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Gardner defeats Karelin in rare loss for Russian

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - One guy looked like a piece of sheet metal. The other, a tub of goo.

One guy chiseled his body for years by running through knee-high snow in Siberia. The other, the youngest of nine, grew up working on his family's dairy farm, baling hay and hauling rocks.

One guy had won three consecutive Olympic gold medals, hadn't lost an international match in 14 years and was proclaimed on posters outside the arena as "the wrestler of the century." The other had never won a world championship.

But it didn't matter.

Sometimes, even King Kong loses.

Yesterday, Russia's Alexander Karelin, the undisputed, undefeated 286-pound super-heavyweight champion of the Greco-Roman wrestling world, ran smack into a side of Wyoming beef, Rulon Gardner.

They collided, they danced and they tussled for nine minutes on a mat slippery with sweat, with Gardner winning the Olympic gold-medal bout, 1-0.

And then, get this: The 29-year-old from Afton, Wyo., who is roughly as the big as the state, did a cartwheel.

And didn't fall down.

"When did I actually think I could beat him?" Gardner said. "About 10 minutes ago."

Talk about great Olympic upsets. This one has to rank near the top.

Nobody, but nobody, beats Karelin, who hadn't even been scored on in a decade.

But it happened.

And to say the big man of Russian sports was unhappy would be a vast understatement. In the last four seconds of the bout, he did the Russian version of "no mas," putting his arms down, conceding defeat in what might be his final Olympic appearance.

"In the last seconds, he mumbled something in Russian," Gardner said. "I think it was basically, 'I give up. I give up.' "

On the medal podium, it was all Karelin could do to put one of his gigantic feet on the top step for a photo with the winner. Then, this member of the lower house of the Russian parliament bolted without so much as a comment.

Must be tough losing for the first time since the fall of communism.

But give Gardner credit. The 29-year-old with the shaved head, black eye and 54-inch chest came in with a plan - use his body, agility and aerobic capacity to beat Russia's big man.

Try as he might, Karelin simply couldn't dispatch Gardner the way he usually does his rivals - as if he's throwing out an old sofa.

"People make fun of me like I ate a little kid and have something inside my chest," Gardner said of his girth.

Gardner survived the first three minutes, avoiding the Karelin body slam. And then, he got the big point, breaking free of the Karelin grasp, a move so sublime, the officials had to go to the videotape before deciding which wrestler deserved the point.

In the overtime, Gardner simply survived.

In a sport filled with pain and flips, it took some courage. In their only previous meeting, at the 1997 world championships, Karelin beat Gardner, 5-0, and threw him on his head three times. "It kind of frightened me a bit to feel the strength he has," Gardner said.

He compared fighting Karelin to pushing animals. First, he said it was like pushing a horse. Pressed, he went further.

"Have you ever worked on a dairy farm?" he said. "If you ever get a chance, get up against a cow and push it. That's about what it's like to face Karelin. The only problem is, he's a little quicker."

Not anymore.

Wrestling has a new King Kong.

The swirl of activity around him was a revelation. Accustomed to training alone in gyms, Gardner found himself surrounded by the media, reveling in his victory and telling his tale over and over. "I'm from a small town," he said. "I'm not used to this big-time stuff."

But he better get used to the attention.

"I guess I'm historic," he said.

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