First and foremost I'm a writer. I'm a writer that happens to be a collegiate wrestling fan. As a writer, matches that have a great deal of excitement, drama and sometimes even a bit of controversy are the types that attract me the most. I cannot deny loyalty to certain wrestlers and I cannot hide the bias I have year in and year out for the teams that make their home in Iowa. However, my loyalty is first and foremost to the story. What is the story that the match? What events transpired? How exciting was the match? How dramatic was it? The more, the better.
10. Matt Delguyd Northwestern Vs J.D. Bergman Ohio State 2005 BIG 10 Championships finals, Iowa City, Iowa - Bergman was the top seed, and a returning All American from the year before. Known for his Greco-Roman style, capable of throwing you at any moment, he was the heavy favorite going into the finals. Delguyd, who had snuck his way into the finals with an upset over Nathan Moore of Purdue, was the underdog. Delguyd was one of those wrestlers that was more than capable of such high accomplishments, as he proved himself throughout the season with many notable victories. However, when the post season rolled around, he often found himself not performing as well as he should have. It was a low scoring match, with neither wrestler able to garner much offense. Berman tried to tie Delguyd up a few times into some of his throws, but Delguyd wrestled a smart match and in the end came out on top 3-1 sudden victory. I mark it down as one of my favorite matches, because it marked one of the few times Delguyd wrestled on the mat, as good as he was in theory.
9. Ryan Lewis Minnesota Vs Cliff Moore Iowa 2003 NCAA Wrestling Championships semi-finals, St. Louis, Missouri -Lewis is the ultimate rival of my all time favorite wrestler Johnny Thompson of Oklahoma State and Cliff Moore wrestled for my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Why in the world would I list this match as one of my favorites? Because of it's intensity! The one thing I love about Iowa wrestling fans is their loyalty and enthusiasm for their wrestling team. The one thing I dislike, is how blatantly arrogant they can sometimes be. Moore had defeated Lewis twice during the season, once by a score of 12-8 in the dual meet and again for the BIG 10 title 3-1 sudden victory. Hawkeye fans put this one in the bag and looked forward to seeing Moore in the finals against Thompson. The Golden Gopher fans new better than to count their man out. Talk about walking into a match, showing your opponent absolutely no respect and having your way with him, that's exactly what Lewis did. He manhandled Moore 13-3. It was not at all what I had expected. It was not at all what the Hawkeye fans expected. I don't think it was even what the Golden Gopher fans expected. Lewis went on to place second for the second year in a row and Moore ended up taking sixth. The match was a good motivator for Moore, because he bumped up a weight class the following season and dominated his way to an NCAA title.
8. Eric Grajales Michigan Vs Chris Villalonga Cornell 2014 NCAA Wrestling Championships R12, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. No match in collegiate wrestling has more importance on it than the "win or die" match that we wrestling fans refer to as "The Round of 12". If you win this wrestling match, you're an All American. You are forever cemented into history as one of the best wrestlers in your weight class. Lose, and you're not. A few diehard wrestling fans will remember that you were one match away, but in the realms of being remembered, you might as well not even have qualified. That is how important the match is.
One of my favorite wrestlers over the past couple of years has been Michigan's Eric Grajales. The Florida native, had an up and down career in his first three seasons as a Wolverine, and had but one shot left to finally make it happen. As much as I love wrestling fans, one thing that bugs me tremendously about many of my fellow comrades is how bitterly pessimistic they can be towards wrestlers, long before their careers are over. Grajales lost in the R12 match as a freshman and as a sophomore and didn't even make it that far as a junior. Many fans had given up any hope that he'd do anything in his final year. He hadn't done anything yet, why would he now?
Grajales was given a hard time because he often wore out during his matches. I didn't see a wrestler that was out of shape however. I saw a wrestler that went after his opponents and went 100% the entire match. What made Grajales one of my favorites is that he was absolutely relentless. He was trying to score on you the entire duration of the match.
