He had done so at the previous three editions of the Games, scoring 59 points and conceding precisely none.
Since first being crowned as an Olympic champion in 1988, Karelin had dominated his sport. He had not lost a match for 13 years and was so popular that he had been elected to Russia’s parliament, the State Duma the previous year.
Nor did he seem to be showing any signs of slowing down, despite now being 33 years old. His route to the final was a familiar procession of victories, with no opponent managing to take a point off him. Four years earlier, he had competed in Atlanta with rivals hoping that he was past his best, and yet he had won the title with aplomb. Now it seemed as if he was in the mood to prove his critics spectacularly wrong once again.
Only one person stood between him and a fourth consecutive title – the unheralded American, Rulon Gardner.
The youngest of nine children, Gardner had spent his childhood growing up on a farm. A talented young wrestler, his rise to fame had been much less smooth than that of his opponent. While Karelin had dominated global competition for more than a decade, this was only the second international event of Gardner's career. And he was already 29 years old.
He knew that to stand any kind of chance against Karelin, he would need to remain utterly composed and focused at every moment.
The first period ended without a point being scored and the second period began with the two men locked together. Then came that most unlikely event – a Karelin error as his hands slipped apart, incurring a one-point penalty.
Gardner realised this was his great chance. He moved into defensive mode and blocked every attack from his opponent. For five minutes Karelin came at him, and Gardner held him off, clinging on to secure an astonishing victory with one of the greatest upsets ever seen at the Olympic Games.