In 2018, we could see national champions square off at 125 pounds, if Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) drops back down and meets Darian Cruz (Lehigh), and 165 pounds, in a rematch between this year’s finalists Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) and Isaiah Martinez (Illinois). While a lot can happen between now and March, those showdowns could wind up being the NCAA finals which made us ask the question, how many times have two prior NCAA champions battled in the Division I championship match? It turns out the answer is that it has only happened 16 times in college wrestling history! Here are each of those instances from most recent all the way back to the first time it occurred in 1949!
Editor’s Note: A technical glitch resulted in several instances of champion versus champion being omitted from the original article. This article has been updated with each instance and will further be updated with details as time permits. TOM regrets the error.
Chris Perry (Oklahoma State) vs. Andrew Howe (Oklahoma), 174 pounds, 2014
Even after topping Matt Brown (Penn State) to win his first national title in 2013, many saw Perry as the underdog after Howe, the 2010 NCAA champion at 165 pounds who had also finished second and third at Wisconsin, debuted in the Sooner lineup. Howe beat Perry in the Bedlam dual, but the Cowboy reversed that outcome to win the Big 12 title. In the NCAA finals, Perry scored the only takedown of the match in the second period and used a punishing ride to blank Howe, 4-0, for his second crown.
Kyle Dake (Cornell) vs. David Taylor (Penn State), 165 pounds, 2013
In the match that inspired the NCAA to change the finals format to start at a predetermined weight rather than always at 125, Dake and Taylor closed out the 2013 season in an unforgettable battle. Dake’s quest for his fourth national title at a fourth different weight class put him squarely in the path of the defending 165-pound champion, Taylor, who made his third consecutive trip to the finals. Dake had won close bouts at both the All-Star meet and the Southern Scuffle, but when Taylor opened the scoring with an early takedown, it looked like the Nittany Lion might finally get past the Big Red senior. However, Dake got a takedown of his own and won on a riding time point, 5-4, to make history.
Dustin Kilgore (Kent State) vs. Quentin Wright (Penn State), 197 pounds, 2013
This was a battle of 2011 national champions, Wright at 184, Kilgore at 197, who were both undefeated in 2012-13. Penn State needed only a victory from Wright to wrap up their third straight team national title, but after a Kilgore escape to start the third period, the score stood tied at four. It wouldn’t stay that way long as Wright, a three-time finalist and four-time All-American, punctuated his outstanding career by taking down Kilgore twice to win the title, 8-6.
Jake Herbert (Northwestern) vs. Mike Pucillo (Ohio State), 184 pounds, 2009
Herbert dealt Pucillo his first college loss on the way to an NCAA title in 2007. When he took an Olympic redshirt in 2008, it was Pucillo who stood on the top step of the podium. After Herbert won their first meeting in 2009 in a dual, Pucillo was knocked off by Phil Keddy (Iowa) at the Big 10 tournament, preventing another scrap in the finals there. However, the Buckeye worked his way through the bracket in St. Louis to get one more shot at the Northwestern senior. It ended the same way, though, with Herbert controlling a 6-3 match and walking away with the 2009 Hodge Trophy.
Tim Hartung (Minnesota) vs. Lee Fullhart (Iowa), 197 pounds, 1999
Hartung suffered 18 of his 21 career losses during his freshman season, then made a huge leap to finish third as a sophomore, behind Fullhart who was the champion. In 1998, Hartung knocked off the Hawkeye in the Big 10 finals before topping him again, 8-7, in the national semi-finals. The Golden Gopher would go on to win his first national title over top-seed Jason Robison (Edinboro). The rivalry continued going Hartung’s way in 1999 and the last two champions in this weight class met in the national finals with Minnesota needing wins from Hartung and Brock Lesnar at 285 to catch Iowa in the team race. Fullhart could have clinched the title for Iowa, but he was again bested by the Minnesota man, 2-1, when Hartung scored a late takedown and rode him out for the victory. Lesnar would fall to Steven Neal (Cal State-Bakersfield) as Minnesota’s title bid came up just short.
Lincoln McIlravy (Iowa) vs. Chris Bono (Iowa State), 150 pounds, 1997
McIlravy had been nearly untouchable through his first three years at Iowa until he was upset going for his third national title by Steve Marianetti (Illinois), 13-10, in 1995. Bono was fifth in that bracket, losing to Marianetti in the quarters. With McIlravy redshirting in 1996, a much improved Bono won the title, setting up their showdown in 1997. The Cyclone senior slowed McIlravy down and tied the match at three with 18 seconds remaining in the third period. However, McIlravy would not be denied, getting a takedown of his own in overtime as Iowa crowned five individual champions for the second time and set the still standing scoring record of 170 points.
Markus Mollica (Arizona State) vs. Mark Branch (Oklahoma State), 167 pounds, 1995
In 1995, Branch was coming off of his famous freshman title run after entering the national tournament with an 8-9 record. Mollica had won a title as a freshman in 1993, before finishing fifth at 158 in 1994. After moving up to 167, he earned the top seed and met Branch, the two seed, in the finals. In the battle of one-time champions, it would be Mollica picking up his second, 5-3. The Sun Devil would finish fourth the next year as Daryl Weber (Iowa) upset both he and Branch to win at 167. Branch would bookend his career with championships by winning again in 1997.
