The 10 Most Memorable Moments in Olympic Wrestling History

Rick Eymer@rickeymerFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2012

The 10 Most Memorable Moments in Olympic Wrestling History

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    Olympic wrestlers come in all shapes and sizes. The U.S. has had its share of greats (like Bruce Baumgartner, pictured), but athletes from all parts of Europe and Asia have dominated, too.

    So our list of the most memorable moments in Olympic wrestling history come from all over the map and throughout time. And next time you're feeling beaten up and tired out, just think of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, which included a 12-hour match and a nine-hour light heavyweight title bout that ended in a tie for silver.

10. Unparalleled Victories, Unparalleled Life

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    What Jesse Owens was to the U.S. in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, heavyweight wrestler Kristjan Palusalu was to Estonia. In those Games, he became the first and only wrestler in Olympic history to win the heavyweight gold medal in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. 

    Palusalu led an extraordinary life, reflecting in many ways the history of his homeland. He was born in 1908, while Estonia was still a part of Russia. By the time he reached manhood, the country had established its independence.

    Four years after his Olympic triumph, he was a prisoner of war when Russia occupied Estonia. After a failed escape attempt, he was given a death sentence. Palusalu avoided that by agreeing to fight against Finland, a country with close ties to Estonia.

    He deserted to the Finnish, who recognized him as a sports hero and allowed him to return to Estonia.

9. Cuban Seizes the Moment

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    Cuba's Filiberto Azcuy won gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and the 2000 Sydney Games. But it was his 1996 victory that stands out.

    When he won in Atlanta, the sport was still developing in Cuba. Azcuy signaled the rapid growth of Cuban wrestling, and the nation is now considered one of the top 10 countries for wrestling training.

    Azcuy was good in 1996, and he was dominant in 2000.

    In Atlanta, he outscored opponents by a 38-10 margin over five matches. Four years later, in a different weight class, that margin was 40-5, including a superior decision in the championship match over Japan's Katsuhiko Nagata.

8. Gold Medalists' Special Bout

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    Robin Reed met Harry Steel, and both became Olympic champions at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Then, though from different weight classes, they wrestled each other, with Reed triumphing in a victory for teacher over pupil.

    Steel wasn't even supposed to be an Olympian. He didn't have much formal training as a wrestler and finished third at the annual AAU tournament in 1924.

    He made it to the Paris Games as a replacement and went on to win the gold medal, beating a much more experienced wrestler, Sweden's Ernst Nilsson, in the heavyweight championship match.

    Steel, an Ohio farm boy, went to Paris in the company of fellow wrestler Reed, perhaps America's best-known wrestler before World War II.

    Reed earned his titles by working hard to perfect his moves. In Paris, he quickly taught Steel some  moves, which helped Steel win the gold medal in the heavyweight division.

    Reed, who was undefeated between 1921 and 1924, won his gold medal in the featherweight division.

    Then, in a side bout, just to make sure Steel understood who was the boss, Reed pinned Steel three times in 15 minutes.

7. Women Break In

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    The Olympic Games returned to Athens in 2004, and wrestling had blossomed into an equal-opportunity sport. Women were given the chance to compete at the highest level.

    Wang Xu took up wrestling while at Competition School of Beijing Sport University in 1999. Five years later, she was among the first women to earn an Olympic gold medal in wrestling.

    Wang was favored to win again in Beijing, her hometown, but was a late scratch. Her replacement, Wang Jiao, went on to win the gold medal in 2008.

    Xu, then 18 years old, and Japan's Kaon Icho, then 20 years old, won a gold medal on the first day of championship competition in Athens. Icho went on to win again in Beijing.

    Ukraine's Irini Merleni beat Koan's older sister, Chiharu Icho, and Japan's Saori Yoshida defeated Canada's Tonya Verbeek to earn gold medals.

    Yoshida is considered the greatest female wrestler of all time, winning 119 consecutive matches over a four-year period.

    American Marcie Van Dusen became the first non-Japanese wrestler to beat her, ending her long win streak. Van Dusen currently coaches at Menlo College, while Yoshida is preparing for her third Olympic Games.

6. Dave Schultz's Greatest Triumph

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    Famous from high school for his wrestling prowess and a breakthrough champion for the U.S. on the international scene, Dave Schultz's peak came with his gold medal victory at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

    Schultz and his brother Mark are one of two sets of brothers to win gold medals in the same Olympics.

