelier hanging perhaps eight feet above the floor. Lifting his right leg straight up above his head, he gives the chandelier a slight nudge with his size-15 sneaker. Now everyone has noticed him. "What's that man doing?" a woman screams. Karelin pads back to the couch, wiggles both of the ears that protrude like funnels from the sides of his head, looks up at the chandelier swinging gently back and forth, and grins like a schoolboy.
"I didn't like myself before I began wrestling," he says later over a meal of pizza (nine slices) and apple juice (six large glasses). "Wrestling helped me to be at ease. Occasionally, I still wish for the privacy of being a little fellow nobody sees. Teenagers sneer, 'Look at this guy! The legs! The ears!' And older people see my face and say, 'My god! Look, quick! A criminal!' "
Karelin sighs, uncrossing his mammoth legs. "I'm also a favorite of drunkards and others who seek to prove their strength by confronting me," he says. "Of course, I am grateful for my strength. It makes me self-sufficient. When I bought a refrigerator, I carried it myself up the stairs to my apartment on the eighth floor. Always, though, I am conscious that I am not a typical man. I can win a wrestling competition with a decent enough score, but because I am not typical, I must win in atypical ways."
For wrestlers, the world championships, which are held in non-Olympic years, are as prestigious as the Olympics. Taking his place among the family of Soviet heavyweight champions -- a venerable lineage as prized as beluga caviar -- Karelin was the Greco-Roman gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was first again at the '89 world championships in Martigny-Ville, Switzerland. But it was last October, at the world championships in Rome, that Karelin gave a performance of such strength and skill that he became that dearest of commodities in a land of scarcity. Karelin became a Russian folk hero.
The world championships were a three-day double-elimination tournament. In his first match, Karelin faced Bulgaria's Rangel Gerovsky, a canny opponent whom he had barely beaten in the '88 Olympic finals. Karelin was nervous. Yet once the five-minute bout began, things proceeded as they always do for Karelin, who has never lost in international competition (including last weekend's European Championships in Aschaffenburg, Germany). He quickly built a 6-0 lead, and then with slightly more than a minute gone, he locked Gerovsky's right arm in a bar and drove it against the Bulgarian's shoulder.
Despite his size, Karelin's appearance is deceptive. His complexion is milky and his limbs don't have exceptional definition. "I think of him as a cougar," says Jeff Blatnick of Niskayuma, N.Y., the 1984 Greco-Roman superheavyweight Olympic gold medalist, who was thrashed by Karelin in an international meet three years later. "A cougar looks calm, maybe even a little fat, until he's ready to attack. Then everything ripples."
Karelin is so strong that the muscles in his legs and arms bulge to slightly obscene proportions when they are driving a man to his back. At this they are most effective. Gerovsky was pinned at 1:35.
Over the next couple of days, Karelin made a mockery of the tournament. Slawomir Zrobek of Poland was pinned in 1:07, Andrew Borodow of Canada in 1:21. Hidenori Nara of Japan lasted only 26 seconds, and Hungary's hulking Laszlo Klauz descended with a thud at 2:58. Beyond dispatching these opponents with alarming haste, Karelin was also dulling their will. In truth, they felt fear, and what they feared in particular was the move that has come to personify Karelin. His reverse body lift sets him apart from other heavyweights for two reasons: Nobody else can do it, and nobody can stop it.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, a competitor may not attack his opponent's legs, as is permissible in freestyle wrestling. Confined to upper-body grappling, Greco-Roman emphasizes throws and encourages body slams. The reverse body lift has long been employed by lightweight Greco-Roman wrestlers but was not considered a viable ploy for a heavyweight. "Normally, for a heavyweight, it's simple to defend," says Blatnick. "People who weigh 280 pounds just don't get lifted that way."
Karelin begins the move on his knees, alongside the hips and facing the feet of his opponent, who is lying prone on the mat. He reaches across, joining his hands around the man's hips, and hoists. After raising his opponent off the mat with his arms, he gathers his legs below, giving himself the leverage to complete the lift. When Karelin reaches his feet, the two wrestlers resemble a plus sign, with the opponent held snug at Karelin's hip, facedown and parallel to the mat. Then Karelin arches and hurls the unlucky man head over heels onto his back. Severe impact. Finally, Karelin descends onto the man's body. More impact. At the least it is five points for Karelin. At worst, broken bones or a crushed face for his opponent.
