Welcome back to Bloody Elbow’s ranking of the 20 greatest matches wrestled by future MMA stars.
Today, in the fourth part of the series, author Mike Riordan takes us back down memory lane, to 2006, when two current UFC stars met in what they thought was just a simple college wrestling match, but what really happened to be a single event in a much larger interconnected network of events which totally altered the path of wrestling history.
12.Chris Weidman vs. Phil Davis- 2006 Hofstra University vs. Penn State University Dual Meet
Chris Weidman and Phil Davis wrestled against each other in December of 2006, in a dual meet between Penn State and Hofstra. The match took place in an interesting time, a very different time. It happened only at the very beginning of the Post-Hellickson era of College wrestling. Now as that era has fully flowered, we live in a much different world than the one where Weidman beat Davis by one point in a closely contested wrestling match.
Russ Hellickson. Hardcore college wrestling fans know the name, and the purely MMA contingent in the audience ought to. Hellickson won an Olympic silver medal in freestyle wrestling in the 1976 Montreal Games, and starting in the mid 1980’s, he started a two-decade tenure as the head wrestling coach of The Ohio State University, he did a pretty good job too. During his time at Ohio State, he coached future mixed martial arts stars and NCAA champions Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman. Hellickson had a long and distinguished career in the sport of wrestling, but the single most historically significant thing he did was retire.
When Hellickson hung up his whistle after the 2005-2006 wrestling season, he set in motion a chain reaction which would radically alter the landscape of college wrestling. Ohio State, for those who don’t know, claims one of the most resource rich athletic departments in the United States, it also sits smack dab in the middle of the state of Ohio. If the blue-chip college wrestling recruit-producing states of America formed their own version of OPEC, then Ohio would be the U.A.E. Ohio State could afford to pay top dollar to any of the county’s top coaching candidates, and offered the sort of unequaled access to talented future stars which would gain those candidates attention.
Word got out that Olympic gold medalists Tom Brands and Cael Sanderson appeared on the list of targets for the Ohio State job. Brands, an alumnus of the University of Iowa then coached Virginia Tech, and Sanderson occupied the head assistant post at his alma mater, Iowa State University. The University of Iowa, then experiencing a downturn in its wrestling fortunes, and unwilling to see one of their favorite sons coach against them at conference rival Ohio State, fired embattled coach Jim Zalesky and hired Brands away from Virginia Tech. Iowa State, who once saw a legendary graduate named Dan Gable leave, and build arch-rival University of Iowa into the nation’s premier wrestling program, did not want history to repeat itself with the loss of another homegrown giant of the sport. They pushed renowned head coach Bobby Douglass into retirement and replaced him with Sanderson.
This left Ohio State with its coaching vacancy, but still with plenty of good options. They tapped rising coaching star Tom Ryan, a Dan Gable product like Brands, to head their program. Ryan left Hofstra University in New York, which he had built into a national power. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech, now thrown into disarray after the departure of Brands, hired another former Gable wrestler and legendary high school coach Kevin Dresser to helm its team. Tech’s in-state rival, the University of Virginia, not to be outdone, made a coaching switch of their own, hiring standout Cornell assistant and Virginia alumnus Steve Garland. A few hours east of UVA on Interstate 64, Old Dominion University also made an upgrade at their head wrestling coach position, enlisting the service of another high school coaching legend and All-American athlete under Gable, Steve Martin.
Jim Zalesky, who had the misfortune of directly succeeding Dan Gable at Iowa, went west to take the head coaching position at Oregon State University.
These coaching moves alone reshaped the look of college wrestling, but what happened afterward truly sent shockwaves to all Division I college wrestling programs still clinging to existence. Every single one of the coaching changes resulted in smashing successes. Brands returned Iowa to prominence, winning three national titles in his first four years. Sanderson led Iowa State to three straight top five finishes. Ryan brought Ohio State to the cusp of a national championship with two straight national runner up finishes. For the first time, three nationally relevant Division I wrestling programs operated within the borders of Virginia. Even Zalesky found success at Oregon State, returning the program to its place as one of the nation’s elite programs.
These various successes put athletic directors everywhere on notice. The country had plenty great coaching talent biting at the bit for a big opportunity, and every AD with a faltering wrestling teams now knew they were only a few phone calls and job interviews away from a vastly more successful program. Over the last few years, older coaches who no longer produced lost their jobs, and promising young coaches risen to power in big-time wrestling programs from coast to coast.
During the Post-Hellickson era, Troy Sunderland became the former head coach of Penn State University. He didn’t necessarily do terribly during his time Penn State’s coach. Half of his eight years at the helm of the program Penn State cracked the nation’s top ten, and every year he seemed to churn out two to four All-Americans. The problem with Sunderland’s job as coach reveals itself clearly upon examination of Penn State’s 24-10 loss to Hofstra in 2006.
The real issue with dual in question does not rest in the fact that Penn State lost, nor in the fact that they lost in a quasi-blow out. The issue is in the fact that the dual went almost exactly as expected. Going into the meet, Hofstra enjoyed a national ranking of fifth, while Penn State ranked eighth. Hofstra, a medium-sized private school on Long Island, simply had a better more talented wrestling team than Penn State. Penn State is a member of the mighty Big Ten Conference. Penn State boasts almost 50,000 students. Penn State stands alone as the most powerful school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a state bursting at the seams with prodigiously talented wrestlers (in the OPEC analogy from before, Pennsylvania is Saudi Arabia). Getting outmanned and outgunned in wrestling by schools like Hofstra simply does not cut the mustard for a school in Penn State’s unique situation.
At the end of particularly under-productive season in 2009, Penn State let Sunderland go. Penn State called Cael Sanderson at Iowa State and said, “Hey, I bet with your strong coaching record, Olympic gold medal and the fact that you are the single greatest college wrestler of all time, you could really bring some great wrestlers into this Penn State program as its coach”
“You know, you may have a point,” Sanderson responded as his freshly shorn pate shone in the Iowa sun. “With the endless supply of killer wrestlers coming out of Pennsylvania along with the really amazing recruits I get from anywhere I dang well please, I could win unlimited national titles.”
That phone call, recorded here verbatim, gave birth to college wrestling’s current ruling dynasty. Penn State has won the last three national championships in wrestling in a row, and no end to its reign appears in the distance.
Chris Weidman had a small role in causing that dynasty to rise to power, and he played that role by defeating Davis. A description of their match from Hofstra’s Athletic Communications office appears below.
Hofstra senior All-American Chris Weidman, ranked sixth at 197 pounds, posted his second victory over a number one ranked wrestler in nine months with a 5-4 victory over junior Phil Davis on the riding time point. Weidman (13-1) entered the third period down 3-2 but posted a reversal to take a 4-3 lead.
Davispicked up a point on a stall call after the Pride senior pulled out of bounds. But Weidman had accumulated 2:14 in riding time for the win and a 17-0 lead at halftime. Davis
By upsetting returning national finalist and then number one ranked wrestler in the nation, Phil Davis, and ever so slightly contributing to the notion that other programs were accomplishing more with less than Penn State, Weidman hastened Cael Sanderson’s arrival at Penn State, thus, ever so gently nudging the sport of wrestling to take even bigger steps into the unknown frontier of the Post-Hellickson era.
And you thought it was just a simple wrestling match.
Join us next time for part V of this ranking of the 20 greatest wrestling matches between future MMA stars.
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