Four-time Greco-Roman Olympic champion Mijain Lopez (Photo courtesy of Kadir Caliksen; UWW)
With 12 seconds left in the gold-medal match, Georgia's Iakob Kajaia disengaged, clapped his hands, took a step back and dropped his head. His attempt to spoil history fell short.
On the other side of the mat, Cuba's Mijaín López waved his arms and smiled. His coaches and teammates counted down those final seconds from the stands. When the horn sounded, López brought his hands together and bowed. The party was just beginning.
López won the Greco-Roman gold at heavyweight (130 kilograms, or 286 pounds), defeating Kajaia, 5-0, in the Olympic finals. In doing so, López joins Japan's Kaori Icho as the second wrestler ever to win four Olympic gold medals.
"It's incredible," Lopez said afterward. "I have sacrificed 20 years and I deserve the gold medals and I have achieved that with the help of my coaches … I am going to enjoy it."
Yes, López now inhabits a place where no male wrestler has ever gone before. He won gold in Beijing in 2008, then again in London in 2012, then again in Rio in 2016, then again inside Makuhari Messe Hall A on Monday. He cruised to his fourth gold this week, going 4-0 and outscoring his opponents 24-0.
There are many ways to view López's longevity and dominance. Here are a few:
- he went 16-0 across all four Games and outscored his opponents by a combined 78-3;
- in his last three gold-medal runs, he posted a 54-0 scoring advantage;
- when he won in Beijing, United World Wrestling was still called "FILA";
- that same year, Luis Orta Sanchez, the Greco-Roman champ at 60-kg (132) this
week, was just 9 years old;
- when López won in London, he won matches by winning two out of three periods;
- he won for so long that Yasmani Acosta defected from Cuba to Chile so he could
wrestle in bigger international competitions (he took fifth at these Games);
- He also replaced another Cuban heavyweight Oscar Pino, a three-time world
medalist from 2017-19 and would've been a medal contender in Tokyo … until López
said he wanted to compete again.
We are conditioned to believe that this kind of thing isn't supposed to be possible, four Olympic gold-medal performances. At least not in wrestling. Four separate Games is too long a career, too taxing on the body, too difficult a task. It takes the perfect mix of supreme talent, better health, and maybe a sprinkle or two of luck along the way.
Yet here we are, with two examples of what that formula looks like when perfectly calculated in back-to-back Olympics. Icho did it in 2016, winning a fourth gold in women's freestyle. López now joins her with a fourth gold in Greco-Roman.
Those two are now in elite company. The list of 4-time Olympic champions in a single event is short, just six people:
- Paul Elvstrøm, a 4-time gold medalist in sailing from Denmark (1948-60);
- Al Oerter, a 4-time Olympic champ in the discus from the U.S. (1956-86);
- Carl Lewis, who won four long jump golds for the U.S. (1984-96);
- Michael Phelps, a 4-time champ in the 200-meter individual medley (2004-16);
- plus Icho and López.
That's a fun spot for two international wrestling stars to be in.
"This is a huge effort," UWW President Nenad Lalovic said this week. "A newborn superstar of wrestling."
Thing is, López isn't "newborn." He's the old guy. He'll turn 39 later this month. This was actually his fifth appearance at the Olympics. He qualified for the 2004 Games, too. Went 3-1 and took fifth in Athens, because his one loss came in the quarterfinals to Russia's Khasan Baroev, the eventual champ.
In that same competition, an American named Rulon Gardner won bronze, and promptly retired afterward. We mention him because that is the direct link between López's historic accomplishment and the last man to attempt it.
Gardner, of course, is most known for his 1-0 win over Russia's Aleksandr Karelin in the Olympic finals in 2000. Karelin is widely considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time. He went undefeated for 13 years, winning every world and Olympic gold from 1988 until Gardner beat him in 2000.
That victory taught us to believe in the impossible, that unsinkable ships really do sink sometimes, that David truly can defeat Goliath - and that historic runs, as tremendous as they are to watch in real-time, always come to an end.
Time is undefeated, of course. It so often dictates so many of our decisions. How long will this take? What time does this end? López has never worried about time, only his focus. He said so himself after his 2-0 semifinal win over Turkey's Riza Kayaalp, a four-time world champion.
"My matches are mostly about dedication and preparation," López said.
López was not like Karelin, not exactly. Karelin supposedly had a career record of 887-2. He once went six years without giving up a point. Even Icho won every world and Olympic title from 2002 through Rio. López won an additional five world titles, but he also took second three other times, including as recently as 2015, when he lost to Kayaalp in the finals.
When it came to the Olympics, López always found another gear. When his final match ended Monday, López lateral-dropped one of his coaches onto the center mat (think Cory Clark and Terry Brands). Then he grabbed another and carried him around the mat while waving the Cuban flag.
Then he stopped and took in the moment, and the small crowd inside Makuhari Messe Hall A gave him a standing ovation. Olympic history reserves a spot for those willing to give chase. Mijaín López gave chase, and now his place is secure forever.
"If there were statues still made in the foothills of ancient Greece mountains," one announcer said, "this man would have one. He's earned demigod status in the world of wrestling.
"Scrap that, he's up there with Zeus."