In the inaugural women’s heavyweight freestyle wrestling event at the 2004 Summer Olympics Stanka Zlateva of Bulgaria finished last. By the 2012 Games she had five of the last six World Championship titles (2006-2011 except 2009), all the European Championships over the same period except for the most recent one, an Olympic silver medal from 2008, and was considered the overwhelming favorite for the crown in London. There were several secondary favorites in the tournament, including Wang Jiao, the defending Olympic Champion who had pinned Zlateva in the finals of the Beijing Games, but Wang had been unable to maintain this form on the international scene. Unlike in the other divisions, Japan was not considered a major threat for the crown as their entrant, Kyoko Hamaguchi, was already 34 and had a weak showing at the most recent World Championships. Still, with 10 medals from the World Championships stretching back to 1997, half of them gold, she could not be counted out.
With Zlateva and Wang ending up in opposite halves of the draw, many observers expected a rematch of the 2008 Olympic final. Wang was pinned in the semi-finals, however, by Russia’s Nataliya Vorobyova, whose best finish at a major international competition was third at the most recent European Championships. Vorobyova had also pinned Gyuzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan, the silver medalist from the 2004 Games, in the quarterfinals, who had in turn defeated Hamaguchi. In the final it seemed at first that Zlateva had the advantage, able to counter Vorobyova’s aggression and speed with raw strength and pushing the Russian out of the ring for a one point victory in the first period. Like a recurring nightmare, however, Zlateva found herself again pinned in an Olympic final, losing the gold medal by a fall for the second time. This gave Vorobyova the outstanding distinction of having pinned an Olympic champion and two Olympic runners-up in an Olympic tournament without ever having won a World Championships medal.
Having both been pinned by the eventual gold medalist, Manyurova and Wang met in the first bronze medal match in a rematch of the final from the 2011 Asian Championships, where the Kazakh had emerged victorious. They fought ferociously, each scoring one point in the first round, which was given to the Chinese competitor for having scored last. Wang pushed her opponent out of the ring in the second period and was leading the round until the final five seconds, when Manyurova was able to score three points in a last-ditch effort to extend the match into a third period. In the end, the medal was decided by luck: drawn into a par terre, Manyurova chose the red ball and was given the advantageous position, using it to score a single point that gave her the bronze. The final podium spot was contested between Vasilisa Marzalyuk of Belarus, runner-up at the most recent European Championships and bronze medalist at the 2005 edition as well as the 2011 World Championships, and Maider Unda of Spain, who had finished fifth in the 2008 Games and had bronze medals from the 2009 World Championships and the 2010 and 2012 European Championships. The duo was evenly matched, but Unda managed to get one point past the Belarusian in each round to win a second bronze at the impressive age of 35.