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Two U.S. Wrestlers Can Win Greco-Roman Gold

July 23, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ Matt Ghaffari is getting the match he wanted against the man who supposedly can’t lose. Brandon Paulson will wrestle for the gold medal he supposedly couldn’t win.

Ghaffari, the old man of the U.S. Greco-Roman team, and Paulson, the young upstart who still hasn’t won a senior-level national title, won their semifinal matches today to reach the Olympic finals.

Ghaffari defeated Rene Schiekel, a German bricklayer, 4-0 at 286 pounds and will meet Alexander Karelin, the two-time Olympic champion who has never lost in 10 years of international competition.

The theme from ``Rocky″ played on the sound system as Ghaffari ran into the stands to hug his family and grab an American flag and his baby daughter, Nikki. He carried one in each arm on a victory lap around the Georgia World Congress Center temporary arena.

``They say he cannot lose,″ said Ghaffari, 34. ``But he doesn’t look like the same wrestler he was. He’s in my house now. I want to dominate in my house.″

Karelin was taken to overtime Monday for only the second time in his career, but looked his usual formidable self today in pinning Panayiotis Poikilidis of Greece in 2:49 in the other super heavyweight semifinal.

Ghaffari’s gold-medal match isn’t unexpected. Paulson’s certainly is.

Paulson, the least experienced of the 10 U.S. Greco wrestlers, won his third consecutive match with a 6-2 decision over Yordan Anev of Bulgaria at 114 1/2 pounds. The University of Minnesota wrestler will meet Armen Nazaryan of Armenia in the finals.

Paulson, whose 11 age-group national championships are a U.S. amateur wrestling record, came out aggressively, just as he did in winning twice Monday. He took Anev down with 1:15 gone, and, after falling behind, 2-1, twice rallied with two-point flurries to win.

Immediately after the near-capacity crowd counted down the final seconds, Paulson leaped into the arms of Dan Chandler, his amateur team coach. They tumbled to the mat hugging before Paulson leaped up and pointed to the crowd.

Paulson, 22, of Anoka, Minn., has never finished higher than second in a senior-level national tournament.

``But he’s very intense,″ U.S. coach Rob Hermann said. ``He’s like a little Dennis Hall.″

Hall earlier won a silver medal at 125 1/2 pounds. With Paulson and Ghaffari in the finals, the United States is assured of at least three Greco medals; it had won only seven in Olympic history before these games.

The idea of Ghaffari beating Karelin would have been unthinkable only months ago, even for the U.S. coaching staff. Not now, with Karelin, 28, bothered by a sore left shoulder and the wear and tear of 10 years of nearly year-around wrestling.

``I’m 0-and-20 against him (Karelin), but No. 21 should be the charm,″ Ghaffari said.

And, unlike most super heavyweights, Ghaffari clearly does not fear Karelin, whose sequoia-sized legs, menacing glare and ability to intimidate often decide matches before they begin.

``I have trained to beat Alexander Karelin,″ Ghaffari said.

Under different circumstances, Ghaffari might be preparing for the match of his life in a different uniform.

Nearly 20 years ago, his father foresaw the revolution that toppled the Shah. So he packed off the family to New Jersey and a new way of life, new language and new culture.

``I’ve have lived for this moment my entire life, to win the gold medal, to hear `The Star-Spangled Banner’ played,″ he said.

To do that, he must beat Karelin, who has won two Olympics and an unrivaled six world championships since 1988. Only a few times has he been close to losing.

One of those came Monday, as Karelin was taken into overtime for only the second time in his career before defeating Sergei Moureiko of Moldova 3-0.

His only other eight-minute match was in 1993 _ against Ghaffari, who broke one of Karelin’s ribs but still lost the match.

``I definitely feel the pressure to win, but, so far, it hasn’t made a difference,″ Karelin said.

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