Three-times a flag-bearer, three times an Olympic champion
Cuban Greco-Roman wrestler Mijaín López Núñez is unbeaten at the Olympic Games since Beijing 2008, winning three consecutive 120kg/130kg titles in the process. A flag-bearer for his country at each of the last three Olympic opening ceremonies, he is also a five-time world champion and one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
Born in the town of Pinar Del Rio, on Cuba’s western tip, the imposing López, who stands 1.98 metres tall, won his first major Greco-Roman wrestling title in the120kg category at the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo (DOM). He has since retained the title on three occasions, in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
His first big rival on the global scene was Russia’s Khasan Baroyev, who defeated him in the quarter-finals of the 120kg at Athens 2004 en route to winning the gold. The Russian then accounted for López in the final of the 2006 World Championships in Guangzhou (CHN), though the Cuban would have his revenge the following year in Baku (AZE), beating Baroyev to add a second world title to the one he won in 2005.
A maiden Olympic title
López was given the honour of carrying his country’s flag at the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony. When asked which medal he was aiming to win at the Games, he smiled and left the Cuban wrestling team’s head coach Pedro Val to do the talking: “The gold medal of course. No doubt about it. Only the gold will do.”
Identifying a familiar threat to his hopes of Olympic glory, López said: “Baroyev is my biggest opponent. The gold will belong to either me or him. I think I am more likely to win.”
It came as no surprise when the two set up another meeting in the 120kg final. López sent his Russian rival to the floor in the first round to take a 5-0 lead. Though the second round was tighter, the Cuban maintained his lead to win the gold he had come for.
A title retained
A 120kg world champion again in 2009, in Herning (DEN), and 2010, in Moscow (RUS), López relinquished his crown in Istanbul (TUR) in 2011, losing in the final to Turkey’s Riza Kayaalp, who took over from Baroyev as the Cuban’s main adversary.
After once again stepping out as Cuba’s flag-bearer at London 2012, López was given a chance to avenge that world championship defeat to Kayaalp in the semi-finals.
Adopting an aggressive approach, López roughed up his opponent in the first round, taking at 2-0 lead. Though Kayaalp tried everything he could to topple the Cuban colossus in the second, López held on to advance to the final, where he took a two-point lead over Estonia’s Heiki Nabi in the first round and maintained to it to retain his crown.
“I thought it was a good fight,” said the victorious López, who had this to say when asked if he would be going for a hat-trick at Rio 2016: “I mean, I’m 30 already. I have three Olympics behind me. It is going to be a little bit more difficult, but life goes on.”
The rivalry intensifies
Continuing in the same vein, López added even more titles to his growing list of honours, winning the Pan American Championships in 2012 and 2014, and a fifth world crown in 2014, a year in which he also won the Central American and Caribbean Games. He was to be denied a sixth world title in 2015 in Las Vegas, however, with Kayaalp getting the better of him in the final.
The Olympic weight categories were revised following the introduction of two additional women’s events on the programme at the expense of one weight class each in the men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling competitions. As a result, López would compete in the 130kg category at Rio 2016, where he once again led the Cuba team out at the Opening Ceremony and where he once again faced his old foe Kayaalp, this time with Olympic gold at stake.
Matching the great Karelin
Determined not let his Turkish opponent take the initiative, the Cuban threw him 20 seconds into the bout to earn four technical points. By the end of the first period the gap was five points and López extended it to 6-0 in the second, closing out an ultimately comfortable win to emulate legendary Russian grappler Aleksandr Karelin’s haul of three Olympic golds.
After cementing his status as a legend of Cuban sport and Greco-Roman wrestling, López celebrated with a salsa shimmy in the middle of the mat, sending the large Cuban contingent in the arena wild, not to mention the Brazilian fans.“I’m so proud of reaching the same level as the great Karelin, this is just a tremendous honour,” said the triple champion. “I promised I was going to do it, and I did it. The dance just came naturally to me, Brazil is Brazil, and in Brazil you have to dance!”