When he defeated Villalonga in the R12 and became an All American, I had a gut feeling that he was going to come back and take third. I just knew that now that he had finally gotten over the hump and shut up all of the naysayers that he was going to let loose and capture the bronze medal. His next three matches that's exactly what he did. He defeated 2013 NCAA champion Kendric Maple, and then pinned Mitch Monotti and finished off his career with a victory over David Habat.
As for Villalona, look for him to be an NCAA All American himself this season.
7. Evan Sola North Carolina Vs Mark Jayne Illinois 2005 NCAA Wrestling Championships - Consolation Quarterfinals - St. Louis, Missouri. Sola was one of my Dad's favorite wrestlers, and notably one of mine as well. What we liked about him, was his unpredictability and just how brutally tough he was in the top position. I remember before the match was to take place Dad asking me if I thought that Sola could beat Jayne. I answered that as far as I knew the two had only met once and that ended with Jayne squeaking by with a 3-2 victory. On paper, this one belonged to Jayne, but I had seen Sola upend higher seeded/ranked wrestlers before and was excited to see how this match was going to go.
In wrestling, like in any competition, one of the cardinal mistakes that is often made is to overlook and underestimate your opponent. I think that's exactly what happened with Jayne. I don't think he took Sola seriously enough and as a result he ended up paying the piper.
The match started off with the two scrambling, and Sola coming out on top for 2 points. Sola then got a deep bar arm with his left arm and tried to run it off to the side as Jayne fought it off. Jayne made it to his base and it seemed as if Sola had lost all of his leverage with his bar arm. He hadn't. With Jayne still on his base, Sola ran right over the top of him full force, flipping Jayne up and over onto his back. You could hear Jayne scream up in the nosebleeds. The referee slapped the mat and that was the end of the match.
It wasn't the first time I had ever seen Sola use the move either. He couldn't always get arm bars on his opponents, but I knew whenever he did, it meant trouble for whoever he was wrestling. I used the move once myself my senior year of high school to pin an opponent I'll admit was better than me on paper.
6. Cael Sanderson Iowa State Vs Cliff Thompson Upper Iowa, Dan Gable Wrestling Classic, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both Sanderson and Thompson were done with their collegiate careers. Sanderson ended his career the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time with a 159-0 career record and four NCAA titles. At the time, and to this day he is the most recognizable name in collegiate wrestling. You could sit in the middle of a crowd during the NBA finals and the basketball crazed crowd would know the name Cael Sanderson. He is to wrestling what Michael Jordan is to basketball and what Babe Ruth is to baseball.
Thompson was in his own right a very good wrestler. Upper Iowa during his time their was a Division III school and he had finishes of sixth, fourth and second. Yet, compared to the God-like Sanderson, Cliff Thompson was a nobody.
The final score was 23-7. Yes, Sanderson did whip Thompson like he did most of the opponents that he faced during his illustrious career. Yet, I tell you, he had to earn every single one of those 23 points. Thompson showed absolutely no fear and despite being severely outclassed, I have to say that I respected him for it. He shot in on Sanderson and went after him. He was the aggressor during the match and he gave Sanderson nothing. Sanderson had to fight and fight hard to score.
I've always thought of the match like a lowly squire up against hired knights, standing no chance of winning at all, but standing tall and standing firm regardless. You can take his land and take his freedom but he will not give it to you.
5. Nick Fanthrope Iowa State Vs Joe Baker Navy, 2007 NCAA Wrestling championships - 7th place match - Auburn Hills, Michigan. Wrestlers are often compared to warriors and gladiators and for good reasons. Blood, sweat and tears is often what this sport is all about. With so many of the finals matches often being one or two point snooze fest back in the day, when two guys decide to hit heads and go at it, as a wrestling fan you appreciate that. Black eyes, bloody heads both wrapped in bandages, Fanthrope and Baker looked more like they were in a street fight than they did a collegiate wrestling match.
Baker and Fanthrope wrestled a very similar style. Neither had very flashy or fancy technique. You weren't going to see a whole lot of finesse out of either one. Both were just hard nosed, to the grind, take it to you on the mat wrestlers. Considering that both also heavily relied upon conditioning as their number one weapon, it made for a long and exciting match.
