Minnesota senior Gable Steveson has redefined the style of heavyweight wrestling and himself during his remarkable college wrestling career.
The Gopher big man — and 2020 Olympic gold medalist — holds an 82-2 NCAA career record with two Big Ten titles, a national championship and a Hodge Trophy. He’s unquestionably put himself in the top tier of elite performers in NCAA history across this weight class.
But he isn’t done yet.
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Steveson came back for one more season of college wrestling with a simple goal: to win another title. He’s in a good position to do just that. Steveson, undefeated so far with a 100 percent bonus rate, has wrestled with unparalleled confidence and strength. He's ready to add to his legacy.
Who stands in his way? Let’s step back and take a long, deep look at the weight class to understand the depth of field Steveson will need to beat once again.
Big Ten leaders look to challenge the champ
Heading into the season, Michigan’s Mason Parris looked like an early national finals contender, someone who would likely meet Steveson on Saturday night in the NCAA championships and give the Gopher champ one final match. He has never beaten Steveson in college — Penn State’s Anthony Cassar is the only wrestler with that honor — but he had been competitive and was one of two athletes to hold Steveson to a decision last year. Parris had built up this rivalry, and he seemed ready to battle.
Watch Gable Steveson beat Mason Parris 12-4 in the Big Ten finals. Parris would narrow that gap and drop 8-4 to Steveson in the NCAA finals two weeks later.
A 2019 Junior World Champion at 125kg, Parris started his 2021-2022 season in dominant fashion with a technical fall over John Klebly, a fall over Jacob Bullock, a major against Andrew Irick, and a major against Jacob Cover. He then pinned Andy Carcia of Kent State, majored Jacob Slinger and picked up his biggest win of the year in his Big Ten season debut against All-American Tate Orndorff of Ohio State by fall. Parris was primed.
Enter Greg Kerkvliet.
The Penn State All-American finished seventh last season, beat Parris at the Olympic Trials last spring, and had a 9-0 record heading into this dual with an 85%+ bonus rate, but Parris was ranked higher nationally. On a folkstyle mat, the Michigan heavyweight was still considered the favorite, and, when the two athletes took the mat, Parris looked to have a size advantage as well. None of this concerned Kerkvliet.
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Instead, Kerkvliet shot out to an early lead in this bout, taking Parris down with ease early twice, creating pressure in the match and forcing the Michigan All-American to act. Parris escaped twice and earned a short-time takedown in the first period to tie the match, and an escape in the second period gave him the 5-4 lead, but Kerkvliet was still coming. The Nittany Lion heavyweight went in for another takedown in the third period, scored and rode Parris out for the remainder of the match. In front of a hostile Michigan crowd, he delivered Parris his first collegiate loss to someone other than Gable Steveson since March 2019.
Kerkvliet’s reputation was rising, but the brutal Big Ten schedule meant that he would meet Iowa’s Tony Cassioppi the following week, the third-place finisher from last year’s NCAA tournament and a wrestler who also won the U23 World Championships over the summer. Cassioppi had been a consistent force for the Hawkeyes, and though he took an early season loss by fall to Princeton’s Jack DelGarbino, he’s strength, power and fundamentals made him dangerous. Kerkvliet had the momentum, but, once again, he would be marching into enemy territory to take on an All-American in a match that could have major implications on Big Ten and NCAA seeds.
Leading into the match, Cassioppi was 9-2 with the loss to DelGarbino and a loss to Steveson but wins over Brandon Phillips, Sam Schuyler, All-American Matt Stencel, All-American Jordan Wood, Tyrie Houghton, Michael Woulfe, Lucas Davison, Luke Luffman and All-American Tate Orndorff. He had bonused six of those nine opponents and was set for the showdown with his Nittany Lion foe, a match where he intended to not just win, but win by a sizable margin.
“I like to be scoring points, I like to be moving the guy,” Cassioppi said in an interview with NCAA.com. “I don’t really like 3-2 matches, 3-1 matches. I don’t look for the typical quote-on-quote heavyweight match, I want to open it up. I want to score points and keep it fast.”
