Captain Ahab had a shot at a wounded Great White Whale.
Captain Ahab came up with the dry throat and the sweaty palms. The Great White Whale lives.
“Matt had an opportunity this time that he didn’t use,” cooed Aleksandr Karelin.
“I was nervous,” conceded Matt Ghaffari. “I went to the bathroom 10 times. Nerves had a lot to do with it. If you wrestle 98-99 percent you’re better off than if you try to wrestle 110 percent. I was forcing things.”
This may be the most compelling single person-to-person one-way rivalry in the Centennial Olympics. American 130-kilogram (i.e. Very Large People) Greco-Roman wrestler Matt Ghaffari doesn’t just respect and admire Siberian wrestling demi-god Aleksandr Karelin. He is obsessed with him. He carries the Siberian’s picture in his wallet. He has a poster of the legendary champion in his room. Ghaffari is 34 years old. He is is 6-feet-4 and weighs 285 and change, depending on what he had for breakfast. And when he grows up, he wants to be Aleksandr Karelin.
Ghaffari has never beaten Karelin. No one has since Karelin began wrestling internationally nine years ago. He lost to a Russian when he was just learning his trade, but in the last nine years the man has had an Edwin Moses/ Cuba baseball/reverse Susan Lucci thing going on. The surest thing in international sport is that if draw you Karelin in a match, you will lose. If Vegas bookies took action on Greco-Roman wrestling, Karelin would be off the board every night. The only thing you’d get would be over/under on the pin time, or maybe - maybe - a little action on whether or not someone might score a point.
What accounts for this?
“Take a look at him,” suggests American Greco-Roman coach Rob Hermann.
To say that he is himself 6-4 and 285 is merely a starting point. He is, as they say around Gold’s, cut. Ripped. Put together. Massive thighs. Massive chest. Massive arms. Massive hands. Massive head, out of which stare a pair of deep-set eyes that appear capable of staring into your soul. He has been described as “perhaps the most intimidating man in the entire Olympics,” and that would just about sum him up.
Well, not quite.
“It’s like wrestling King Kong,” suggests Ghaffari, whose 1-0 loss in the gold medal match Tuesday was his 13th setback officially. He also has lost at least another seven or eight times in exhibition sites ranging from a parking lot in Concord, Calif., to Karelin’s hometown of Novosibirsk. “I’ve always thought that if you want to wrestle Aleksandr Karelin, you’ve got to teach a couple of techniques to the strongest animal on earth, and that’s a big gorilla.”
More than mere strength, agility and an almost incomprehensible level of conditioning separates Karelin from any other Greco-Roman wrestler in history. And talk about mortal lock observations: The guy has won six world championships and the last three gold medals. At 28, the tyranny could be extended for two more Olympics and eight more world championships, easy.
“He is the complete psychological master,” contends Hermann. “Nothing which happens out there bothers him. He wins matches before they even occur. Wrestlers have been known to lose in advance so they wouldn’t have to face him.”
Despite all this, Ghaffari and Hermann truly believed the great man was vulnerable Tuesday.
“He is not the same man he was a year ago,” Ghaffari declared after advancing to the gold medal match with a relatively easy dispatch of Germany’s Rene Scheikel. “I see chinks.”
“I really feel Matt feels he can beat him,” agreed Hermann. “I think history might be made tonight.”
You know why they were so optimistic? It’s because Karelin had shoulder surgery in April; that’s why. He was here competing in pain. They knew it. Every opponent knew it. Moby Dick had an owie. No wonder Ghaffari thought this was his big chance.
The wrestling community knew what was going on. They knew that the great man actually needed a bogus call in order to get the only points in his 2-0 overtime victory over Moldova’s Sergei Moureiko the day before.
The great man had been forced into OT only once in all those nine years. That was against our man Ghaffari a number of years ago. The great man doesn’t do OT. He seldom does the allotted 5 minutes. In Barcelona, for example, he needed the full 5 to defeat Finland’s Juha Ahoska in Barcelona in his first match and then toyed with his next four in the elapsed time of 5:32. So, yeah, sure, Ghaffari figured that if Karelin was going into OT against the Moldovan he just might have a chance to slay the Great White Whale and pick up a surprise gold medal.
The 1-0 score says he came close. Captain Ahab was disappointed in the final result but happy to have done so well. The Great White Whale had another viewpoint.
“It was a difficult medal to win, because I didn’t prepare as well as I could,” he said. “It is not that the others are catching up to me. I have just been standing still. The injury cost me three months of training. No more, no less. I did win by only 2 points and 1 point here, but I do believe there’s a future for me. I still feel the pain in my arm, and when it goes, I can do better still.”
The Great White Whale is an expert on successful Olympic experiences and he can now evaluate one in which music continually blares out in that quaint American way.
“The music is particularly appropriate when you leave the platform,” he observed, and you are with the shield and not on the shield, as the ancient Greeks used to say.”
Matt Ghaffari might be in trouble if knowledge of the ancient Greeks is any criteria for defeating Aleksandr Karelin.
“I just know that competing against him has made me a better athlete,” Ghaffari says. “Some day I want to rise to his level.”
Either that, or wrestle him when he’s coming off two shoulder surgeries.