The match with the most hype in this calendar year may have already taken place.
On Jan. 2, Penn State’s David Taylor faced off against Cornell’s Kyle Dake for the second time. It was a rematch between two of the NCAA’s best wrestlers — last year, Taylor won the 165-pound championship, while Dake won the title in the 157-pound class.
However, this bout was the first between the two defending national champions that actually counted — when Dake defeated Taylor 2-1 in their first meeting, it was in an exhibition at the NWCA All-Star Classic, on Nov. 3. This time, they wrestled in the 165-pound championship round at the Southern Scuffle, held at Mckenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Although the rematch did not go beyond regulation, like the All-Star Classic bout, which required two overtimes, it still left some in the wrestling community wondering which of the two is better, and hoping for another rematch, this one in the NCAA Finals.
After a scoreless first period, an escape by Dake in the second frame put him ahead 1-0 when the final period began. A reversal from Taylor during the third period put him in position to win, but two calls that sparked controversy ultimately gave Dake the win.
With time winding down, Dake scored a reversal near the edge of the mat and took back the lead. At first, though, many thought the move came out of bounds.
“Perhaps the most controversial call in recent years…,” Penn State wrestling’s Sports Information Director, Patrick Donghia, said in a tweet.
However, T.R. Foley, a senior writer for IntermatWrestle.com, saw the match and said he thinks the referees made a good call. Foley said that the rules for a reversal have recently changed, making the mat “much bigger than it used to be.” Those that initially thought Dake did not earn the two points, Foley said, might have misunderstood what constitutes the call.
“If that had happened in the middle of the mat, you would’ve had a clear decision on what would’ve happened,” he said.
“From a live vantage point, I certainly thought Dake didn’t do enough to get a reversal. But then I re-watched it, and I kind of thought the referee made the right decision.”
With seconds remaining in regulation, Foley said it was arguable that Taylor could have scored an escape, which would have tied the score at 3-3. Depending on the riding time given to Taylor after the point, he may have even been able to avoid overtime and win with an extra point from riding time.
However, it was determined that Taylor did not escape Dake’s control, and Dake took the Scuffle title.
Despite the outcome, coach Cael Sanderson said at practice on Tuesday that he thought the match was great.
“They’re both great in all three positions,” Sanderson said. “And even though it was a low-scoring match, there was a lot of action and everyone was on the edge of their seat.”
In the short-term, Dake’s win does not change too many things.
Dake and Taylor retained their Intermat rankings of No. 1 and 2 at their weight, respectively, when the new rankings were published on Jan. 8. Foley said that Taylor did not move down the board at all because the wrestler in third place, Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma State, lost to Taylor in the Scuffle semifinals by a major decision.
“It’s not like in other sports, like in football, where if you lose a couple matches you would drop,” Foley said.
When asked if the loss has given Taylor a new resolve, though, Sanderson said he has seen a bit of a change.
“I’ve definitely seen a focus,” Sanderson said. “He’s always been in here working hard and picking the best partner he can find. That’s just who he is; he wants to be the best. But there’s a little more urgency, no question about it.”
In the long-term, though, the close call at the Southern Scuffle builds the hype for another potential rematch between the two national champions when it matters the most — in the NCAA Finals.
While Dake and Taylor would have to survive several rounds before meeting again for a national championship, Foley has no doubt that scenario will become a reality.
“I would mortgage my home on it,” Foley said. “I guess it sounds like I’m being preposterous or exaggerating somewhat, but I literally could not be more certain of anything.”
If they do meet one final time for a championship, the match will have the potential to be the biggest showdown in wrestling history.
While Taylor, the reigning Dan Hodge Trophy recipient, would try to assert his dominance over Dake, the Big Red senior would attempt to be the first wrestler in NCAA history to win a national championship in four different weight classes.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a single match in the history of NCAA wrestling that’ll be as anticipated,” he said. “The fact that we’re talking about it now proves that.”
Even if a third edition of Taylor vs. Dake does not occur, Sanderson said that the postseason will be an interesting one for Taylor.
“He’s got an exciting opportunity this year. The matchup is epic,” Sanderson said. “But there’s also a lot of other wrestlers in the weight class that you got to be prepared for, so he’s got a lot to look forward to; I know he’s excited.”
Taylor showed his excitement in a tweet he sent out not long after losing to Dake at the Scuffle.
“When a match is close, anything can happen. Learned the hard way tonight,” he said in a tweet. “Thanks for all of the support. Is it [March] yet?”