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In his arena, behind the cheers of the Iowa faithful, Cassioppi came out of the tunnel in Carver-Hawkeye arena ready for battle, but Kerkvliet, much like his match against Parris, earned the first takedown, tacking up early points and taking the initial lead. Cassioppi responded by escaping and earning a takedown of his own and riding out Kerkvliet for the opening period. The Hawkeye then opened up the score in the third period even more by escaping and notching a final takedown and a rideout point to win the bout 7-2 with the kind of aggressive wrestling that the Iowa star says defines his style.
Over his four years in the Iowa wrestling room, Cassioppi has continued to develop this offense-based mindset, and he told NCAA.com that all of his teammates, regardless of weight class, have helped him find ways to incorporate more scoring into his matches, particularly against these uniquely fast and athletic foes.
285| Tony Cassioppi finishes off strong with big takedown to give the #Hawkeyes the win via decision 7-2. #FightForIowa pic.twitter.com/AJs2uv1mWN— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) January 29, 2022
“I’ll hand fight and just mess around with head positioning with Spencer [Lee], or I’ll ask [Michael] Kemerer about his outside-step high-crotch and stuff like that,” Cassioppi said. “I can just take away things from everyone on the team.”
The progress and growth that Casioppi has experienced from training with his national champion and All-American teammates is evident in his results too, as he followed the notable win over Kerkvliet with a major decision against Wisconsin All-American Trent Hillger, a major over Oklahoma State’s Luke Surber and a shutout win against Nebraska’s Christian Lance.
Watch Tony Cassioppi major Surber at the Bout at the Ballpark:
Hillger and Lance both currently hold Top 12 spots in the rankings as well, with Lance just one spot ahead of the Wisconsin All-American at No. 11, and both of these athletes will be chasing podium finishes of their own this year. Lance is 13-6 on the year and 3-5 in Big Ten duals while Hillger is 16-4 and 4-4 in Big Ten duals. Northwestern's Lucas Davison is also in the mix, holding down the No. 10 spot with an 18-4 record, his losses coming against Cassioppi, Steveson, Lance and Yaraslau Slavikouski of Harvard.
Cassioppi's wins over Lance, Davison and Hillger highlight his strength at the weight, but he emphasized in an interview with NCAA.com that he isn't overlooking anyone. His focus is on the Big Ten tournament as a whole and wrestling whoever is in front of him.
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"There are obviously a lot of good heavyweights, people say it’s maybe the best heavyweight has ever been, and I want to be at the top of that," Cassioppi said. "Having those guys that I have to wrestle against and try to overcome, it helps maybe a little bit with that motivation and shows me I have work to do."
Steveson, Cassioppi, Parris and Kerkvliet pace the conference and, to a large degree, the country, but they aren't the only title contenders nationwide. Pac-12 contenders and a Big 12 pinner have something to say about this weight as well.
Cohlton Schultz, Gary Traub lead the Pac-12 as the two ranked heavyweights in the conference
Currently ranked No. 2 in the country at heavyweight, Arizona State's Cohlton Schultz is undefeated on the year with a 62.50% bonus rate, and he's been on a tear since finishing fourth in last year's tournament. Schultz has just two career losses across the two seasons that he's wrestled for the Sun Devils and both of those Ls have been against the same opponent: Tony Cassioppi. Against the Iowa heavyweight, Schultz lost 4-1 in their first bout at the NCAA tournament and then followed that with a 5-0 loss in the third-place match during the wrestlebacks, but, outside of those results, Schultz has been perfect.
Watch Schultz wrestle NCAA finalist Adam Coon in the 2021 Greco-Roman Olympic Trials:
His level of competition in the Pac-12 isn't as intense as the Big Ten, given that he's one of just two wrestlers in the Top 33 at this weight, but he's buried everyone he's faced in conference action and will look to repeat as Pac-12 champion next weekend. He's never wrestled Steveson thus far in college, but his potential against the champ can be assessed by looking at some of his notable results from earlier this year against other ranked foes.
