The NCAA and ESPN are going all-in on a potential showdown between Penn State’s David Taylor and Cornell’s Kyle Dake in the 165-pound finals at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships this weekend.
In what appears on paper to be a low-risk, high-reward move, the payoff could be huge for all parties involved.
The NCAA announced on Wednesday that the finals format will have a new look this year. In a press release posted on its website, the NCAA said that after its Division I Wrestling Committee discussed the change with ESPN, it was agreed the final session of the tournament will begin with the 174-pound weight class. The finals will then progress through the heavyweights and work their way back up at 125 pounds.
That means the final match of the weekend will be the 165-pound championship match, and most likely a showdown between two of college wrestling’s best, in perhaps the most anticipated seven minutes of NCAA wrestling history.
Dake, who holds a 132-4 career record, will be vying for his fourth national championship, all of which would come in different weight classes. He is the only NCAA wrestler to do that in three weight classes.
On the other hand, Taylor, a redshirt junior with a 96-2 career record, is attempting to defend his 165-pound title. In doing so, he will most likely need to overcome Dake, an obstacle he has not been able to clear yet.
Every season, 10 wrestlers receive first-place medals when the national tournament comes to a close. If some are lucky, they might collect more than one title during their collegiate career.
No wrestler, though, can say they accomplished what Dake has through his first three seasons.
Despite competing at 165 pounds now, the Big Red senior began his stay at Cornell in the 141-pound weight class. He did not stay at that weight for long, though.
After winning his weight’s national championship at the end of the 2009-10 campaign, he bumped up to 149 pounds. There, he saw the same end result — another national championship, after defeating Penn State’s Frank Molinaro 8-1 in the finals.
The wins kept coming, and Dake made history last season.
After moving up yet again, to the 157-pound class, Dake became the first wrestler in NCAA history to win a championship at three different weight classes. In the final, he cemented a perfect season and picked up his 100th career win, defeating Iowa’s Derek St. John.
Although it may seem in hindsight a mapped out strategy to make NCAA history, Cornell coach Rob Koll said Dake, who was unavailable for comment, did not plan to make history the way he did from the beginning.
Rather, Koll said the moves up the weights were a product of Dake simply growing.
“That’s called DNA; that’s called growth,” Koll said with a laugh. “That’s not something you plan on, that’s something that just happens.”
The next step, of course, was to bump up to 165 pounds. However, Dake made the decision knowing he would most likely run into Taylor, who won 2012’s 165-pound championship after his own perfect season and received the Dan Hodge Trophy, wrestling’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
Koll noted that Dake has an extra edge to his attitude, which allowed him to take the challenge of 165 pounds head-on.
“Certainly, it would have been an easier route to go, to stay at 157,” Koll said. “But for better or worse, great wrestlers think they’re unbeatable.”
Perfect in title previews
Wrestling fans did not need to wait until the 2013 NCAA Championships to watch the two defending champs square off.
In fact, they’ve seen the two wrestle each other on three separate occasions.
Last April, they eventually were pitted against each other in the Freestyle consolation bracket at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Even though the hype was there, the result turned out to be anticlimactic when Dake pinned Taylor.
The next match was much closer, though. At the NWCA All-Star Classic in November, three periods were not enough to declare a winner; Taylor took Dake into tie-breakers before losing, 2-1.
While the first two matches did not actually count, the most recent match between Dake and Taylor did. Just like in the All-Star Classic, they did not disappoint fans attending the 165-pound final of the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 2.
However, Taylor was still unable to earn a victory. After two calls that sparked some controversy, Dake survived a comeback attempt by Taylor in the match’s final seconds, pulling off a 3-2 win.
Despite the controversy, though, Taylor did not make any excuses for his loss at the Scuffle at the Nittany Lions’ practice on Monday.
“The score was 3-2,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
Taylor also said that he is not looking forward all the way to another rematch, instead taking the tournament one round at a time.
“You can’t look too much forward to something,” Taylor said.
“I just got to keep it simple, and that’s when I wrestle best.”
Setting the stage
With the last two meetings between the juggernauts coming down to the wire, the NCAA decided to take advantage of the opportunity at hand.
