A Terrifying Maneuver
In 1986, Karelin lost only one match—to 6-foot, 5-inch, 280-pound world champion Igor Rostorotsky. The following year, Karelin became the world junior champion and a member of the Soviet national team. At the same time, he and Kusnetzov were refining a vicious wrestling maneuver that would make Karelin indomitable—the reverse body lift. The move was unprecedented for a heavyweight, because it requires the wrestler to lift his 280-pound opponent—a feat that was unthinkable until Karelin came along. "To execute it, Karelin locks his arms around the waist of an opponent," John Greenwald explained in Time magazine, "then lifts the wrestler like a sack of potatoes and, arching his back, heaves the hapless fellow, feet first, over his head." Following the severe impact, Karelin would descend upon his opponent. Top heavyweights so feared the move that they would roll over and allow themselves to be pinned rather than being subjected to it. "When it happened to me, every hair on the back of my neck raised up," Blatnick told Sports Illustrated. "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."
Soon, Karelin was defeating Rostorotsky regularly. In 1988, he won the European Championship and earned a super-heavyweight berth on the wrestling team Russia would send to the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. It was the beginning of an unprecedented thirteen-year winning streak that would elevate Karelin to the top of the wrestling world and to folk hero status in his native Russia. He won the Olympic gold in Seoul in 1988 and again in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. He won the European Championship for nine consecutive years, from 1988-96, and again in 1998, 1999 and 2000. And he won the World Championship from 1989-91, 1993-95, and 1997-99. "You can't beat him until you score on him," said Mitch Hull, national teams director for U.S. wrestling. "And Karelin's … not allowing anyone to score. Guys just can't get any position to move him."
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