"When it happened to me, every hair on the back of my neck raised up," says Blatnick. "I was doing everything humanly possible to prevent him from lifting me off the mat. I weighed 265 pounds. I was in good shape. I was scared -- intense fear. I don't like flying through the air like that. I kept thinking, 'Don't get hurt. Don't get hurt.' With him, it's almost a victory if you don't get thrown."
That was the prevailing feeling in Rome. In his early matches, Karelin used arm bars, half nelsons and gut wrenches, but never the reverse body lift. Each time he tried it, his opponents turned off their stomachs toward Karelin. That move effectively countered the lift, but in doing so his opponents also exposed their shoulders. Karelin had only to flick them onto their backs for the pin. Mike Houck, the U.S. Greco-Roman team coach, was observing this, aghast. "I was watching top heavyweights roll over for him instead of getting lifted," says Houck. "They get to a point where they are so totally dominated that that's it."
In the final, Karelin faced a former world champion, Sweden's Tomas Johansson, who was a bronze medalist in the 1988 Olympics. From the start, Johansson was less than enthusiastic about the day's business. "I do not like to seem immodest," says Karelin. "But if I am asked, I must be truthful. Yes, I see fear in the eyes of most of my opponents. In the match, Johansson tried hard to resist it, and when he couldn't, he allowed himself to be pinned rather than submit to the lift. This move not only involves losing points, it involves losing face. Tomas, he did not want to fly."
Johansson landed on his back for good at 2:50. Not only had Karelin pinned all of his opponents but he also had gone through an entire world championships without giving up a point. Almost unheard of. Afterward, as the Palazetto resounded with glee, Karelin removed the straps of his singlet, tucked them into his waist and cheerfully struck a series of bare-chested poses of the sort that most Italians see only when they visit Michelangelo's David in Florence. "Sometimes we look at him and we ourselves are surprised," says the Soviets' Arsen Fadzaev, a six-time freestyle world champion. "He's like a statue."
With those achievements comes suspicion. Although Karelin has passed every drug test he has taken, some skeptics insist that such a physique must have been created with steroids. Others speculate that he owes his size to growth hormones. The latter group has given Karelin one of his many nicknames: the Experiment.
"It's normal," says Karelin. "It's human nature to be jealous when somebody is very successful. I've been through every single official doping control. Even when I don't have to, I volunteer because nobody believes I'm a natural man."
"In this respect, the wrestler's grapevine is pretty reliable," says USA Wrestling associate director Greg Strobel. "Nothing's been said about him."
"He is simply unique," says a Soviet Greco-Roman coach, Vichislav Mironov. "To look at him people say, 'Oh sure, we know what they did to him.' Wrong! He is from Siberia and that's important. They grow them like that there sometimes. The harsh climate endows people with special strengths."
Novosibirsk, 1,750 miles east of Moscow, is an industrial city of 1.4 million people who endure wintertime temperatures as low as -50 degrees F. For months its snow-covered sidewalks are traversed by men and women swathed to anonymity in wools and furs. Days are short and grim. Gray buildings line streets that eventually give way to the endless pine forests that long ago gave this brooding part of the world its name: Siberia, the Sleeping Land. Dostoyevsky put it differently. He called Siberia The House of the Dead. Today, within some of those gray buildings are more than 100 universities and research centers, an opera house admired internationally for its architecture and its programs, a ballet company and a circus.
"Even in our country they say that Siberia is bears and nothing else," says Karelin. "But in Siberia we have a different perspective. Winter is the best time of year in Novosibirsk. Red happy faces. Children on skates or sleighs. The whole city is under a blanket of snow with the sprinkled crystals on top shining the light of a thousand colors. My great-grandparents came to Siberia against their will. Before and after the Revolution, progressive intellectual people were sent there. Novosibirsk is no ordinary Russian city. It's full of very intelligent aristocratic people. Look at me!" He laughs.
While Karelin's forebears were displaced intellectuals, his parents have struggled along with the rest of the proletariat. His 5 ft. 7 in. father, Alexander, is a truck driver, and his mother, 5 ft. 6 1/2 in. Zineida, worked for many years in an office. Long before her only son was born, Zineida knew he would be an unusual man. Karelin weighed 15 pounds at birth.
As a child, young Alexander hunted fox and sable on skis, and swam for a local club. More than once, wrestling coaches spotted him, slouched self-consciously but still looming over his peers, and asked him to give their sport a try. But not until he was 13 years old -- and already taller than his father -- was Karelin tempted. He did not enjoy wrestling at first, and was thinking of quitting when he met Victor Kusnetzov.
