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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | February 9, 2023

How a college wrestling dual works, for new and casual fans

The most exciting college wrestlers to watch this season

This 2023 season's most-hyped, most-anticipated matchup between No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Iowa not only lived up to expectations and broke Big Ten Network viewership records, it prompted an important discussion within the wrestling community about how to grow the sport and capture new fans for similar duals. 

This is a guide for all of those fans, the ones who might have watched the dual or the ones who might be interested in a dual in the future. It's also a guide for returning fans and life-long ones. Wrestling rules are complex and change frequently, but here's the most up-to-date breakdown on what to expect when you watch a wrestling match and how to follow the action.

The start of the dual

Every collegiate wrestling dual includes 10 contested bouts at the following weight classes: 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 174, 184, 197 and 285 pounds. Before each dual, a team will weigh in every probable starter one hour before competition. So if the dual starts at 7 p.m., all wrestlers who could potentially compete in the dual will weigh in at 6 p.m.. A team may weigh in more than one wrestler at each weight, but only one wrestler will compete in each weight. 

The weigh-in process is private, but formal. Only wresters, coaches, medical staff and a weigh-in supervisor may be at the site of the weigh-in. The wrestlers' exact weights will be captured on a digital scale and recorded on a formal sheet. 

Duals typically start at 125 pounds, though, technically, the rule book simply says "Immediately after the weigh-in for a dual meet or multiple dual meets conducted on the same day, coaches may mutually agree to determine the starting weight class for the matches." Again, coaches typically agree on 125 pounds, but there's often a strategy behind a coach choosing not to start at 125 pounds. If the coaches do not agree to start at a given weight, they will flip a coin, and the winner of the coin toss can choose the starting weight. Regardless of which weight coaches choose to start at, the weight classes will then proceed in sequential order. For instance, if, for some reason, the dual starts at 165 pounds, the next bout will be 174 and so on. 

The individual matches 

Every wrestling bout includes three periods and seven minutes total. The match is broken down as follows: 

  • First period: three minutes
  • Second period: two minutes
  • Third period: two minutes

The match begins with both wrestlers coming to the center of the circle, facing each other, and shaking hands. They begin the bout in a neutral position, with both of them standing on their feet. When the ref blows the whistle, they begin to wrestle. 

After the conclusion of the first period, the ref will flip a coin, and the winner will be able to elect to start the second period in the bottom position or the top position. 

Here's an example of a wrestler choosing to start the period in the bottom position: 

Here's an example of a wrestler choosing to start the period in the top position: 

Wrestlers almost always choose bottom. If they escape the hold of their opponent and return to their feet in the neutral position, the wrestler who started on bottom earns an "escape" point. In the above clip, Ethan Lizak of Minnesota chose top because he's so dominant at holding down his opponents and turning them towards their back, a position from which he can score more offensive back points. Again, choosing top is rare, though. A wrestler typically only starts from the top position to start the second or third period when their opponent has a choice, and chooses to go down themselves, putting the opposing wrestler on top to start. 

Wrestlers can also choose to start a period from the neutral position if they don't think they can escape from their opponent or if they don't think they can turn their opponent. A wrestler may also choose to start in neutral at the second or third period if they think they need to initiate offense faster and want to do so from their feet. 

Watch Jack Mueller choose neutral in his championship bout against Spencer Lee in 2019: 


Escaping your opponent's hold is one way to score points from the bottom, and an escape is worth one total point. We've previous broken down all of the ways you can score in a college wrestling match here, but below are a few of the highlights:

A wrestler can score in a number of ways, but the most common way to score in an individual bout is via a takedown. 

A takedown in wrestling is when one "competitor gains control of the opponent by taking the opponent down to the mat in bounds and beyond reaction." This can look differently depending on the match, but a wrestler must have control of both of his or her opponent and take the opponent to the ground. 

Watch Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs demonstrate one way to score a takedown in a wrestling match: 

Burroughs is famous for his double-leg takedown, where, as you can see from the video, he shoots in on both of his opponent's legs. John Smith, another Olympic champion and the head coach of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, is more known for his low single-leg takedown, which you can watch here: 

In both of these videos, you can see the offensive wrestler attacking and scoring on his opponent by bringing him to the mat. Wrestlers can also score a takedown by re-attacking against their opponent, a move that Olympic champion Gable Steveson was particularly effective at. 

In this video, Parris goes in on an attack at 2:20, looking for one or both of Steveson's legs, but Steveson swings himself around and takes down Parris. 

Takedowns are always worth two points. 

The other offensive, more rare, move in which a wrestler can score two points is a reversal. A reversal occurs when one wrestler starts underneath an opponent and flips the opponent around so that the wrestler previously underneath is now on top. Instead of awarding a wrestler an escape point and two takedown points, the reversal earns a wrestler two points total. 

