MOSCOW — Strongman Vladimir Putin took to the mat in his home town of Saint Petersburg to spar with top judo champions, in the latest stunt to prove Russia's number one remains on top of his game.
On a visit to a sports complex in Russia's former imperial capital, Putin late Wednesday donned his judo uniform of zubon pants and jacket fastened by a black belt and held several sparring sessions with champion athletes as well as Ezio Gamba, head coach of Russian judo team.
Television pictures showed Putin hurling his opponents onto the mat with some impressive ippon outright victory throws.
"He is a strong specialist. A very strong one. You can feel he is a man. Strong arms," Arsen Galstyan, Russia's European judo champion, said on state-controlled television Thursday.
As Russia heads for presidential elections in 2012 speculation is buzzing that the president-turned-premier is plotting a return to the Kremlin and Putin's minders are keen for the 58-year to project a healthy image.
Putin started practicing sambo -- the official in-house martial art of the KGB security services at age 14 -- before switching to judo. In Saint Petersburg, he also tried his hand at wrestling.
"The head of government took to the mat" and practiced several types of wrestling, the government said in the latest chronicle of Putin's exploits, adding athletes shared wrestling tips with Putin.
"He started with the usual throws similar to those that are used in judo and in the end tried out a rather difficult throw during which an athlete falls backwards and turns round in mid-air, throwing his partner over himself," it added.
Putin "demonstrated he is in perfect physical shape," said mass-selling tabloid Tvoi Den.
Described in leaked US diplomatic cables as Russia's top "alpha-dog" leader, Putin has been highly visible in the past year chasing whales in the Far East, dousing fires in the country's worst ever heatwave and driving a canary yellow Lada car through the Siberian wilderness.