INDIANAPOLIS -- Rulon Gardner, the surprise star of the Sydney Games, defeated national champion Dremiel Byers 2-1 in overtime Sunday to take the lead in their best-of-three series to decide a spot on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Athens.
The second match and, if necessary, the third between the two former Greco-Roman super heavyweight world champions was scheduled later Sunday.
Gardner, forced to win two mini-tournament matches Saturday just for the chance to take on Byers, scored the decisive point by taking down Byers in the second period as the two were locked in a clench.
Gardner also scored his first point by forcing Byers to break a clench - the same way he scored the only point in his remarkable 1-0 upset of Russian star Alexander Karelin for the gold medal in Sydney. Karelin was a 13-time world champion and three-time Olympic champion, and Gardner's stunning victory was called the Miracle on the Mat.
Byers' only point came when Gardner drew a second caution for an incorrect starting position, momentarily tying the match at 1 in the second period. The overtime period, wrestled because neither wrestler scored three points in regulation time, was scoreless.
Because he beat Gardner for the national championship last month in Las Vegas, Byers advanced directly to Sunday's final. That victory was only Byers' second in 17 career matches against Gardner, counting Sunday's match.
Gardner and Byers have been rivals for years - Gardner won the 2001 world title, Byers won in 2002 - but also are friends and the two shared a prematch prayer on the mat.
Cael Sanderson, the four-time unbeaten NCAA champion from Iowa State, beat former college rival Lee Fullhart 3-1 at 185 pounds to take the lead in their freestyle series. Sanderson, surprised by Fullhart at the national championships, was the only one of the seven freestyle challengers to beat the national champion in their opening matches.
In Greco-Roman, Gardner, 121-pounder Dennis Hall and 211 1/2 pounder Garrett Lowney all beat the top-seeded wrestlers. In the four women's freestyle matches, only Tela O'Donnell did so, pinning Tina George in 5 minutes, 57 seconds at 121 pounds.
In a matchup of two national champions, 158 1/2 -pounder Toccara Montgomery rallied from a 5-1 deficit to beat a fast-tiring Kristie Marano 9-6 in overtime. Marano was the national champion at 138 1/2 pounds, but didn't make weight and had to move up in class.
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