Here's how Schultz has performed against other opponents in the Top 33 this season:
- No. 7 Jordan Wood (Lehigh) TB-1, 4-2
- No. 15 Brian Andrews (Wyoming) 6-1
- No. 18 Zachary Knighton-Ward (Hofstra) 12-3
- No. 19 Zachary Elam (Missouri) 8-1
- No. 32 Josh Heindselman (Oklahoma) 4-1
Schultz recent win over Wood helped Arizona State win the dual against the Mountain Hawks and delivered the Lehigh All-American just his second loss on the year with the first coming against Cassioppi 3-2 earlier in the year. Wood, however, is still thinking about the match with Schultz and working on making adjustments for their next meeting.
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"I felt like it was a great match, and I have to give him credit, he beat me off the whistle and he got out," Wood told NCAA.com, reflecting on the bout. "I thought I did a great job getting out in 12 seconds in that first rideout. I put myself in a great position to win the match, but off the whistle, he cleared his hips, hip heist, and I had nothing for it. He’s an awesome wrestler, he’s ranked as high as he is and finished as high as he did last year for a reason."
HE JUST DID THAT! COHLTON SCHULTZ TAKES DOWN JORDAN WOOD IN SUDDEN DEATH! pic.twitter.com/kHuD3uhd5u— Sun Devil Wrestling (@ASUWrestling) February 19, 2022
Wood is one of several former All-Americans and national qualifiers looking to navigate this deep weight and finish his career on the podium, and the Lehigh standout heavyweight said his performance last year at the national tournament was a major motivator in his decision to return for a final season with the Mountain Hawks. He's already beaten All-American Stencel twice this year, and he's in a good position to chase another conference title at the EIWA tournament. The goal for Wood though, is just to enjoy the season, give his all, and strive to finish as high as possible on the podium in March.
Listen to Jordan Wood talk about the experience of becoming an All-American in 2019. Wood finished in the Round of 16 in 2021:
He recognizes that this is a "special time" for heavyweights in the NCAA, as top-ranked athletes have accolades "a mile long," he said, but he enjoys every opportunity to compete against elite competitors like Schultz.
"I’ve known Cohlton for a really long time, so it’s funny, I have a good relationship with almost all the Top 15 guys just from competing for so long together," Wood said. "Off the mat we’re all friendly, we’ll have conversations, but on the mat it’s always a battle."
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Gary Traub, the other ranked heavyweight in the Pac-12, expressed a similar sentiment, noting his gratitude for wrestling in this era of heavyweight and soaking up the opportunity to compete in one final NCAA tournament.
"I just think it's one of the toughest weights," Traub said in an interview with NCAA.com. "You've got Gable Steveson, you've got Mason Parris, Cassioppi, all of these guys are good, they're tough, and they've won. Obviously Gable is an Olympic gold medalist and Parris has been on the [Junior] World Team. Having those guys there, you know that if you get on the podium, you earned it."
Watch Traub wrestle No. 1 Gable Steveson in the 2020 Big Ten tournament:
The Beaver heavyweight is 19-4 on the year with two losses to Wood, a loss to Stencel and a loss to Kerkvliet but he also has wins over many of the same ranked opponents that Schultz beat in the Pac-12 including No. 15 Andrews and No. 32 Heindselman. This new conference has given Traub the opportunity to see different parts of the country and meet new people, but his memories of competing against guys like Cassioppi and Steveson aren't far from his mind either.
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"Honestly, all those Big Ten guys, some of them got the better of me when I was there, and I think I'm a different wrestler than I was a couple of years ago," Traub said. "So I'm excited to get to wrestle them, and obviously I want to wrestle Gable because everyone wants to beat the best."
Traub started his career at Ohio State, a championship-caliber Big Ten program, and quickly became a fan favorite when he cracked the lineup his junior year. He earned a scholarship and qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2020 but COVID ultimately cancelled that portion of the postseason. Now wrestling in his final year of eligibility with the Oregon State Beavers, Traub continues to live up to his "Gas Tank" nickname and has been hanging tough with nationally-ranked opponents representing his new team, his new family. While he's known for his endurance, Traub said his focused approach to wrestling has helped him to stay sharp both in matches that have gone his way and those that haven't.
