Katie Blitz contributed to this story.
The David Taylor-Kyle Dake collegiate wrestling saga will likely draw to a close this weekend in the 165 pound NCAA national championship finals, in what many have dubbed the match of the century and one to save Olympic wrestling.
This match is so huge that the tournament’s finals format had to be changed. Traditionally, the finals start at the lowest weight class, 125 pounds, however, this year the action will kick off at 174 pounds and end at 165. Barring any sort of upset, Taylor and Dake are expected to be in the finals.
“I think it’s great for the sport,” said Oklahoma State senior Jordan Oliver, last year’s national runner up at 133 pounds, at Wednesdays NCAA wrestling media day. “Obviously the Dake/Taylor match is a really anticipated match and the audience and the all the viewers are going to stay tuned into watch this match.”
However, Dake and Taylor are no strangers. The two have already clashed several times, including twice this season with Dake winning both bouts by a point.
What makes this matchup so huge is not only the national title at stake but the history of these two wrestlers.
Taylor, a redshirt junior, is the returning national champion at 165 pounds. He is also last year’s Dan Hodges Trophy winner, the Heisman Trophy of college wrestling.
Taylor cruised through the tournament last year. He pinned his first four opponents en route to the finals. To put that in perspective, a typical match that goes the distance lasts seven minutes. Taylor’s four matches combined lasted just over eight minutes. His domination continued in the finals when he tech falled Lehigh’s Brandon Hatchett 22-7. His 22 points were an all-time finals high.
In his first season in Penn State’s lineup, Taylor saw tremendous success. He blitzed his way through the regular season and Big Ten tournament, picking up Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. At Nationals he continued his undefeated season. He pinned and majored his first two opponents before easily handling No.2 seed Steve Fittery and extending his win streak to 38-0.
That would be his last win of the season. In the finals he faced Bubba Jenkins from Arizona State. What made this match unique was Jenkins wrestled four seasons at Penn State. He transferred after head coach Cael Sanderson was hired. Jenkins stunned the crowd, rolling Taylor into a cradle lock and pinning the then-freshman at the 2:14 mark.
Dake is trying to become only the third Division I collegiate wrestler to win four national titles, following in the footsteps of Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith and Sanderson, who wrestled for Iowa State.
But if he wins, what will set the senior apart from the previous two is how he did it. Dake is the only wrestler to win three national titles at three different weight classes. Winning this year would make it his fourth championship and his fourth weight class. He would also be the first wrestler ever to win four titles without having a redshirt season. His first title came in 2010 at 141 pounds and since has won at 149 and 157 pounds.
“I think the most important thing for me to recognize is that I got to first get there before I can make history,” said Dake at media day. “I got to take it one match at a time really, and if I just go out and do my job then I’m good [enough]where I need to be.”
The Dake-Taylor rivalry goes farther back than the NWCA All-Star classic earlier this season. It started in 2006 back when the two were in the 98-pound weight class. Dake was seemingly no match for Taylor, defeating him in both the Greco-Roman and freestyle at Junior Nationals.
Heading into college Taylor, a four time state champion in Ohio, was the top-overall recruit in the 2009 class. A two time state champion in New York, Dake wasn’t far behind, ranking fourth-overall. Their achievements don’t end on the mat as both are Academic All-Americans.
Four years later the two would come head-to-head again, this time at the Olympic Trials. Dake bumped up from 157 pounds to compete in the 163 pound weight class, a move made because of fewer weight classes in Olympic wrestling. Also in the 163 pound class, Taylor. While freestyle Olympic wrestling is different from collegiate wrestling, Dake took the wrestling world by surprise pinning Taylor.
Following the Olympic trials, Dake’s jump in weight became permanent at the NWCA All-Star Classic in November, The two’s first bout saw them going into sudden victory overtime after being tied through three periods. Taylor was in the down position for the first sudden victory period, but could not escape. In the second period Dake was able to escape from the down position ending the match in a 2-1 Dake victory.
The two didn’t meet again until the Southern Scuffle in January, both undefeated in the collegiate season at the time. Neither scored in the first period. Dake took down in the second and escaped at the end of the period. In the third period, Taylor was down and reversed Dake for two points. Dake then reversed Taylor for two points to win 3-2. The bout didn’t go down without controversy though, as some believed the two grapplers were out of bounds when Dake’s reversal occurred.
And now, after two months of waiting, it all comes down to this weekend. The two wrestler have spent the season dominating their opponents in preparation. Dake pinning most of his opponents and Taylor technical falling most of his.
However, despite how fast paced the two have wrestler against others and how slow paced they’ve been against each other, expect an unpredictable match.
“It’s hard to really predict the match because it’s just two completely contrasting styles,” said Frank Molinaro, a former Penn State wrestler and national champion at 149 pounds last season. “Dake is a solid fundamental wrestler that doesn’t make mistakes, that doesn’t take himself out of the match ever. He always puts himself in a position to win. He doesn’t really take any risks that put him in danger. If he takes risk they’re usually for gain. Taylor is the complete opposite. He wants to score as many points as he can. He’s relentless”
With day one of the tournament in the books the potential showdown is another day closer. Dake is at a bit of a disadvantage wrestling against opponents he hasn’t seen before. However, he still finished the day 2-0 with wins over Mark Martin of Ohio State and Ryan LeBlanc of Indiana. Taylor will see some familiarity today take on No. 8 Nick Sulzer who he pinned in 1:21 at the Southern Scuffle.
Taylor finished the day with two pins. First downing UNC’s John Staudenmayer for the second time this season, this time in 2:51. He then followed it up by decking Zach Strickland of Appalachian State in 2:41. He will see No. 7 Conrad Polz later today. Taylor has already beaten the Illini wrestler twice this season.
Update: March 23, 6:08 p.m. — The much anticipated matchup has indeed become a reality as Taylor and Dake will wrestle for title in the 165 weight class tonight. Yesterday, Taylor pinned No. 7 Conrad Polz from Illinois within 24 seconds to advance to the semifinals where he defeated No. 3 Peter Yates of Virginia Tech for his 100th career victory.
Dake had similar success yesterday, easily defeating No. 8 Nick Sulzer in a 13-0 major decision in the quarterfinals before getting past No. 4 Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma State in the semifinals to set up the showdown.
The best bout has easily been saved for last as the two accomplished wrestlers with a good it of history do battle again in a few hours.