Envision the ultimate wrestling matchup. Who comes to mind?
Is it one of the great freestyle matches from this summer like Daton Fix vs. Thomas Gilman or Yianni Diakomihalis vs. Zain Retherford? Or do you imagine something from recent college history such as Bo Nickal vs. Myles Martin in 2018 or Kyle Dake vs. David Taylor in 2013? Or perhaps your ultimate wrestling matchup is actually one that never occurred but would have if two of the world's best athletes were competing at the same time?
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Picking ten dream matchups at each of the modern weight classes is a nearly impossible challenge given the enormous amount of talent that has passed through the NCAA tournament in the last eight decades. But we decided to take on that challenge anyway.
First, we started out by identifying who we would like to see take on the four-time NCAA champions. This is a dream NCAA match-up after all. So, that means Cael Sanderson, Logan Stieber, Pat Smith and Kyle Dake automatically earn a spot on the dream match-up list. Wouldn't it be a treat to watch these guys wrestle collegiately again?
Amazingly, moving down the list of all-time NCAA greats, there are quite a number of three-time NCAA champs. So many, in fact, that some of them will not make this dream match-ups list. Given that, we added another twist to the dream matchup picks. Athletes with three NCAA championships AND an Olympic medal in freestyle were given preference over three-time champs without Olympic podium experience. And in some cases, a gold medal and two national championships trumped three college titles. World Championship experience also factored in to this debate.
In order to place a few more limits on this dream matchup exercise, we also set additional criteria, starting with the idea that no two wrestlers from the same collegiate team could be matched up together. An athlete who competed at one school and went on to coach at another school can wrestle an athlete at the school where he was coaching, but teammates cannot wrestle against each other. Teammates would never wrestle each other in an NCAA finals, so that's the rule we followed here. We also did not pick matchups between two wrestlers who have competed against each other before. We're dreaming here, people.
In addition, modern weight classes were used as the base, which meant that in order for the dream matchup to fit, an athlete would have to have wrestled in a comparable weight class. Note that some of the criteria listed here may not be applied in all dream matchups because sometimes the personality mix or history between schools was too good to pass up.
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But now that we've at least laid down the criteria, these are the twenty wrestlers we would love to see again in a 7-minute folkstyle dual:
(We'd love to hear who you'd feature in your dream wrestling matchups and why. Let us know at at NCAASupport@turner.com. We might feature your response in a future article.)
125: Stephen Abas vs. Spencer Lee
This could be recency bias, but given that Stephen Abas is the only three-time 125-pound champion and Spencer Lee is chasing that same title this year, it's hard not to think of this as the ideal 125-pound dream match.
Abas solidified himself in Fresno State's history books when he became the first wrestler in program history to win three NCAA titles and a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. There's almost half a dozen other three-time lightweight NCAA champs that could be interesting in this dream matchup, but Abas is the only wrestler to win three NCAA titles ever at 125 pounds, the modern weight. Ricky Bonomo and Greg Johnson each won three titles at 118 pounds before the weight class was removed, Barry Davis won two titles at 118 and one at 126, Mike Caruso won three titles at 123 pounds, and Gray Simons won three titles at 115 pounds. For now though, let's play out an ideal matchup with Abas in this spot. Abas graduated with a 144-4 record, with undefeated records in his junior and senior seasons and earned a spot on the NCAA 75th Anniversary Wrestling Team in 2005. Today Abas is the head coach of the Fresno High School wrestling program where he coaches youth athletes who could continue to add to California's wrestling history.