Dake’s 2012-13 record is flawless so far, and he will attempt to extend his historic record to a title at four different weights. No. 2-seed Taylor is by far Dake’s largest obstacle in doing so and is favored to meet him in the finals. Another rematch would be of epic proportions, which contributed to the new order of title matches.
The NCAA said in its release that the change in the title format is one its committee and ESPN determined will “enhance the presentation of the championships and be positive for the sport of wrestling overall.”
The possibility of Dake extending his record also presented a good opportunity to begin moving the title format around.
“The committee viewed this as an opportune time to alter the format and capitalize on the potential positive buzz around the championship, but they do not plan on this being a one-year decision,” the NCAA said in the release. “The intent is for this to be something that would be looked at each year moving forward in an effort to create the best event possible.”
IntermatWrestle.com senior writer T.R. Foley said that along with the title change, ESPN’s full coverage of the Championships will pay off because the wrestling fan base is “exploding.” He said that this weekend will let the sport see if it can gain even more traction.
“Now we’re going to see if the content can draw in the random fan,” Foley said. “Can we get somebody to watch and then say, ‘I’ll totally watch this again next year, that was really exciting’? This is, in a lot of ways, this is our coming-out party. This is our debut.”
Dake chasing history with Taylor as such a formidable opponent makes the potential impact of wrestling’s “debut” even more powerful, Foley said.
“Just like you need rules that people can understand, you need events that people can understand the gravity of,” he said. “People understand, ‘OK, this guy is going for his fourth title in four years.’”
Although saving the 165-pound title for last may sound attractive to television executives and fans alike, not everyone was initially on board with the decision.
“My initial thought was, ‘Man, that’s kind of insulting to everyone else in the tournament,’ ” Koll said. “And I don’t mean that as far as the other weight classes, I mean just 165. It’s almost like you say, ‘Well, they’re going to be in the finals.’ ”
Koll said he also thought that the decision to make the 165-pound the tournament’s finale could have been held off until after the semifinals.
However, Koll said that now that the decision is made, he thought it was great. Similar to boxing or MMA bouts’ main events, Koll said building up to a climax like this will keep people in their seats.
Time will only tell the impact of the final round of Taylor vs. Dake, should the predicted matchup take place.
In the larger scope, it may have some affect on wrestling’s standing in its push to get back into the Olympic Games.
“I think, as the American media reports things, the whole world kind of notices,” Foley said.
However, Koll is not so sure of the international impact that the event will have, even if the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” is broadcasting it.
Koll pointed out that wrestling has been on television before, so the national exposure won’t change much this time around.
“Certainly, I haven’t seen the world championships of ping pong or tae kwon do anytime in my lifetime…the vast majority of Olympic sports, you’ll never see on TV,” he said.
Another thing that will only be decided by time is each wrestler’s legacy.
Should Taylor win, Foley said most in the wrestling community would not consider Taylor better than Dake. However, if Dake goes 4-for-4, he will probably spark conversation about whether he is the greatest NCAA wrestler of all-time.
Of course, the other man involved in that conversation is legendary Penn State coach Cael Sanderson. The only undefeated NCAA wrestler in history, Sanderson finished his career at Iowa State with a 159-0 mark and four national titles.
Although it is not easy to argue against perfection, the discussion would be warranted if Dake wins.
“Being undefeated is a whole different mentality. The ability to not lose is incredible,” Foley said. “That’s very hard to compare with him. But I think at the same time, Dake’s choosing to wrestle [Taylor]…that’s a dude who came to compete.”
Koll also said he thinks Dake deserves to be compared to Sanderson with a fourth title.
“If you’re a Kyle Dake fan, you’re going to say he’s better, if you’re a Cael fan, you’re going to say Cael’s better,” Koll said.
“A lot of it is who you have in your weight,” he said. “If Cael had Kyle Dake in his weight class as a freshman, would he have been undefeated for four years? I think not…I think, absolutely, it’s fair to say that he would be deserving of being ranked with anyone — or better, if you’re a fan of his, which I am.”
At the same time, though, such a win still leaves some puzzled about who should be ranked where.
“I honestly don’t know how to compare that,” Penn State junior Ed Ruth, who is seeded No.1 at 184 pounds, said. “[Dake]’s had a great career, and, I don’t know. I really wouldn’t know what to say about that.”