RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s easy, self-serving and—who knows?—perhaps even right for Russia to blame the U.S. for its belligerent image, massive doping scandal and frustrating inability to dominate the world. But in one respect the Bear owes America, big time. It was Yankee ingenuity, after all, that cooked up the wondrous nickname, “The Russian Tank," and no embodiment of fearsome agility, not to mention Putinesque aggression, was better dubbed.
“It is like wrestling a tank,” said Hungary’s Istvan Vereb, after becoming freestyler Abdulrashid Sadulaev’s first victim in a four-match blitz to a 2016 Olympic gold medal at Carioca Arena Saturday. “All his opponents call him that. Sadulaev is very strong, attacking. Strong and fast.”
Though already, at 20 years old and 190 lbs. (86 kg.), considered the best pound-for-pound wrestler alive, Sadulaev isn’t called that just because he hasn’t lost in three years. His gait is a relentless roll. A bowl-cut hairstyle lends his low-browed head the aspect of a gun-turret. Even in his home province of Dagestan, they call him Ruski Tenk. Sadulaev has said that he doesn’t much like the label, but ...
“He looks like!” said a laughing Nenad Lalovic, the Serbian president of United World Wrestling, while watching Sadulaev dispose of his next victim, Pedro Ceballos Fuentes of Venezuela, 5–0. “I like this muscle he has there, behind the knee. Nobody else has. It’s like a tennis ball.”
But, perhaps Victim No. 3 was the most instructive. Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov, a former world champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, figured to give Sadulaev his toughest test in Rio—and did: He scored one point. The Russian’s other three opponents scored a combined total of zero, against the 28 that Sadulaev amassed at will.
The final, meanwhile, provided world No. 2 Selim Yasar with his third crack at Sadulaev; add in Saturday’s 5–0 loss and the Turk has now been outscored 20–2. In other words, the gap between Sadulaev and his nominal peers couldn’t be more massive. “As fighters, we know each other very well,” Yasar said after. “But he’s physically superior to everyone else.”
Sound familiar? When it comes to smothering dominance at a young age, Sadulaev treads the same turf as 2016 Olympians Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. But, unlike gymnastics and swimming, wrestling occupies the fringe in the West, has often been a casualty of Title IX adjustments at U.S. universities, was nearly booted out of the Olympics in 2013 and survived only after undergoing radical reform. Aside from wire services, few—if any—Western media attended Sadulaev’s third straight world championship. That’s surprising, if only because of a pre-Games warning sent to opponents—on a Twitter feed seemingly under his name—that declared, “I’m coming for your heads.”
But Sadulaev—son of a farmer from Tsurib, Dagestan, devout Muslim who rarely speaks without invoking “The Almighty”—denied the mechanism, if not the mind-set, Saturday. “I’m not on Twitter,” he said. “I’m on Instagram. It must be fake. But I did come here to become an Olympic champion.”
Don’t be startled by the confidence. Sadulaev, the youngest of four, grew up in a region known for prickly relations with Moscow and a fierce devotion to wrestling. He didn’t start wrestling seriously until the age of 13, but quickly won a district title and its 300-ruble ($4.69) purse. He handed that to his mom. “She was very happy,” he said in a 2014 TV interview. She was decidedly less so when Abdulrashid decided to wrestle professionally; she wanted him to be a doctor. After 11th grade, he began training. A year later, at 16, won his first Cadet World Championship.
“All my relatives were against it,” Sadulaev said Saturday. “But once I got going and started winning, they all realized that it was my destiny.”
By then he was working with a coach, Shamil Omarov, three hours away in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala; for a time Sadulaev commuted three hours daily via minivan, city bus, and hitchhiked rides. Former USOC media director Bob Condron—enlisted by the wrestling federation to help with reform efforts—needed only a few looks during Sadulaev’s romp to the 2013 Cadet World Championship in Serbia to come up with the name. “His total time on the mat was maybe a minute and a half after four or five matches,” said Tim Foley, United World Wrestling’s media relations chief.
Soon, every mention of Sadulaev featured the words, “Russian Tank.” In 2014, the 18-year old skipped the junior circuit entirely, “appeared in the senior world championship and disposed of everyone, including the (two-time world championship runner-up) Cuban, Salas Perez, in the final,” Foley said. “He took him down with a fireman’s carry and kept rolling him over and over in progression. It wasn’t even close.”
Afterward, Sadulaev attributed his quicksilver rise to the will of the Almighty and a regular, post-practice whirl of lezginka, the high-stepping, strutting Caucasus folk dance. “It’s our top secret,” he said then. “Once we started doing that, all the fighters really got better.”
In truth, he didn’t need much fine-tuning. “Nobody can combine Sadulaev’s strength and flexibility, and nobody has his mat I.Q.,” Foley said. “He’s a chess player. His stance is so solid and his gamesmanship is on par with anybody. There’re no glitches, no chinks. And he’s not winning, 2–1: He goes to kill. He wants to show he’s the best in the world.”
Saturday, Sadulaev began his rampage with a 10–0 (the mercy-rule score that grandiosely declares one the “winner by great superiority”) wipeout of Vereb—and ended it by leaving Yasar a physical mess. Aficianados will long rave about the lezginkadis played in Sadulaev’s first period takedown and gut-wrench; partisans will note that this was when fans began chanting “Rus-SIA!” There was also a second-period scare when Yasar’s kneecap, straining under Sadulaev’s grim exertions, looked like it would blow off like a sprung hubcap.
By the final minutes, blood spurted from Yasar’s left ear, left eyebrow, smeared his nose; the denouement was marked less by furied action than by a repeated rush of trainers looking to stanch. Sadulaev, meanwhile, seemed to barely breathe. With but 80 seconds left, the trainers huddled around Yasar one last time. Sadulaev paced, face blanker than anything you’d find on a Roman coin. He waited, quite patiently, to meet his destiny.
“The only thing I’m missing is a wife,” Sadulaev said in 2014. “After this Olympics cycle I want to get married, Inshallah.”
When the horn sounded, Sadulaev raised his hands to his face. He took a flag and circled the mat, once, then jumped twice into the stands. The Russians there pulled him in, hoisted him high, hugged and kissed and grabbed what they could. When they were done, his face broke; Sadulaev flashed a gorgeous smile. “Of course I expected it,” he said of his Olympic triumph. “Because of the work I did, it had to be like this.”
Minutes later, a Russian wrestling expert was seen being interviewed. An American, desperate for color, asked what kind of crops came from the farm of Sadulaev’s father. The expert tried in Russian, saw the translator struggle. The American kept pressing. This has not been a pleasant Olympics for Russia. Finally, in English, the expert spit out the answer himself.
“Champions,” he said.