After doing battle throughout numerous overtimes, Fanthrope prevailed the victor and went on to win the match.
4. Nick Ackerman Simpson College Vs Nick Slack Augsburg, 2001 DIII NCAA wrestling championships - finals - Dubuque, Iowa. I can't imagine what it's like wrestling in an arena where everyone wants to see you lose. Not because you're a bad guy and nobody likes you, but because everyone in that area outside of your coach, your teammates and the few people in the crowd that root for your school, love the guy you are wrestling and they want to see him win. That was the exact situation for Augsburg's Nick Slack when he took on Nick Ackerman.
Ackerman was the face of heart and courage, and the exact type of story that makes wrestling such a unique and phenomenal sport. As a baby, he had contracted a rare disease and ended up having to have both legs amputated at the knee. Rather than let this setback get the best of him, he instead turned his energy positive and went out for wrestling. After taking his bumps and paying his dues, he found himself in the NCAA finals.
You could hear a pin drop when the match started and you couldn't hear a damn thing when Ackerman put the first two points on the board. The crowd when nuts. Every time Slack scored, you heard an "ooh" much like you would from a crowd watching a small child wreck his/her bike when first learning how to ride. Every time Ackerman scored, they'd erupt again.
At the end of the match Ackerman won 13-11 and became the first amputee in the history of collegiate sports to win an NCAA title. He did so much more than win the title for himself and for his school that day. He won the sport of wrestling the dignity that an amputee, an individual with a physical disability can not only participate but also achieve at the highest level.
Slack, who added to the glorious moment by showing a great deal of composure for having just lost, went on to again make the finals the next year and end his career as a three time NCAA DIII finalist.
3 - Shane Roller Oklahoma State vs Matt Gentry Stanford - 2003 NCAA Championships - R12 - Kansas City, Missouri. Both Roller and Gentry are two of my favorite guys that I've ever watched on the mat. Roller because of how he could score on you from any position and suddenly have you on your back without warning and Gentry because of how merciless he was on the mat. I knew that this match would be good and have to say that I was rooting for Roller simply because he was a senior and Gentry a sophomore, had two more years to make it happen.
Gentry took it to Roller in the first period, controlling the match and stopping Roller's every move in route to a 4-1 lead. In the second period, Gentry scored again, taking a 6-1 lead. It seemed for a second that all of the fire and hope that had been within Roller had died. I had seen this happen before. Wrestlers who had done so well in previous years (Roller had placed third as a sophomore and fourth as a junior) losing all of their steam as seniors after realizing that they were never going to be NCAA champions. It looked to be the fate of Roller.
I turned my head for a second and suddenly heard a roar of cheers from the Oklahoma State section of fans. I hadn't seen what move he had used, but Roller had Gentry on his back. The referee slapped the mat and Roller secured himself as a three time All American.
His next three matches would serve to be just as dramatic. Down against Lehigh's Derek Zinck, Roller scored and scored and scored to win a 9-8 decision. He then defeated Ohio State's Keaton Anderson and in the third place match he would face the returning NCAA champion Luke Becker of Minnesota.
The two had met several times during their careers with Becker leading the series four matches to two. I was expecting a barnburner of a match but as soon as the whistle blew Roller took hold of Becker and had him flat on his back. Only 34 seconds into the first period, Roller raised his arms in victory and took third place.
Roller was a very fun wrestler to watch.
2 - Johnny Thompson Oklahoma State Vs Mark Jayne Illinois - 2004 NCAA Wrestling Championships - Consolation Quarter Finals - St. Louis, Missouri. Finishing thus far in his career second as a freshman and then winning the NCAA title as a sophomore and a junior, Thompson was not having the type of season that he had hoped to have had as a senior. He had seven losses going into the NCAA's and enough flack for it from fans that if flack were measured in inches, you could have stretched it from Saskatoon to Bogota. People like to see you lose and people like to be jerks about it when they can.