Wrestling against Abas in this dream matchup is none other than two-time 125-pound NCAA champion Spencer Lee. Given all the great lightweights to have won NCAA titles, it's probably too early in his career to pick Spencer Lee as the best opponent for Abas, but he'd create a fun challenge for the Fresno State legend anyway. Lee holds a 45-5 overall record heading into his junior season with the Iowa Hawkeyes, but he's undefeated at the NCAA tournament in March. A Pennsylvania native, Lee won three high school state titles with Franklin Regional High School before losing to now-teammate Austin DeSanto his senior season. He's also accumulated two Junior World Championship gold medals and a cadet world championship medal. Lee has suggested previously that he's chasing Olympics dreams but has yet to announce if he will be taking an Olympic redshirt year this year to prepare for the 2020 Trials. He could also continue to wrestle through the college season and work to qualify and earn gold like Kyle Snyder did in 2016. Regardless, we're lucky to have at least two more years of watching Lee compete in the NCAA. Now if only we could have had the chance to see him wrestle Abas.
133: Dan Gable vs. Tom Brands
Dan Gable is the kind of sports icon whose quotes show up on workout T-shirts and whose principles ripple through nearly every wrestling room in America. The man is a legend. Wrestling for Iowa State, Gable picked up two NCAA titles in his three years in the varsity lineup before going on to win an Olympic gold in the 1972 Munich Games. He finished his collegiate career with 117 wins and just one loss, but Gable's career didn't end after he maxed out his NCAA eligibility. The Cyclone champion won the 1971 World Championships at 68kg before winning the Olympics the following year. He then transitioned into coaching and helped guide the Iowa Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA Division I titles to become the winningest coach in program history.
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Who better to wrestle Gable than one of his own athletes? Iowa star and current Hawkeye head coach Tom Brands found his own collegiate and international success while wrestling for Gable as a Hawkeye from 1989-92, winning four All-American honors, three NCAA titles and then an Olympic gold medal in 1996 at 62kg. Another option for a dream matchup at this weight could be Oklahoma State head coach John Smith, who won two NCAA titles and two Olympic gold medals at 62kg as well as four World Titles. Smith and Brands have wrestled together before, so for now we'll stick with Gable vs. Brands as the dream matchup, but Gable vs. Smith would be pretty entertaining as well.
Oklahoma State's Eric Guerrero and North Carolina's TJ Jaworsky also both won three NCAA titles with at least of those coming at 133 pounds or 134. Cowboy great Yojiro Uetake won three titles at 130 pounds, so he's certainly on the list of wrestlers we'd like to see again, but a classic Iowa-Iowa State battle between Brands and Gable is too great to give up.
141: Logan Stieber vs. Kyle Dake
Of the four four-time champs, Dake is the only one to have one his title in four different weight classes, which made him a tricky athlete to place on this list. However, Dake's first title came at 141 pounds, the same weight class where Stieber won his last two titles five years after Dake left the weight class. If we have the opportunity to go back and create a dream match-up, let's put these two four-time NCAA champs together.
Stieber recently announced his retirement from competition after an impressive career that included his four Big Ten titles, four NCAA titles, an NCAA team title, a Dan Hodge Trophy, and a 2016 World Championship. He's now coaching at the Ohio Regional Training Center where he'll look to help the next generate of Ohio superstars. His wrestling resume stands out in history, but if there's one wrestler who competed in a similar weight class who might be able to take down Stieber in a dream matchup, it's Dake.
Dake, a four-time NCAA champion from Cornell, earned his titles at 141, 149, 157 and 165 pounds from 2010-2013. He also has two World Championship titles and a Hodge Trophy to boast. Stieber and Dake shared the NCAA podium in 2012 and 2013 when Stieber won the 133-pound weight class and Dake picked up titles at 157 and 165. The two athletes have also been World and National team teammates throughout their careers, but they have never competed against one another on a NCAA or international stage.
Who wins Stieber vs. Dake at 141 pounds if these two athletes were in their prime at this weight at the same time? You decide.
149: Zain Retherford vs. Bill Koll
The list of NCAA greats who have competed at 149 pounds or at a comparable weight is long, but we have to start with one of the most recent multiple-time champs. Wrestling for the Nittany Lions from 2014-2018, Retherford won three NCAA titles at 149 pounds, earned two Hodge trophies for his performances and helped lead his team to four team titles at the national tournament. Earlier this summer, Retherford also took down Cornell's two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis at a Final X wrestle-off in Wilke-Barre, Penn., to earn a spot on his second senior world team. A superstar who took on the world last week is an easy choice for a dream matchup and this weight and the challenge comes when picking his competitor.
