Ten years ago today -- September 27, 2000 -- a Wyoming dairy farmer scored one of the biggest upsets in sports history by defeating a three-time Olympic gold medalist wrestler.
Earlier this summer, The Bleacher Report sports website ranked Gardner vs Karelin No. 7 on its list of "Top Ten Upsets in Sports History." Here's how they put the accomplishment in perspective:
Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin had not surrendered a single point during a 10-year span heading into the 2000 Summer Olympics. He had never lost in 15 years of international competition, and had won three consecutive Olympic gold medals and seven consecutive world titles….Karelin faced American Rulon Gardner who had never finished better than fifth in any international wrestling competition. This was supposed to be another opponent crushed at the hands of Alexander the Great, but on this night it was Gardner who won gold in a stunning 1-0 defeat of Karelin. Gardner crushed the one-man dynasty of Karelin in Sydney and claimed the golf, solidifying Gardner as one of the biggest underdogs in Olympic history.
Alexander Karelin was known as "The Siberian Tiger" "King Kong" and "The Experiment" for his massively muscular physique, relentless attacking style, and much-feared reverse body lift where he would throw a hapless opponent over his shoulders to land hard on the mat. There were allegations that some opponents would pretty much roll over and be pinned, rather than risk injury from being thrown.
For all these reasons, Karelin was considered by many to be the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler ever. Among his accomplishments were three gold medals won at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics. He was expected to win a fourth at the 2000 Olympics. In fact, seated in the front row of the gold-medal match in Sydney was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, who had planned to present the Russian with his fourth gold medal.
Rulon Gardner's mat credentials were not quite as glittering. At Ricks Junior College, Gardner was an NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) champ in 1991 and two-time All-American (1990-91). Then Gardner transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he was a 1993 NCAA Division I All-American after placing fourth in the heavyweight bracket.
On that September night a decade ago, Gardner faced Karelin in the gold-medal match. In the first period, there was no score. By the rules of the time, the two wrestlers started the second period in a clinch. The referee signaled that Karelin had broken the clinch first; one point was awarded to Gardner. At the end of regulation, the score was 1-0 Gardner. The one-point differential forced the match into overtime... with neither man scoring. Final result: a win for Rulon Gardner in overtime, the gold medal, and the adulation of millions who had seen a major upset of titanic proportions.
Gardner earned numerous prestigious honors beyond the gold medal, including the James E. Sullivan Award, U.S. Olympic Committee Sportsman of the Year, Jesse Owens Award, an ESPY (for U.S. Male Olympic Athlete of the Year)... and a place on ESPN's 100 Most Memorable Moments of the Past 25 Years.
Despite a couple near-death experiences after winning the gold medal, Gardner added to his hardware collection by earning a bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, making him only the second US Greco-Roman wrestler to win two Olympic medals.
This summer, Rulon Gardner was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Want to know more? Brandon Penny has written an article titled "A decade later: Rulon Gardner" for the TeamUSA website. Click here read Penny's profile of Gardner, and learn about his accomplishments and death-defying life after winning gold.
Want to stay on top of the latest news in college wrestling? If so, subscribe to College Wrestling Examiner! You'll be automatically notified every time a new story is posted here. To sign up for your FREE subscription, click on the "subscribe" button at the top of this page.
Rulon Gardner: Official website
Alexander Karelin: Official website (in Russian)
AmateurWrestlingFanAddicts Yahoo group: Photos of the Gardner vs Karelin 2000 Olympic gold medal match