Watch Andrew Clark of Rutgers hit a reversal against Michael North:

In the second clip, North scored a takedown, but Clark scrambled his way through the takedown. He turned North's momentum into his own move and moved himself around until he was on top. He did not escape first, but instead created his own offense, hence the reversal points. 

So, we've covered takedowns, escapes and reversals. Now, on to the big moves. 

The goal in every collegiate wrestling match is to pin your opponents, meaning you put your opponent flat on his or her back with both shoulder blades down. If a pin occurs, the match is over. Even if a wrestler is losing at the time that he or she pins an opponent, the pinner is always the victor. 

Watch Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph pin Isiah Martinez at the 2017 NCAA championships: 

Joseph swung his entire body over Martinez and held him flat on the mat, ending the match before time expired. 

If a wrestler is fighting for a pin and turns their opponent past 90 degrees on their back and holds him or her there for multiple seconds, a wrestler can earn back points. 

Watch Austin Gomez earn two back points against Yianni Diakomihalis: 

Gomez threw Diakomihalis to the edge on his back and earned two back points. Had he held Diakomihalis there a little longer, he could have earned up to four back points, but Diakomihalis scrambled out before the count continued, leaving Gomez with two takedown points and two back points for a total of a five-point sequence. 

All of the scoring approaches are focused on control. So, if a wrestler does not generate action and "stalls" on the mat, he or she can be hit with a "stall" warning from the ref. A second "stall" call gives the opposing wrestler a point. Too many stall calls leads the stalling wrestlers to be disqualified. 

Refs call stalling because it stalling slows the action and prevents actual wrestling from occuring. Wrestling is its best when it's action-packed and athletes are looking to score. 

Watch this compilation of some of the best scrambles in college wrestling where both athletes are on the attack for an example of action-packed wrestling: 

If a ref doesn't think either wrestler is pursuing action, the ref will call stalemate, and the wrestlers will reset in whatever position they were in before the stalemate call. Few stalemates were called in those scrambles above because the action hardly slowed. 

Any wrestler, however, engaging in illegal moves during the course of a match will automatically generate a point for the opponent. 

The last, and perhaps most complicated, element of a wrestling match scoring is the issue of riding time. Every time a wrestler is in control, either because he or she starts from the top position or remains on top after a takedown, the clock starts ticking. The minute the opposing wrestler escapes control, the clock stops. If a wrestler can control his or her opponent for an entire minute, they earn an automatic point at the end of a match. Riding time will typically be shown on a video board or scoring stand during a match for fans to track the total riding time and determine if a wrestler is likely to earn that point or prevent an opponent from earning that point. 

See a full breakdown of the individual match scoring below: 

Escape 1
Illegal Hold 1
Takedown 2
Back points 2-4
Reversal 2
Stalling 1-DQ

If an individual match is tied after regulation, the wrestlers will go to a two-minute sudden victory where the first takedown wins. If neither wrestler scores, they will then move to 30-second rideouts where they will attempt to escape from their opponent or score against their opponent in 30 seconds. If both wrestlers, or neither wrestler, escapes or scores, the match will then move to a second round of a two-minute sudden victory. If it's still tied after the second sudden-victory, the match will move to a second round of 30-second rideouts. The wrestler with the greatest amount of riding time after the second rideout wins. You can read more about the overtime rules in college wrestling here

Team points

At the end of a match, the team of the victorious wrestler will earn a set number of team points based on the score of the match. See the table below for a team scoring breakdown

Pin Win by Fall 6
Forfeit Forfeit 6
Technical Fall Win by 15+ 5
Major Decision Win by 8+ 4
Decision Win by less than 8 3

Any win beyond a decision is informally considered a "win by bonus points" because the winning wrestler earned more than the standard three points for a win. If each team splits the 10 matches, with one team winning five individual matches and the other team winning the remaining five matches without bonus points, the team score would be tied 15-15. 

The tie-breaker for a dual is a little complicated, but here's how it works: 

  • The first tie-breaker is pins. If the teams are tied after the 10 bouts, but one wrestler earned a pin during a match, the team with the pin wins. 
  • If both teams earned an equal amount of team points and an equal amount of pins, then whichever team scored more individual match points across the 10 bouts wins
  • If both teams earned an equal amount of team points, an equal amount of pins and an equal amount of total match points, whichever team has more total near fall points wins
  • If both teams earned an equal amount of team points, an equal amount of pins and an equal amount of total match points, and an equal number of near fall points, the team with the total number of takedowns wins

At this point, if the teams are still tied, the team with fewer unsportsmanlike conduct calls, wins. The last criteria is the team with the first takedown. 

College wrestling includes a dual season where teams compete with 10 starters, one at each of the weights, for both in-conference and out of conference competition. The season culminates in an NCAA tournament, which you can read more about here


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