The deciding criteria will be Olympic experience. Mark Churella, Nate Carr, Lincoln McIlravy, Larry Hayes and Bill Koll each picked up three NCAA titles, with at least one of those titles for each coming at a comparable weight to 149. Koll, Carr and McIlravy were the only two to wear the Red, White and Blue on the Olympic stage, and McIlravy and Carr were the only ones to medal. Churella qualified for the Olympics but did not have the chance to compete because of the U.S. boycott in 1980. This decision may be unfair to Churell and Hayes, who both have as many credentials as Retherford, but Retherford is young and hasn't had as many chance to chase his Olympic dreams. Regardless, watching him wrestle Koll, McIlravy or Carr would be a blast. We have the opportunity to have another coach of a school wrestle an athlete from that school if we pick Koll, so that's what we'll do.
Koll won his titles at 134 pounds,145 pounds and 147 pounds, so he never reached Retherford's 149. However, Rethford wrestled 65kg, equivalent to 143 pounds at the World Championships last week, so if these two athletes were both wrestling in their peak, this could be a perfectly even matchup at around 65kg.
157: Pat Smith vs. Jordan Burroughs
Pat Smith is the only Oklahoma State wrestler to earn four NCAA titles and he's also the only one of the four four-timers to win all of his titles in the same weight class. During Smith's time, this weight was 158 pounds, but if we're having fun with hypothetical matches, let's make him drop one pound. Who's the next best wrestler in history at this weight?
That's a tough question. Leroy Kemp and Jim Zalesky are three-time champs at this weight. Joe Williams is a three-time champ with two titles at this weight, three-time champ and recent NCAA sensation Jason Nolf wrestled at this weight and three-time champ Alex Dieringer also won a title here. But, as mentioned previously, if we're playing this fair, Dieringer can't wrestle Smith because they're both from Oklahoma State. So that leaves Kemp, Zalesky, Williams, Dieringer and Nolf as three-time champs to take on Smith. Then, we have to consider Jordan Burroughs.
The two-time champ from Nebraska won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, earned the Hodge Trophy during his collegiate career and also has four World titles to his name. Burroughs took bronze at the 2019 World Championships last week, and if we can win gold next year in Tokyo, he will tie Oklahoma State great John Smith as the only American to win six World titles. All that to say, let's go with Burroughs in this dream matchup. Could he beat Pat Smith if those two wrestlers were both in their prime at 157 pounds today?
165: Mark Schultz vs. David Taylor
Welcome to the Mark Schultz show. The Sooner star is a three-time champ and Olympic gold medalist, with one of this three titles coming at 167 pounds. Though Schultz is likely more known for his success at 177 and his famous NCAA finals match against Ed Banach, he's a good fit for this dream matchup as well. Wrestling for the University of Oklahoma, Schultz won titles during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons before representing the United States at the 1984 Olympics and winning a gold medal. Schultz is also a two-time world champion and member of the International Wrestling Hall of Fame. At this weight, given his career accomplishments, he's hard to beat, and few have the credentials to compete with Schultz.
Two other athletes, however, have won three NCAA titles with one or more of those coming at 165 pounds or a comparable weight including Oklahoma State's Alex Dieringer and Iowa's Joe Williams. Neither of these two athletes have Olympic gold medals or world titles, so this is where things become difficult.
Dieringer, who graduated in won three titles, a Hodge Trophy and posted two undefeated seasons during his career with the Cowboys. Williams is the only other three-time NCAA champion at this weight, and he has two Pan American golds to his name. Williams wrestled for the University of Iowa from 1994-1998, earned four All-American honors, picked up an Outstanding wrestler honors, and posted one undefeated season during his senior year. He also wrestled as a member of the 2004 Olympic team at 74kg.
