In the history of NCAA wrestling, only one Division I college athlete has ever finished a varsity career undefeated with four national titles: Cael Sanderson. The Penn State head coach and Iowa State wrestling legend went 159-0 on his way to win three Hodge Trophies.
Every national champion since Sanderson has recorded at least one loss. So let’s look at the athletes who have wins over current champs. Who has the best resume?
All of the athletes on this list are wrestlers who have not yet won a national title but beat at least one NCAA champion and multiple NCAA finalists during their varsity careers. Losses taken in redshirt seasons were not factored into this analysis. Which of the following athletes has the most impressive record over top competition? Can any of these contenders win a title of their own this year? Time will tell, but the talent on this list is undeniable.
Sebastian Rivera, Rugers, 141 pounds
Sebastian Rivera might just have one of the best wins in recent college wrestling history. Anthony Cassar — the Penn State heavyweight who beat Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson twice in the 2019 season — could also challenge for that title, but Rivera’s success against the nation’s best lightweights puts him in a unique category. Rivera is the only active college wrestler with a win over three-time NCAA champion and two-time Hodge Winner Spencer Lee, and he accomplished that feat not once, but twice in the 2018-2019 season. The first win, perhaps the more unexpected win, came at the 2018 Midlands tournament where Rivera topped the defending champion 7-3 and made a name for himself as the lightweight to beat. Rivera backed up his first win by topping Lee for the 2019 Big Ten title at 125 pounds in sudden victory and solidifying the No. 1 seed in the national tournament. He would go on to lose to Jack Mueller of Virginia by major decision in the semifinals and finish third, but no one can take those wins over Lee away from him.
Watch Sebastian Rivera beat Spencer Lee here in the Big Ten Finals in 2019:
As if winning against one of the best lightweights of all time wasn’t enough, Rivera took on a new challenge in 2020, bumping up to wrestle 133 pounds and beating two more NCAA champions in the process. At the Big Ten tournament that season, Rivera, wrestling in front of a raucous Jersey crowd, beat Wisconsin's Seth Gross in the semifinals and Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young in the finals for the conference title in a 7-2 decision fashion. Neither Rivera, Bravo-Young nor anyone else in the field would be able to contend for a national title that year as COVID forced the cancelation of the NCAA tournament, but Gross had won a title in 2018 and Bravo-Young would go on to win the 133-pound weight class the following year while Rivera would finish fourth at 141 pounds. To win an NCAA championship this year, Rivera will likely have to beat either NCAA champion Nick Lee or NCAA finalist Jaydin Eierman, and, if he does, he could have one of the most impressive set of wins of anyone on this list across three weight classes.
Austin DeSanto, Iowa, 133 pounds
Sebastian Rivera and Iowa’s Austin DeSanto overlapped at the 133-pound weight class for a year, and while they never met, DeSanto has his own impressive list of wins at this weight that make him one of the most accomplished wrestlers to have not yet won a title. His most notable victory came at the start of the 2018-2019 season in his first meeting with eventual NCAA champion Nick Suriano. In front of his home crowd in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, DeSanto trailed nearly the entire match but caught Suriano backing up on the edge of the match in short time and earned the final second takedown to secure the win. At the time of this match, Suriano was an NCAA finalist, and he would go on to earn his revenge against DeSanto at the Big Ten tournament before winning a national title, but DeSanto still has this first win on his resume.
Watch Austin DeSanto beat Nick Suriano here in the 2019 Iowa-Rutgers dual:
Similarly, the Hawkeye also earned a win in his initial matches against NCAA champions Seth Gross and Roman Bravo-Young, both athletes who would, much like Suriano, later reverse those results, but the pace of DeSanto proved to be too much when they first met. Iowa’s Big Ten schedule has allowed DeSanto to compete against a number of national champions in his career, and he’s also beaten NCAA finalist Ethan Lizak, NCAA finalist Jack Mueller and NCAA finalist Stevan Micic, the last of which came during his true freshman season as a wrestler for Drexel University before transferring to join Spencer Lee and Co. as a Hawkeye. DeSanto has a realistic chance to win a title this year if he can beat Roman Bravo-Young again and score more points against NCAA finalist Daton Fix, an athlete he’s struggled to overcome. Fix has three wins against DeSanto, but all were decided by three points or less. With a resume as impressive as DeSanto’s, there’s certainly championship potential, but he’ll need to be able to earn these kinds of big time wins outside of the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye and instead on the main stage at the NCAA tournament.