Randy Lewis (Iowa) over Darryl Burley (Lehigh), 134 pounds, 1980
A pair of 1979 national champions squared off in the 1980 finals after Lewis moved up to face the defending champion, Burley, after a perfect season at 126. Burley had climbed the podium as a freshman and was trying to make it two titles in two years for Lehigh. Lewis was a junior who made the Olympic team that year before the US decided to boycott the Games. Burley was excellent, but Lewis was a cut above, winning 11-3 to become a two-time champion. Both wrestlers would wind up with two titles after Lewis was injured and finished seventh in 1981, while Burley made four trips to the finals, but didn’t win again until his flawless season as a senior in 1983.
Jimmy Jackson (Oklahoma State) vs. Larry Bielenberg (Oregon State), UNL, 1977
When Bielenberg won his title in 1975, Jackson was just a freshman who wasn’t yet what he would become. The Oregon State heavyweight just beat the coming storm as Jackson thumped him, 9-2, in the 1976 semi-finals on his way to the first of three straight titles to end his career. Their 1977 clash was much closer, going all the way to a referee’s decision after the two titans remained deadlocked on the scoreboard. The deciding factor? Four seconds of riding time for Jackson.
Mike Frick (Lehigh) vs. Pat Milkovich (Michigan State), 134 pounds, 1976
Milkovich lost just three times over his first two seasons as a Spartan, winning a pair of national titles at 126 sandwiched around a redshirt year. However, he was upset in the 1975 national finals by John Fritz (Penn State) and moved up to 134 for his senior season. Frick was the defending champion at that weight and entered the NCAA tournament without a loss, though he did have two ties on the year. He would remain unbeaten, claiming his second national title by topping Milkovich, 7-4, despite trailing for much of the match. Milkovich ended his career as a four-time finalist.
Carl Adams (Iowa State) vs. Stan Dziedzic (Slippery Rock), 158 pounds, 1972
Dziedzic was the only Division I champion ever from Slippery Rock, winning that title in 1971 down at 150 pounds. He lost just two matches in his collegiate career against 118 wins. Adams had more losses than that on his way to his first national title, winning at 158 in 1971 and finishing 19-3-1 after blowing out Mike Jones (Oregon State), 18-5, in the finals. The two seniors would clash for the NCAA title in 1972 with Adams punctuating Iowa State’s title winning romp by doubling Dziedzic’s career loss total, taking the Slippery Rock man down three times en route to a 7-4 triumph.
Larry Owings (Washington) vs. Darrell Keller (Oklahoma State), 142 pounds, 1971
A year after upsetting Dan Gable in the previously unbeaten Hawkeye’s final college match, Owings had an undefeated season going heading into his finals showdown with the 134-pound champion from 1970, Keller. Despite watching his twin brother Dwayne lose for the only time in his college career in the match prior, Darrell pounced on Owings early, building an 8-3 lead before hanging on to win 16-12. Keller’s second national title would prove to be one more than Owings would win after he fell again in the 1972 national finals.
Dale Lewis (Oklahoma) vs. Ted Ellis (Oklahoma State), UNL, 1961
Ellis was the national champion in 1959 as a sophomore, beating the wrestler who would later become Gorilla Monsoon in the finals. However, he did not compete in the 1960 national tournament, losing his only match during the year to Lewis, 3-1. The Oklahoma big man went on to take the 1960 national title. Lewis and Ellis would scrap three more times in the lead up to their 1961 title match with Lewis winning two tight bouts and one ending in a tie. That pattern would hold as Lewis sent the team title winning Sooners out with another individual victory, topping Ellis for the 1961 national championship, 3-1.
Bob Norman (Illinois) vs. Gordon Roesler (Oklahoma), UNL, 1958
Roesler started his career with a bang, claiming the national championship in 1956 in his first year competing for the Sooners. The next year, he was undefeated coming into nationals but was upset in the semi-finals by Henry Jordan (Virginia), 5-4. Jordan would fall to Norman in the 1957 national finals, setting the stage for the last two unlimited class champions to clash in 1958. Roesler would score the opening takedown, but Norman rallied to win, 5-3, as Oklahoma finished third behind Oklahoma State and Iowa State in the team race.
Verne Gagne (Minnesota) vs. Dick Hutton (Oklahoma State), UNL, 1949
These two combined to win five of the seven national tournaments they entered, losing only twice overall, both times to each other. Hutton drew first blood, taking a 2-1 decision in the semi-finals as both grapplers made their national tournament debut in 1947. In 1948, both men won titles as Gagne moved down to 191 and Hutton once again claimed the unlimited class. When the two met in the finals in 1949, Hutton had never been beaten and had only been tied once in his career. According to wrestling historian Jay Hammond in his book The History of Collegiate Wrestling, Hutton secured a takedown that was ruled to be just after the whistle which sent the bout to a referee’s decision. That decision was given to Gagne based on a small amount of riding time, giving the Minnesota big man the title. It would be Hutton’s only college loss and prevent him from winning a fourth national title after he was perfect in 1950.
Lowell Lange (Cornell College) vs. Dick Dickenson (Michigan State), 136 pounds, 1949
Remarkably, another man who might have been a four-time champion, before fate intervened, also battled a fellow champion in 1949. Lange won the 136-pound title in 1947, but injuries sustained in an auto accident forced him and the Cornell College team to miss the tournament in 1948. Dickenson took the title in his stead, but Lange would return to take it back, winning 6-0 over the Michigan State man in 1949. Lange would go on to win again in 1950, leaving him with a title in each of the three years he was healthy enough to compete.