To skip over those two athletes for a two-time national champion goes against the pattern followed in the other weight classes, but here's the justification for David Taylor as the ideal matchup for Mark Schultz.
Taylor is a two-time champion, two-time Hodge trophy winner and 2018 World Champion. He's beaten the best in the world, and he'll look for an Olympic bid in 2020. Known as "Magic Man" for his skills on the mat, Taylor left a legacy at Penn State and will still be seen as one of the many greats to come through the program under the guidance of head coach Cael Sanderson. He lost at the NCAA finals his freshman year to eventual MMA star Bubba Jenkins before winning the title his sophomore year while also winning the Gorriaran Award for the most pins in the least amount of time. Though Taylor was stopped in the NCAA finals his junior year by four-time champion Kyle Dake, Taylor did finish his career on top as a senior NCAA champion. Wrestling internationally at 86kg, Taylor has a lot of history left to write and watching him wrestling Schultz would be a wrestling fan's dream. Taylor's world title separates him from Dieringer and Williams and though he doesn't have Williams' Olympic experience yet, Taylor's career is far from over.
174: Dan Hodge vs. Ed Banach
Every year, the best collegiate wrestler in America earns the honor of lifting the most dominant wrestler trophy named after Dan Hodge. If we're building dream matchups, we have to include the champ. Hodge wrestled for the University of Oklahoma and won the NCAA tournament in 1955, 1956 and 1957 while claiming conference titles each year as well as a 177-pounder. The Sooner legend never lost a single match while representing the Crimson and Cream and he pinned every opponent he ever met in an NCAA finals dual. In addition to all of these accomplishments, Hodge earned a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. While it would be a joy to see someone who won the trophy bearing Hodge's name to compete against the idol, selecting an opponent for one of the greats at this weight is still difficult and doesn't yield that result.
One option for Hodge would be Penn State legend Ed Ruth, a three-time NCAA champion and three-time Hodge finalist. Ruth wrestled at 174 in his first two NCAA appearances, finishing third and first, and then closed out his career at 184 pounds with a 71-1 record and two more titles. His year at 174 pounds makes him a candidate for this dream matchup, but he faces stiff competition in this weight.
Mark Schultz and Ed Banach also each won three titles during their college careers, both taking two of those three titles at 177 pounds. These two grapplers went head-to-head three times during Banach's junior year in 1982, splitting the contests 1-1. In the NCAA championship finals that year, Schultz, representing the University of Oklahoma, took down Iowa's Banach in a dramatic 16-8 victory to end the Hawkeye's undefeated NCAA tournament streak. If we think of that finals match as a hypothetical wrestle-off for the opportunity to compete against Hodge in our hypothetical dream matchup, the win would go to Schultz. However, we can't have two Sooner athletes facing each other, so that takes the three-time champ and Olympic gold medalist off the list. Plus, we already put Schultz in at 165 pounds. The good news is his replacement is also considered one of the greatest in the sport, having won a gold medal of his own in 1984, so this one goes to Banach.
One more option at this weight is two-time NCAA champion, Hodge winner, Olympian and current MMA star Ben Askren. As a wrestler for Missouri, Askren took home both national titles at 174 pounds and did so while earning a reputation for his funky style. Askren would be fun to watch against Hodge, but unfortunately, his college wrestling resume can't compete with that of Banach.
184: Cael Sanderson vs. Bo Nickal
You can't top undefeated Cael Sanderson. The man never lost a single match in his college career and won four titles. But who better to wrestle the master than the student? Penn State star Bo Nickal won two of his NCAA titles at 184 before bumping up to 197 for his senior finale. He finished his final two seasons undefeated, won the Hodge Trophy and helped guide Penn State to four team titles under the direction of head coach Cael Sanderson. Perhaps Nickal's most memorable collegiate moment came in the 2018 NCAA finals when he pinned Ohio State's Myles Martin to lift Penn State past the Buckeyes in the team race and pick up his second consecutive individual title. Nickal, after maneuvering out of Martin's turn, flipped the junior Buckeye on his back for the win and then ran over to celebrate with Sanderson. The moment has become iconic in recent wrestling history and representative of Nickal's dominance on the collegiate level.