    Dave Schultz enjoyed what is considered as the most successful senior season in prep history while at Palo Alto High. He is also the only American to win two titles at the prestigious Tbilisi tournament in Soviet Georgia.

    In 1977, Schultz was the state high school champion. He added his first national and international titles the same year, beating a two-time NCAA champion along the way.

    On August 10, 1984 at the Anaheim Convention Center, just across the street from Disneyland, Schultz established himself as one of the greats, beating Germany's Martin Knosp, 4-1, in the championship.

    It was a moment of pure exhilaration for Schultz, one of the more lovable American athletes at the time, and the packed house in Anaheim.

    Schultz was training for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when his life was cut short by millionaire John DuPont, who shot him three times in front of the DuPont mansion.

    DuPont sponsored a wrestling program at his estate in Pennsylvania and recruited Schultz as a coach and competitor.

5. Karelin's Colossal Streak

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    It wasn't so much a moment, but a marathon: For 13 years, no one could beat Russia's Aleksandr Karelin, and for six consecutive years, he did not allow a point.

    Karelin, who holds a law degree, remains the greatest of all Olympic champions, winning gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 1996 and settling for a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics.

    He was known by many names and invented his own move, the Karelin Lift, a reverse body lift. He used it to remain unbeaten in international competition between 1987 and 2000. He was a 12-time European champion and a nine-time world champion.

    Karelin, the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler ever, became a politician after retiring following the 2000 Olympics.

4. Cejudo Overcomes

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    Henry Cejudo never really understood how stacked the odds were against him. It wasn't the way he thought. Obstacles along the way? Sure, doesn't everyone have to overcome something?

    But he did so in unforgettable fashion, finishing his journey to the top with a gold-medal victory in 2008.

    Cejudo was the youngest of six children, born to undocumented Mexican immigrants. He was raised in a fatherless environment and lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Las Cruces and Phoenix.

    He slept on the floor with the rest of his siblings. Sometimes he had to skip a meal. He was saved by an Angel, the name of his older brother who got him interested in wrestling.

    Wrestling became Cejudo's passion, what drove him to succeed at any cost. He skipped college to train at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, and that helped him reach the highest point possible: an Olympic gold medal.

    In the first three matches at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Cejudo lost in the first period and managed to rally to win in both cases.

    It was a little easier in the title match, as he became the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal.

3. Dan Gable, Olympic Zeus

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    There has never been, nor likely ever will be, an American wrestler like Dan Gable. He might as well have been canonized.

    His career was just getting started when he won his gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was unbeaten in international competition that year and did not give up a point.

    As a sophomore at Iowa State, he was 3-2-1 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1968. He was virtually untouchable afterward.

    He was a three-time high school state champion and a two-time NCAA champion. He lost once during his college career, in the finals of the 1971 NCAA tournament. He had won 181 in a row until then.

    Gable coached Iowa to 16 NCAA team titles and won 21 consecutive Big Ten titles. His coaching record in dual meets was 355-21-5.

2. Can't Keep a Good Man Down for Long

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    Jeff Blatnick was down for the count, and it had nothing to do with wrestling.

    Because of what he overcame, and because of his unforgettable reaction, his victory in the 1984 Olympics was one of the Games' great highlights.

    The former NCAA Division II wrestling champion made the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, which the Americans boycotted because of politics.

    Two years later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and had his spleen and appendix taken out as a result.

    Blatnick was down, but not out.

    Following radiation treatment, Blatnick gathered himself together and once again made the U.S. Olympic team in 1984. Blatnick was the last man standing in the Greco-Roman super heavyweight division.

    In a once-in-a-generation moment, Blatnick took a 2-0 victory to claim gold, dropped to his knees, looked upward and gave thanks. He was the second United States Greco-Roman wrestler in history to win a gold medal.

    A year later, Blatnick was again diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and again underwent chemotherapy. He beat it again, too.

1. Rulon Gardner in the Biggest Upset Ever

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    Rulon Gardner was a simple Wyoming man who found himself in the spotlight. He's the man who ended Aleksandr Karelin's career, beating him in an emotional gold-medal match at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in a tension-filled bout that went to overtime.

    Their legendary match built slowly, the electricity building as the score remained scoreless. Then a slight slip, and Gardner scored the first point against him in six years.

    As the match was coming to a close, Karelin stepped away from Gardner and bowed to him. Then he retired.

    Gardner's life seemed to be a series of  peaks and valleys. He survived an 18-hour ordeal in a snowboarding incident and a light aircraft crash. And for one precious moment, he stood on top of the wrestling world.