CAEL SANDERSON: Complete results from the career of the Cyclone legend
Jaydin Eierman, Iowa, 141 pounds
Austin DeSanto isn’t the only Hawkeye with a long list of wins chasing his first title. His teammate Jaydin Eierman, who competes in a weight class just one above DeSanto, is also on a quest to take home gold in a few weeks. Much like the first two athletes on this list, Eierman started his career at a different university than he’s at now, and he put up a stellar record during his first four collegiate years wrestling at the University of Missouri before transferring to Iowa. Eierman was an immediate star for the Tigers during his redshirt freshman year back in 2017, winning the Southern Scuffle as a freshman and placing fifth at the NCAA tournament that first season. Along the way, he beat 2019 NCAA finalist Joey McKenna and eventual 2019 NCAA champion Anthony Ashnault as well, the first of many statement victories that would define Eierman’s career. As a sophomore, Eierman took his first season loss to NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith at the Reno Tournament of Champions but two weeks later he topped Yianni Diakomihalis, a Cornell freshman at the time who would go on to win two national titles. Diakomihalis has had a nearly perfect college career, and, had it not been for Eierman, he could be competing to become just the second undefeated college wrestler in history. This win, however, isn’t Eierman’s only victory against a national champion.
Watch Jaydin Eierman top Diakomihalis in the South Beach Duals:
Later that season, he also beat two-time NCAA champion Dean Heil in the Missouri-Oklahoma State dual by fall and also beat eventual NCAA champion Nick Lee 12-4 at the national tournament. Eierman would take fourth that year, with Lee taking fifth and Diakomihalis winning the bracket. He then went on to take third at NCAAs in 2019 before transferring to the University of Iowa for his last two seasons. Since becoming a Hawkeye, Eierman has racked up another win against Lee in the 2021 Big Ten finals but then dropped to the Nittany Lion in sudden victory of the NCA finals last season and again in the Penn State-Iowa dual this January. He’s set to potentially have another shot at Lee at the 2022 Big Ten tournament before turning his attention to the national championship, and regardless of what happens in those bouts, Eierman will be remembered as a college wrestler with a long list of legendary wins in his career.
Max Dean, Penn State, 197 pounds
It's rare to see a Penn State wrestler on this list because Nittany Lion wrestlers competing at this level typically find a way to win in the biggest moments — at least that's been the trend. Between a record five NCAA champions back in 2017 to the four winners from State College last year, this is a program with a reputation for putting wrestlers on the top of the podium in March. Max Dean is an interesting case though because this year marks his first full season in the Blue and White after two full years with the Cornell Big Red and an Olympic redshirt. As a true freshman, Dean finished eighth at the national tournament, topping eventual NCAA champion Drew Foster earlier in the season for his first big win and repeating that performance at nationals as well. Foster would ultimately get the better of Dean in the national finals the following year but not before Dean pulled off the biggest upset of the 2019 NCAA tournament and beat Ohio State's Myles Martin in the semifinals 5-4. He also beat eventual NCAA finalist Nino Bonaccorsi during that run, further adding depth to his resume.
Watch Max Dean beat Myles Martin in the 2019 NCAA semifinals:
🚨UPSET ALERT!! 🚨— NCAA Wrestling (@NCAAWrestling) March 23, 2019
Max Dean of @BigRedWrestling takes out four-time All American, Myles Martin of Ohio State! #NCAAWrestling pic.twitter.com/P1YJBfVSKe
Dean was off the mat in 2020 and in 2021 because of his redshirt year, and the Ivy League's cancellation of sports due to COVID, but since transferring to Penn State this fall, Dean has been almost perfect. His only loss on the year came against Michigan State's Big Ten finalist Cameron Caffey, but he'll have a chance for redemption against the Spartan this weekend. Dean is dangerous, and now up a weight at 197 pounds, he'll be looking to capture his first individual title in a wide open bracket.