Nickal has an extensive NCAA resume of success, but Sanderson's is perfect. The Iowa State Cyclone never lost a single match in his NCAA career and he went on to win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. If we get to craft dream matchups, Cael and Bo at 184 would be the main event. Bo, have fun.
197: J'Den Cox vs. Jake Rosholt
J'Den Cox spent his college career solidifying himself as one of the best 197 pounders in NCAA history, and he's only continued to add to his impressive resume since his graduation in 2017. A three-time national champion and four-time All-American for the University of Missouri, Cox earned a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games and Rio and most recently won his second World Title in Kazakhstan. He'll compete for his second Olympic berth this April at the Trials in State College. Cox is one-of-a-kind at this weight, as he's the only 197 pounder to claim all three titles at this weight. The only other three time champion to win at least one of three national tournaments at 197 or a comparable weight is Jake Rosholt, an Oklahoma State grappler who finished on top of the podium at once at 184 pounds and twice at 197 pounds. Following his graduation, Roshalt started competing in the MMA. Roshalt wouldn't be a bad matchup for Cox, but given Cox's Olympic and international accolades, he might struggle.
Cox is tough to beat and even in a dream matchup, so Rosholt is facing an uphill battle to take down the champ.
285: Kyle Snyder vs. Carlton Haselrig
Kyle Snyder cemented his name in the history books when he became the youngest American to ever win a gold medal in the Olympics for wrestling. Adding to his list of accomplishments are his three NCAA titles, his outstanding wrestling honors in the 2016 NCAA tournament and the fact that he's the only wrestler of this generation to have won an Olympic, NCAA and World title in the same year.
A captain and leader for the Ohio State Buckeyes during his college wrestling career, Synder earned a Today’s Top-10 Award from the NCAA in 2018 for his athletic accomplishments, community service and academic achievements. He'll wrestle for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team in April and look for the opportunity to defend his gold medal in Tokyo.
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Snyder is one of the greats, but which other great will take him on? A surprising number of NCAA heavyweight champions have gone on to wrestle in the Olympics, compete in MMA or play in the NFL, but none of them won three college titles and an Olympic gold medal. Kurt Angle of Clarion won two titles and a gold. Lou Banach won two titles and a gold. Bruce Baumgartner won a title and two golds. Kerry McCoy won two titles and placed fifth at the Olympics. Jimmy Jackson won three titles and a Pan American gold, and Carlton Haselrig won three DII titles, three DI titles and became a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Looking at those accomplishments, the natural instinct might be take Angle or Banach. Two titles and a gold is as close to Snyder's record as possible. But Haselrig beat Angle during his college career, and when you beat an Olympic gold medalist (something that Michigan's Adam Coon also achieved when he took down Snyder in the Michigan-Ohio State dual), you earn extra credit. Haselrig also has the unique distinction of being the only wrestler in NCAA history to win more than four titles, as he won three Division II titles and three Division I titles. As a wrestler for Pitt-Johnson, Haelrig posted an 143-2-1 record and earned three bids to the Division I NCAA championships as a result of his wins at the DII championship. After Haselrig's dominance in both tournaments, the rules changed so that Division II champions were no longer allowed to bump up divisions to compete for more titles.
Haselrig never competed on the international stage in wrestling, making this a debatable pick to take on Snyder; but the six-time college champ showed off his athleticism by making a seamless transition to the NFL after graduation despite not playing a down of football since high school. He's also a member of the NCAA 75th Anniversary Wrestling Team, and now the only DII wrestler on this dream matchups list.