Wrestling fans, like most sports fans, like to argue about who is the greatest of all time. Some use statistics; others debate the intangibles it takes to be one of the best. Still more debate the quality of competition of different eras or weight classes.
As the 2012-13 collegiate wrestling season approaches February, the latest debate is picking up steam thanks to Kyle Dake, the Cornell Big Red senior who already has made history by winning three NCAA championships at three different weight classes. No wrestler in history has achieved that feat.
Only two wrestlers at the Division I level — Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith and Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson — have won four NCAA titles. If Dake finishes at the top of the medal stand this March in Des Moines, Iowa, he will join that short list.
Of course, not everyone got the chance to compete in four NCAA tournaments during their collegiate days. Freshmen were not allowed to wrestle on the varsity until 1969, so a quick rundown of Distinguished Members at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame will provide plenty of three-timers who possibly would have won four.
Smith won his fourth title in 1994. He finished his collegiate career with a 122-4-2 standard. Sanderson was a remarkable 159-0, claiming his fourth championship in 2002.
Let the debate begin.
Dake, a 165-pounder this season, is off to a 20-0 start, including a thrilling down-to-the-wire victory against Penn State’s David Taylor in the finals of the Southern Scuffle. Dake’s winning streak stands at 60 entering this weekend’s matches against Penn and Oregon State. His career record is 120-4.
“Only time will tell,” Dake said of his quest for a fourth title. “Most of that stuff I can’t control. I’m just trying to get better every day, be prepared for that next opponent. That is all I can do.
“Just because I’ve won three doesn’t mean the fourth is going to be easy. I have to work even harder.”
Why is Dake so difficult to beat?
“There are things I’ve worked on since I was 4 years old,” said Dake, who hails from Ithaca, N.Y. “Growing up my dad always talked about chain wrestling from all positions. The same thing isn’t going to work every single time, so you have to be prepared to do something else.
“Mat returns, riding people, working on my mat skills, those are important in big matches.”
Those mat skills were on display at the 2011 NCAA Championships when Dake accumulated more than six minutes of riding time in his finals victory against Penn State’s Frank Molinaro. Earlier this season, at the Grapple in the Garden, Dake picked up a victory against third-ranked Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma State that included 3:13 on the riding time clock.
And in one of the most talked-about matches of this season Dake, in order to beat Taylor, needed all of his mat skills and more.
Damion Hahn, a two-time NCAA champion for Minnesota, is now on the coaching staff at Cornell. He faced off against Sanderson and was one of the few who did not get hammered.
“To do what they have done is incredible, each in their own right,” Hahn said. “People don’t understand what it takes at this level to win one, let alone two or three. But four? There is a reason only two guys have done it.
“To win four at four different weight classes would be pretty special. To go undefeated for four years is pretty special. To say so-and-so is better than so-and-so, comparing guys from different eras, it is hard to do in wrestling.”
There are two minutes on the clock and your team is down by five on the gridiron. Who do you want as your quarterback? Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, John Elway or Tom Brady?
Need a field goal in the final seconds of a basketball game? Do you pick Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or LeBron James?
Bottom of the ninth, two on and two out and down by a run … who grabs a bat? Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Derek Jeter or Ty Cobb?
With one minute on the mat side clock and in need of a takedown is it Sanderson, Smith or perhaps Jordan Burroughs? If in need of a one-minute ride, do you enlist any other than Dake?
“Kyle is not infallible, he makes mistakes like everybody else,” Cornell head coach Rob Koll said. “The difference with him is that me makes those mistakes infrequently. And his opponents are usually in a no-win situation. If they chose bottom then they are most likely going to get ridden. If they choose neutral they are not going to take Kyle down.
“Kyle doesn’t care how he wins matches, he just wins matches.”
But do not think for a second that Dake cannot turn up his offense. Of his 20 victories this season, 10 have finished with pins. At the 2012 NCAA Championships, his five victories included three pins and 21 of his 35 wins during the season ended with at least a major decision.
Ask 50 people in Iowa who the greatest collegiate wrestler of all-time is and you will get Sanderson or Gable. In Oklahoma the answer might include Smith, Sanderson or even Yojiro Uetake. Five East Coast states might have five different opinions.
Regardless of loyalties, if Dake wins a fourth title, it will be hard to argue against his being one of if not the greatest college wrestler of all time.