"I was then a big boy and nothing else," says Karelin. "Two straight lines -- no muscle. I could do one pull-up. That coach gave me affection for wrestling."
"I singled him out right away," says Kusnetzov, the only coach Karelin has ever had. "You don't meet many boys of that stature."
At 15, Karelin was competing in a junior tournament when his right leg snapped. It was March 8, International Woman's Day in the U.S.S.R., and his mother was in the countryside. She hurried to the hospital. "She cried, she raged as only Russian women can," says Karelin. "She burned my wrestling uniform and insisted I quit. But as I recovered, I had this feeling that I could not leave a sport to which I'd given my leg."
Because his leg was useless for some time, Karelin spent many hours training in an old wooden rowboat on a nearby lake. His soft palms blistered and bled on the oars. "Sometimes I'd wonder why I was there and think of leaving," says Karelin. "It's so romantic on that lake, and I'd be thinking of girls."
As his leg healed, Karelin was also refurbishing his spirit. He became a voracious reader of Turgenev, Strindberg, Dreiser, Marx (who irritated him) and, his favorite, the brilliant satirist Mikhail Bulgakov. He listened to opera and ballet music, especially Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, and spent hours with the poems of the peasant genius Sergei Esenin. He began to write his own verses and to think of his sport in more elevated terms.
"Wrestling's like a poem," says Karelin. "Everybody's reciting the same thing, but each thinks about it differently. How each line or each motion should be interpreted is entirely personal. Perhaps nobody will believe this but a wrestler. Sometimes I have dreams of moves nobody's done before. I awaken and try to master them. Then I go to tournaments and win with that move. Sometimes those dreams are utterly fantastic. Things nobody can do. It was this way with the reverse lift."
A year after his injury, his body sturdy as a pine stump, Karelin went back to wrestling. Everything came quickly. In 1986, he lost only once, 1-0, to the world champion, 6 ft. 5 in., 280-pound Igor Rostorotsky. The next year he was the world junior champion and was named to the Soviet national team, where he became a candidate for the Olympic Greco-Roman superheavyweight berth.
The idea of defeating Rostorotsky consumed him. Each morning Karelin would rise, drink half a gallon of milk and leave the house for runs through the Siberian forest. Often he ran for two hours in thigh-deep snow. "Then you are wet with sweat and snow and thoroughly exhausted," says Karelin. "You come home, crawl into bed and sleep soundly. This is typical Siberian fun."
For months he and Kusnetzov honed the reverse body lift. Karelin tried it for the first time at a tournament in Canada, and soon it was part of his repertoire. "It was frightening when I used it," he says. "Americans are such emotional people. They seemed not to believe I was real."
Back in the U.S.S.R., after several victories over Rostorotsky, the Soviet sports committee chose Karelin for the '88 Olympic team. In Seoul he was in for a surprise. The Soviet team captains select the person who will bear the flag and lead them and their fellow Olympians in the Games' opening ceremony. This lofty honor is usually accorded to a veteran performer. Among the athletes the captains discussed in a meeting in South Korea were swimmer Vladimir Salnikov and hammer thrower Yury Sedykh. Then wrestling captain Mikhail Mamiashvili raised his hand. "We have somebody here who is certain to be a gold medalist," said Mamiashvili. "Though he has not yet been a champion, I promise you Alexander Karelin will win."
Karelin was chosen, and he proved Mamiashvili right. He faced difficulties only twice in Seoul. When the subtleties of laundry proved elusive, the larger members of the Soviet women's volleyball team offered to do it, all but adopting him in the process. Then, in the superheavyweight final, behind by a point to Gerovski with only 30 seconds left, Karelin reverse-body-lifted him for the gold. He has not been seriously tested since.
Karelin's impassive face and behemoth build belie his character. He does an impeccable imitation of Stravinsky's clown Petrouchka, has been called Sasha (short for Alexander) all his life and can do a passable jitterbug. "We were at a party," recalls Mironov, "and through the night nobody invited him to dance. They all thought he'd be a big lug. One woman finally did, and he was the best dancer out there. He knows music; he moves fluidly, gracefully. Everyone was astonished. With his face you'd think children would fear him. But Sasha has children around him everywhere he goes. Sometimes 15 pile onto him at a time."
When Karelin extends his arms, they measure seven feet from hand to hand, and he is agile enough to do splits and backflips. So there are rumors that he may seek a new challenge, perhaps freestyle wrestling or even American football. Freestyle is far more popular than Greco-Roman in both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and some wrestling observers fear that the International Olympic Committee may dispense with Greco-Roman. "He may never show his full potential in Greco-Roman because he may never be truly tested," says America's Duane Koslowski, who lost to Karelin in Seoul. "He could make millions in the movies, and makeup wouldn't even be necessary."