Listen to Gary Traub talk more about his move from Ohio State to Oregon State:
"Obviously I've won close matches before, so I have faith in myself to come through in those moments, but I think I just know I have more [energy] than the other guy, even if maybe I don't," Traub said. "I know that either I have more or he thinks I have more, so just keeping that mindset and not showing any weakness and making sure he knows that I'm ready to is one of the biggest strength to me."
Looking ahead to the Pac-12 championships, Traub and Schultz have never wrestled each other on this stage, and Schultz will certainly have the edge on paper in their conference, while Wood will look to dominate EIWAs. While Traub is the lowest ranked of these three at No. 9, there's no denying that "Gas Tank Gary" is must-watch wrestling, no matter who he's competing against.
Wyatt Hendrickson continues to stand out as an undefeated star at Air Force
Speaking of must-watch wrestling, the top-ranked heavyweight in the Big 12 has also separated himself not just through his win percentage but through his dominance. Air Force's Wyatt Hendrickson joins Steveson and Schultz as one of the select few of undefeated heavyweights left in the country this year, and he will enter his second Big 12 tournament with a perfect 20-0 record, 13 of those wins coming by fall. This record currently makes Hendrickson the most dominant wrestler, statistically speaking, in the NCAA right now, and he'll work to live up to that title in the postseason as he competes against the best big men in the country.
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Heavyweights have a history of being quick to earn the fall because of their size, strength and momentum, and Hendrickson is one of three Top 10 pinners competing at heavyweight, along with All-American Matt Stencel from Central Michigan and Navy's Grady Griess. Stencel, who is ranked No. 8 at the weight, is a favorite to win the MAC conference and comes into the postseason with a 15-4 record, his only losses coming against Tony Cassioppi, Mason Parris and Jordan Wood, twice.
Watch Stencel beat Parris in Blood Round of the 2019 NCAA tournament to become an All-American. Parris is now 5-2 against Stencel, but his two losses both came by fall.
If Stencel wrestles to his potential, he's a dangerous matchup for anyone in the bracket, particularly given his successful pinning combinations and techniques, and having him compete against another pinner like Hendrickson would be quite the match.
Due to Air Force's schedule, Hendrickson hasn't had the opportunity to compete against as many top-ranked wrestlers like Stencel or Cassioppi but he said he's specifically worked to simulate in practice what wrestling those guys might feel like. His preparation, though, extends off the mat as well, as Hendrickson said the biggest change he's made since arriving at Air Force has been improving his mental toughness and understanding how to maximize the psychological element of some of these tougher matches.
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"Trying to learn the science behind what's good and bad for your brain and mind before wrestling has really probably made the biggest difference that I've noticed in my career and the way I wrestle," Hendrickson said in an interview with NCAA.com. "For example, last year, I was wrestling Gable Steveson, and I didn't go out there and wrestle to win, and I went out there not to lose. I knew who he was, and I was like 'oh my gosh, he's so good,' but this year, as soon as I face bigger wrestlers there's going to be a big difference that people are going to see."
Fans won't have to wait long to see how Hendrickson's performs against these kinds of wrestlers, as the NCAA tournament is just over two weeks away, but first, Hendrickson will look to take over the Big 12 conference and earn a high seed for the tournament. He knows that wherever he ends up in the bracket, he's going to have to fight for a win in every bout, though his ability to find the fall could certainly help him in those early rounds of the tournament.
Ｄｏｍｉｎａｎｔ pic.twitter.com/UdjEkK9ORI— Air Force Wrestling (@AF_Wrestle) February 17, 2022
Ending up on the podium with All-American honors is Hendrickson's goal, but, like Cassioppi, Wood and Traub, he knows the depth of this weight class is something that needs to be taken seriously.
"It’s just going to be a lot of tough wrestling," Hendrickson said. "Heavyweight is extremely competitive now, and I honestly do think it’s just a big toss up. I’m going to go in there doing what I do, wrestling the way I wrestle."