Michael Kemerer, Iowa, 174 pounds
In addition to Jaydin Eierman and Austin DeSanto, Iowa's Michael Kemerer will also be chasing his first national title after coming up just short last season. Kemerer has had a long and winding career, starting his tenure with the Hawkeyes down at 157 pounds and finishing 3rd and 4th in those first two seasons. His best wins during that period came against NCAA finalists Hayden Hidlay and Tyler Berger but Kemerer was just getting started. He then took a medial redshirt year and bumped up to 174 pounds where he would record two of the most legendary wins of his career, both over Penn State NCAA champions. After returning to the mat for the 2019-2020 season, a year that would ultimately be cut short due to the coronavirus, Kemerer went on a roll, beating everyone in his path including All-Americans Michael Labriola, Kaleb Romero. Then, in a shocking upset, he made his biggest statement, beating NCAA champion Mark Hall in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Kemerer’s win against the Penn State champ on January 31, 2020 sent the Iowa faithful into a frenzy and proved to be critical in the Hawkeyes' win over the the Nittany Lions in the dual.
Watch Michael Kemerer beat Mark Hall in the 2020 Penn State-Iowa dual:
In last year's Big Ten tournament, the Iowa senior beat another eventual NCAA Champion Carter Starocci on his way to winning his first conference title and earning the No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament. Starocci would later beat Kemerer in the NCAA finals and again in the Penn State-Iowa dual this year, both in overtime, but Kemerer does have a win against the champ and has one of the best resumes among athletes who have not yet won an individual NCAA championship of their own.
Taylor Venz, Nebraska, 184 pounds
Speaking of wrestlers who have beaten Penn State stars, Nebraska's Taylor Venz is the only athlete in the NCAA to have a win over Nittany Lion NCAA champion Aaron Brooks, a victory he collected by way of a 9-5 decision in the 2020 Penn State-Nebraska dual. Brooks has since earned four wins against Venz, two of them with bonus points, but Venz will always have that first W, and it's the most impressive result on his deep record so far in his career. Prior to beating Brooks, Venz also topped NCAA champion Drew Foster three times, once by fall in 2018 and twice by decision in 2019, the same year Foster would go on to win the NCAA title. His wins over NCAA finalists Nino Bonaccorsi and Max Dean also add to his impressive accolades.
Watch Taylor Venz beat Aaron Brooks in the Penn State-Nebraska dual:
In his five years as a starter for Nebraska, Venz is 95-37 in varsity action, and he has one podium finish to his name: a fourth-place finish at the 2018 NCAA tournament. The upperweight star has also finished in the Round of 12 twice, losing to Dakota Geer in the Blood Round last year and dropping to Zack Zavatsky in 2019. No matter where Venz finishes in his final season, he's unquestionably someone with championship-caliber wins and the kind of wrestler who just might surprise some people in big-time matches.
Hayden Hidlay, N.C. State, 174 pounds
Hayden Hidlay is one of the best wrestlers in the history of N.C. State wrestling, and though he has not yet won a title, he just beat an NCAA champion and has wins over three finalists, suggesting that he's on the level he needs to be to compete with the best in his weight class. After wrestling the first four years of his career at 157 pounds and earning four All-American honors with high-level wins over Tyler Berger, Jake Wentzel and Jesse Dellevecchia during that time, Hidlay took on a new challenge in his final season and bumped up to 174 pounds. The move allows the Wolfpack veteran to train more consistently with his 184-pound brother Trent Hidlay and build his brand as one-half of the "Brothers of Destruction."
Watch Hayden Hidlay beat Mekhi Lewis in overtime:
The jump up to 174 was a big one for the middleweight, as he left behind a weight class where he had been an NCAA finalist and a consistent title contender to enter a wildly deep field that includes NCAA champion Carter Starocci, NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis and Big Ten champion Michael Kemerer. Hidlay, however, proved that he's capable of competing with this tier of competitors, as he just racked up a defining win over Lewis in the N.C. State - Virginia Tech dual at the end of February in overtime. Hidlay will have to top Lewis again in the ACC championship if he wants to win his fifth conference title, and the bracket won't be any easier at nationals. He's one of a handful of seniors who came back for the extra COVID eligibility year with the mission of going out a champion. His quest will be challenging, but with the Wolfpack competing for a team trophy and his brother motivating him along the way, Hidlay has the resources and support he needs to make his goals a reality. He'll just have to beat a few more former champs and finalists to make it happen.