It severely bothered people that I, a kid from Iowa, was a huge fan of a wrestler from Oklahoma State and sometimes people would get downright obnoxious about giving me a hard time. When Thompson lost in the quarterfinals, there was a jerk that sat in the seat up above me that hooted and hollered like a jackal.
To say the least, he booed heavily when Thompson won his match to medal against Boise State's Scott Jorgenson.
When Thompson was wrestling Jayne, Jayne took the lead and looked to have the match all but won with a little less than a minute to go in the third period. The jerk behind me was making sure that I could hear him loud and clear in my ear as he yelled for Jayne to take Thompson down again.
Thompson snapped Jayne down into a front headlock and nailed the snake, putting him flat on his back and securing the fall with about thirty seconds left to go. I'm a man of class and composure but there are times when you just can't let an opportunity to shove it in someone's face go. I jumped up and pumped my fist, turned around and WHOOOED right in that jerk's face.
Needless to say I did it again when Thompson came from behind to beat Cornell's Travis Lee.
For the record real quick, I have nothing against Mark Jayne and I actually was hoping to see him win a NCAA title as a senior in 2005. He just happened to be wrestling my favorite wrestler that day.
1. John Clark Ohio State Vs Levi Prevost Wyoming - 2004 NCAA Wrestling Championships -
This match had absolutely everything that you would want as a fan or as a writer. I wish that all matches could be as exciting as this one was, because if they were, you'd never hear the words, "boring" to describe a wrestling match ever again. Wrestling can be an awfully funny sport because just because you can beat wrestlers than can beat another wrestler, doesn't necessarily mean that you'll beat that wrestler. That's the way it was for Ohio State's John Clark whenever he faced Wyoming's Levi Prevost. Clark could beat a numerous amount of wrestlers that had beaten Prevost, but he always had trouble with Prevost. The two had met twice before, once during their sophomore season and once during their junior season. The score ended 6-4, in favor of Prevost each time.
History often repeats itself and it looked as if it were going to do the same thing as Prevost took a 6-4 lead going into the third period. As the period started, Prevost played it smart and wrestled extremely conservatively. Unfortunately for him, the referee gave him a stalling warning and it was his second warning. If he got hit again, it would be a point thus cutting his lead to 6-5. If he gotten ridden out, that would be a riding time point as well. He could continue to take his chances and wrestle conservatively, risking giving up a stalling point and a riding time point, ending the match at 6-6 and causing overtime.
Clark on the other hand knew that if he was going to win this match, he was going to have to somehow put Prevost on his back. Relying on a stalling point that the referee may or may not award him and then riding him out for a riding time point to put the match into overtime, seemed to big of a risk to take.
Yet, what was he going to do? The time on the clock was wearing thin and if he was going to be an All American, he had to think of something fast.
Prevost tried a stand up and Clark took him out of bounds as the clock stopped. There was less than twenty seconds left in the match. Clark's coaches Russ Hellickson and older brother Mitch Clark yelled from the sidelines. I saw John and Mitch make eye contact and I knew that he was going to try something. Exactly what he was going to try and whether it would work or not, I had no idea. All I knew was that he had a move in his head and he was going to try it.
As the whistle blew, Prevost went for a stand up again and Clark jumped sides, throwing all of his strength into a side cradle and then rearing back with every ounce of energy he had left in his body taking Prevost back to the mat. With mere seconds left on the clock the referee began to count off the back points as the buzzer sounded and the match ended.
Did Clark hold Prevost down long enough to get points? Or was there not enough time left on the clock and he did not score?
I watched as Clark, Prevost, Prevost's coaches and Clark's coaches all watched in anticipation. The referee then signaled for two back points. With the riding time point Clark won the match 7-6. He jumped up into the air and ran into his brother Mitch's arms as he, Mitch and Coach Hellickson celebrated in victory.
Prevost walked off the mat in disappointment, a feeling that nearly all of us have had to endure during our time as wrestlers. It's the funny thing about life. Victory rarely happens without defeat. Someone wins and someone else has to lose. Triumph and satisfaction of ultimate proportions Vs heartache as equally significant.
Those my friends, are my favorite collegiate matches.