He was unbeatable. He had never lost in 15 years of international competition. He had won three consecutive Olympic gold medals and seven consecutive world titles.
Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin had not even yielded a point over a 10-year span heading into the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Everyone called him Alexander The Great. He once carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs -- by himself. He was universally feared, universally admired. He once won a match after suffering a broken rib and said afterward, "I did not want to stop fighting for something as dainty as a broken rib."
Wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips, Karelin was a glowering mountain of a man, a terrifying 286-pound Greek statue. So when he stepped in to face American Rulon Gardner, a farm boy who grew up as the youngest of nine on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyo., population 1,400, and whose best previous finish in international competition had been fifth, no one was prepared for what was about to transpire.
September 27, 2000. The gold medal match in Greco-Roman super heavyweight at The Sydney Exhibition Centre.
Karelin tries throwing Gardner repeatedly in the first three minutes of the Olympic showdown, but he is unsuccessful, as Gardner stays chest-to-chest, shoulder-to-shoulder, never allowing Karelin to get leverage or a chance to toss him for points. Over and over, Karelin tries to hoist Gardner, but Gardner squirms or battles free.
Neither wrestler is able to gain an advantage or score a point in the first three-minute round. The rules, in this situation, dictate that a coin toss determines who chooses his preferred position at the start of the second round.
The toss is won by the sleek, trim, bald and menacing Karelin, who immediately locks onto Gardner. But Gardner, who never even captured a NCAA title while wrestling at the University of Nebraska, locks right back.
After 30 seconds of grappling and yanking and pulling, Gardner keeps his hands clinched and Karelin's slips apart. Gasps are heard from the crowd as Gardner receives a point -- the first point Karelin has yielded in 15 years. The score is so subtle, so unbelievable, that judges actually need to confirm it via videotape.
"He had a great lock on me, and another three or four inches I would have let it slip," Gardner would admit later. "But I always wrestle kind of unorthodox, and our feet got tangled and I got under him. Maybe it confused him. But I got the point."
There is, however, the rest of the second round to get through and then a three-minute overtime because a wrestler has to score three points to win in regular time. With each passing moment, as Gardner withstands Karelin's withering attacks, head slaps and attempts to pick him up and bulldoze him, Gardner grows more confident, more aggressive.
Gardner nows Karelin may be tired from two matches earlier in the day, and thinks, "He's got to be feeling it in his legs . . . and his lungs might be burning, too." Gardner is fresher, having wrestled just once the same day, earning a semifinal overtime victory over Juri Yevseychyc of Israel.
For a brief moment, Gardner thinks about the only other time he had faced Karelin -- three years earlier. He lost 5-0. Karelin had thrown Gardner on his face three times, slamming him to the ground each time. Once, Karelin lifted him and flipped him feet-first over his head. Then he landed his 290-pound body on Gardner's neck. "The second time he slammed me, my feet almost hit my back," Gardner would later say. "It's like wrestling a horse; he's that strong. He can suffocate you."
Gardner's wife, Stacy, fears for her husband's safety in the match with Karelin, admitting, "I hear he's paralyzed people before."
But this is a different day, a different moment in time. Gardner feels so calm -- calmer than he has at any time ever before in his life. "I don't think I've ever been so ready to wrestle," he later said.
Overtime begins. Everyone in wrestling knows a reverse lift is Karelin's trademark move, and everyone is bracing for it. But he is unable to execute it against Gardner, who has surprising speed for a man with a 54-inch chest. "I knew I was strong enough and quick enough to stop his lift," Gardner would say.
Still trailing by one point, Karelin starts grabbing the sides of Gardner's face, clawing at him, as if he's trying to rip off his opponents' head. Gardner keeps flashing back to lessons he learned as a farm boy, building his muscle the old-fashioned way, by bailing hay and carrying pails of milk to feed cows on his family's 160-acre dairy farm. "When you work the farm," he would say, "you never stop to take a break."
Chants of "USA! USA!" resound throughout the arena. Then, with five seconds left in the overtime period, Karelin rises from the mat and takes a step back, and, as the arena goes silent, not knowing what is happening, he shockingly concedes the match. The arena explodes with a roar; everyone realizes they are witnessing one of the greatest upsets not only in wrestling history, but in Olympic history and sports history as well.
Gardner, unable to control his emotions, screams and turns a cartwheel, raises his arm in triumph and then does a somersault. He spots an American flag in the crowd, races over, grabs it and runs a victory lap.
"To be realistic, I didn't think I could actually beat him," the 29-year-old Gardner would tell the media. "The gold medal was so far away from what I thought I could do in my life. You say, 'Yeah, I can beat him.' But so many people in so many hundreds of matches have thought that, then they go out and he basically crushes them."
But on this night, it's Gardner who crushes the mystique, the legacy, the one-man dynasty.