Karelin isn't impressed. "A regular Russian 23-year-old likes vodka, women and cards," he says. "I'm more practical than that. I want to look into one thing and be the best at that. Greco-Roman is an original Olympic sport. I like the idea of being a classical man, of belonging to a classical tradition in music, painting and literature."
Karelin is indeed a practical man. He has an undergraduate degree in automotive mechanics and is pursuing a masters in education. As with many other Soviet athletes, his successes have brought him privileges. He commands a considerable salary, which provides for his own apartment -- a rarity in the U.S.S.R. -- and two cars, rarer still, and he has met Mikhail Gorbachev. Much as he enjoys these perks, what he savors most is the time for reflection that financial security affords him.
"This is a highly talented man," says Larisa Mason, a graduate of Leningrad State University who lives in Pittsburgh, where she served as Karelin's interpreter during his visit. "His knowledge and his feeling for poetry, literature and music are incredible. He is witty, full of puns and constantly embellishing his language with passages from books and music. And he is a big teddy bear, too."
Karelin reads, he says, "to know about people," particularly the Soviet people. Tolstoy, he says, "is not relevant to Soviet life today," so he doesn't read him much. Solzhenitsyn, whose novels are filled with brutal critiques of Soviet human rights atrocities, is more to his liking.
"Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is an interesting book," says Karelin. "The only problem I had with it is that a lot inside me was ruined by trusting in the society where I live. After reading this, I had nothing left. I wondered, Are there no white spots in our history, only black? My whole country is in perpetual funeral."
Of the many writers he loves, the mordant Bulgakov -- "He is sarcastic but his outlook is not bleak; he is like me," says Karelin -- and the poet Esenin seem to touch him most deeply. Esenin was briefly married to the American dancer Isadora Duncan and later wed a granddaughter of Tolstoy's. Despairing at Russia's direction after the Revolution, he became an alcoholic. In 1925, at age 30, Esenin slit his wrists in a hotel, wrote a final poem in his own blood and then hanged himself. "I love my home," he once wrote. "I love so much, so very much. Gnawed as it is with griefs willow-rust."
There has been talk that Karelin, like Sergei Beloglazov, the six-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion bantamweight who now coaches at Lehigh, will one day leave the U.S.S.R., never to return. Others conjecture that he will soon move west from Siberia to a more cosmopolitan Soviet city (he now spends a good deal of time in the Black Sea port of Alushta, near the Spartak training center). However, both suggestions are a misreading of Karelin. Like Bulgakov and Esenin, he is foremost a patriot, a man whose every athletic endeavor is a demonstration of pride in and affection for the people, if not the government, of his homeland.
That homeland is not a happy place these days. The word Gorbachev has used is razval, which means disintegration, collapse. It is, as Bulgakov wrote of 1918 Russia, "A time and a place of suffocating uncertainty." Until a year ago, Karelin's mother was a Communist Party member. Her son forced her to resign.
"I don't believe in socialism as is," he says. "I can't. I believe in myself and the people around me. I'm surprised the Soviet people are as optimistic as they are, after what they've been through. When I return there from the U.S. or Europe, it's very depressing, but it's also inspiring to see these people who are resilient despite the constant pressure of life. The situation gets worse and worse and worse and they don't break. They endure. I want to help these people. I don't think about a political career yet, but perhaps I'll grow into that."
Karelin's best friend is a tiny man named Kalunia, who grew up as an orphan in Novosibirsk. "The strongest man is Kalunia, whose gentleness and consideration are as pure as life," says Karelin. Not long ago Karelin visited the orphanage where Kalunia was raised. In his hand Karelin carried some chocolate. When the door was opened, he found the small building crammed with 160 children, all delighted to see the famous wrestler. He put the candy behind his back, embarrassed.
"I didn't want to be the rich man spreading trinkets," he says. After talking with the director of the orphanage, Karelin backed out of the building. Later that day he returned, with money. The director wept.
"When I'm on the first-place pedestal and they raise the Soviet flag, I don't see the Soviet government behind the flag," he says. "I don't hear the system when they play the national anthem. My heart responds because I'm thinking about the people who raised me, the people who love me and whom I love. People ask me, Why don't you move from Siberia? There's something about that place. It's where my heart is. I don't want to be anywhere else."
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