The greatest seasons in NCAA wrestling history can and will be debated. Eras are difficult to compare. As time wears on, many forget the stories of the champions, even more so those that they defeated in getting there. Still, the mystique surrounding a wrestler who wins every battle, defeating each foe who steps on the mat against him on his way to a national championship remains powerful. To have a little fun as we continue to wait for the season to begin, I decided to take a look at the best seasons in Division I wrestling history for each different win total, 11 through 55. Some of the decisions were easy, there has only been one wrestler to ever win a D1 title after going 55-0 for example, but others were incredibly tough. Choosing the best 34-0 season had me splitting hairs as the list of legendary athletes who have earned that record is long.
Today we finish our journey looking at win totals from 51 through 55. I used a blend of dominance, historical significance, and who a wrestler beat to make my choices. Win totals can be a little tricky to confirm, especially for older wrestlers, but using Jay Hammond’s historical work and school websites among other sources, this is what I came up with. We’ll be rolling out the list in increments of five throughout the fall so be on the lookout.
Larry Bielenberg, Oregon State, UNL, 1977
While all of the wrestlers to this point on the list won a title to cap their stellar seasons, Bielenberg had the misfortune of watching Jimmy Jackson (Oklahoma State) develop into an unstoppable force. Bielenberg had won a national title in 1975, but in his final two seasons, Jackson would prove to be an immovable obstacle at the national tournament. The Beaver was impressive against everyone else, earning a 16-1 superior decision and two falls to start his tournament, giving him 38 pins on the year. He then reached the finals by dismissing fourth-seeded John Bowlsby (Iowa), 6-1. Jackson had beaten Bielenberg 9-2 in the 1976 national semifinals, but the final match of Larry’s college career would be much tighter. The two big men battled to a stalemate through regulation and overtime. In the end, a referee’s decision went the way of Jackson due to four seconds of riding time advantage.
Jim Baumgardner, Oregon State, 190, 1983
Oregon State wrestled and won a lot of matches throughout the 70s and 80s. No one in program history, however, won more matches than Baumgardner. The junior won his second of three conference tournament titles and headed to Oklahoma City as the five seed at the national tournament. After posting 11-5, 28-4, and 5-2 victories, Baumgardner would fall to top seed Mike Mann (Iowa State) in the semi-finals. He would rally back to the third-place match by defeating Dan Chaid (Oklahoma), though he would be forced to settle for fourth after a loss to Bill Scherr (Nebraska). Though he did not reach the top of the podium, Jim’s first All-American finish kept Oregon State from being shut out of the top eight. In fact, Baumgardner was the only Beaver to make the podium between 1982 and 1985.
John Azevedo, Cal State-Bakersfield, 126, 1980
The owner of the second highest perfect season win total that culminated in a Division I championship, Azevedo had twice before taken an unbeaten record into the national finals before losing the final match of the year. However, as a senior, he would finally finish on top. Through a long regular season and the Division II NCAA tournament, Azevedo again went unblemished, claiming his third consecutive national championship at that level. Disaster nearly struck in the opening round of the Division I competition at Oregon State when Gary Bohay (UCLA) pushed Azevedo before falling 11-9. That seemed to wake up the man who would go on to make the 1980 Olympic team that wound up boycotting the Moscow Games. The Roadrunner won 7-1, earned his 23rd fall, then outscored Eddie Ortiz (Arizona State), 12-7 in the semis. With a third and final shot to claim a DI crown, Azevedo didn’t miss, putting away Jerry Kelly (Oklahoma State), 17-9 to complete his perfect season.
Ed Giese, Minnesota, 118, 1986
The record holder at Minnesota for career victories, Giese did a good deal of his damage as a senior. His 54 wins still stands nine clear of his nearest Gopher rival for the most in a single season in program history. Despite having won more than 100 matches entering his final year of eligibility, Giese had never been an All-American. He claimed his second Big Ten title in 1986, entering the national tournament in Iowa as the number two seed. After surviving a 14-12 scrap with Jack Cuvo (East Stroudsburg) in the second round, Giese would be upended in the semis by Al Palacio (North Carolina). The Illinois state champion from Fenton would bounce back to add his 53rd and 54th wins on the season as he worked his way back for third.
Joe Gonzalez, Cal State-Bakersfield, 118, 1980
The same year that Azevedo would finally claim his Division I title, Gonzalez would do the same. Winning two more matches than his slightly larger teammate, Joe took advantage of Gene Mills (Syracuse) taking the year off to pursue a spot on the Olympic team. Mills had beaten Gonzalez in a 16-13 thriller for the 1979 championship at 118 and would win again in 1981 with no Gonzalez to trouble him. The Cal State-Bakersfield senior lit up the scoreboard at the national tournament tallying 88 points in his first four matches as he won each by a minimum of nine points on his way to the finals. Iowa’s Dan Glenn at least managed to slow Gonzalez down, but the end result was the same. A match before Azevedo won his title, Gonzalez became the champion at 118 pounds, winning his 55th match of the season. No Division I champion has won more and given that the Roadrunner had the Division II tournament to work through and fewer schedule restrictions, we may need to add this feat to our list of nearly unbreakable records.