Lopez in elite company with his third gold

Who said big men can't dance? Mijain Lopez of Cuba, who weighs 130kg, performing an impromptu series of dance moves after defeating arch-rival Riza Kayaalp of Turkey 6-0 in the Greco-Roman super- heavyweight event on Monday
Who said big men can't dance? Mijain Lopez of Cuba, who weighs 130kg, performing an impromptu series of dance moves after defeating arch-rival Riza Kayaalp of Turkey 6-0 in the Greco-Roman super- heavyweight event on Monday. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM
Who said big men can't dance? Mijain Lopez of Cuba, who weighs 130kg, performing an impromptu series of dance moves after defeating arch-rival Riza Kayaalp of Turkey 6-0 in the Greco-Roman super- heavyweight event on Monday.
Who said big men can't dance? Mijain Lopez of Cuba, who weighs 130kg, performing an impromptu series of dance moves after defeating arch-rival Riza Kayaalp of Turkey 6-0 in the Greco-Roman super- heavyweight event on Monday. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM

First he defeats rival, then he dances, throws his coach in jest and shakes the judges' hands

Footwork is probably the last thing one notices about Cuban wrestler Mijain Lopez yet it was his feet that stole the show during the final of the men's Greco-Roman super-heavyweight event on Monday in Brazil.

With 10 seconds on the clock and the 1.98m, 130kg behemoth leading arch-rival Riza Kayaalp of Turkey 6-0, the crowd at Rio's Carioca Arena 2 were on their feet to cheer Lopez, who became just the second man in history to win three straight Olympic wrestling golds after the Russian legend Aleksandr Karelin.

As the buzzer sounded, Lopez the fighter-turned-dancer showed he had other moves as he shuffled his feet and shook his hips like an extra from a Beyonce music video in celebration.

The 33-year-old, whose two gold teeth were the same hue as the medal he had bitten into, said afterwards via a translator: "I couldn't help myself. Everyone dances in Brazil so I had to dance as well. This is the greatest day of my life. I have joined a legend."

Having unleashed one of his trademark suplexes on Kayaalp within 15 seconds of the bout beginning to score four points and seize the initiative, Lopez was not done. He performed the same move on his jubilant coach Pedro Val, who had dashed onto the mat to hug his protege and was flung across the mat.

The light-hearted moments continued as Lopez, ironically nicknamed "The Kid" for his imposing size, shook all the judges' hands and then the ringside photographers, who were taken aback.

IT TAKES ONE TO TANGO

I couldn't help myself. Everyone dances in Brazil so I had to dance as well. This is the greatest day of my life. I have joined a legend.

MIJAIN LOPEZ , on his impromptu shuffling of feet and shaking of hips.

It was an evening of sweet vindication for Lopez - he confirmed he will not compete at the 2020 Tokyo Games - as well as his countrymen; Cuban journalists high-fived and hugged each other at the mixed zone.

He had spent much of his career in the shadow of Karelin, who besides his Olympic titles (1988 and 1996), also won nine world championships in 10 years and is considered history's greatest wrestler. Carl Westergren of Sweden also won three golds in the classic discipline (1920, 1924 and 1932).

Lopez's body of work, which includes five world championships, is finally comparable to the Russian, said Val.

Both Cuba's golds at the Rio Games have come from wrestling, one of the 10 original Olympic sports from the 1896 Athens Games. Ismael Borrero had won the men's 59kg event, bringing the nation's overall tally to 21 Olympic medals (nine gold, five silver and seven bronze).

"We are a small country but never give up," said Lopez, who grew up in the western province of Pinar del Rio and picked up the sport at 10.

His rivalry with Kayaalp, who is seven years younger, is testament to that stubbornness. Lopez has lost only three matches at the world championships and two have come at the hands of Kayaalp, in the 2011 and 2015 finals.

A third major final loss never looked on the cards in Brazil as the first of two three-minute rounds started. Within seconds, Lopez had executed his takedown and forced Kayaalp to the out-of-bounds area for another point and had a healthy 5-0 lead at the break.

Had the contest gone the way of the inaugural fight at the 1896 Athens Games which was held outdoors in a sand pit and only stopped due to fading light, Kayaalp still probably would not have scored, such was Lopez's determination to nullify his opponent.

Lopez, who has been Cuba's flag-bearer for the past three Games (2008-2016) said: "I wanted to start aggressively and show him who was No. 1. Beating him to win the gold makes it even more special."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Lopez in elite company with his third gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe