Before Ithaca native Kyle Dake conquered the world in freestyle, he made history as the first wrestler to win four NCAA Division 1 titles in four different weight classes—moving up a division each year. Dake is one of four four-timers in Division 1 history, and the only one to do so at the Division 1 level without taking a redshirt season (Joey Davis went undefeated for four D2 titles in three different weights). Cael Sanderson remains the only D1 four-timer to go undefeated in varsity competition (he suffered one loss to Iowa’s Paul Jenn during his redshirt season).
In his four NCAA title runs, Dake defeated wrestlers like two-time All-American and three-time World team member Reece Humphrey, Mongolian freestyle standout and two-time All-American Ganbayar Sanjaa, A 2016 Olympian, four-time All-American and national champion in Frank Molinaro, and of course the four-time NCAA finalist, two-time national champion and two-time Hodge Trophy winner David Taylor. That’s not to mention the recognizable names that were in those brackets that Dake didn’t hit—James Green, Justin Gaethje, Darrion Caldwell, Jason Chamberlain, Juan Archuleta, Des Green, Drake Houdashelt.
Despite his legendary college career, which ended in 2013, it took Dake five years to make his first World team.
This article series will serve as an exploration into Dake’s domestic and international freestyle career, starting with his bids to take the 74 kg spot from Jordan Burroughs, ending with his back-to-back World titles and his inevitable path back to Burroughs to decide the Olympic team.
As incredible as Dake’s credentials are, it’s even more fascinating to watch him wrestle. His greatest offensive tool in college was his incredible riding and top game. Early on, Dake leaned on his control positions to take close matches from the best in the country.
But what really made Dake a must-watch for college fans was his otherworldly scrambling and defense. His head-and-hands ‘first-line’ of defense was elite, even at the time. And for opponents that managed to get to his legs, their battle had just begun. Dake has shown an unparalleled ability to defend singles in splits, somehow landing in stable positions—even after the most textbook finishes by his opponents.
That poise and flexibility is still there for Kyle Dake, but his transition to freestyle brought about a relatively new look—explosive ‘big move’ offense. Hence, #DakeBombs
While Dake did make a Junior Greco-Roman World team in 2008, and he was known to hit throws here and there during college, his upper body offense made a dramatic return after the move up to 79 kg.
Stingy defense, lethal single legs, and volatile gut wrench, chest wrap, and crotch lock exposures have made Dake a well-rounded freestyle threat. Not to mention his near-endless gas tank, swift feet, and Herculean strength—courtesy of Functional Patterns strength and conditioning. Dake isn’t the traditional American volume shooter, he’s perfectly content to hold on to a small lead, neutralizing offense by threatening chest wraps or working the edge of the mat.
The Cornell grad is a big proponent of light therapy, immersion in nature, and other holistic or alternative methods that may strike some as eccentric. I’m sure the research is still inconclusive, but it’s working for Dake.
Injuries and world-class opposition have made for a rocky road to the top for Dake. His senior freestyle journey began in earnest in 2012.
2012 USA Olympic Team Trials
Though still in college and focusing largely on folkstyle, Kyle Dake was a clear domestic contender at 74 kg.
He proved that immediately at the Olympic Trials Challenge Tournament, where he took out two-time All-American and Pan-American champion Nick Marable in three periods. These were the days where freestyle bouts were divided into periods wrestlers could win individually (which was confusing and terrible, as was the “leg clinch” tiebreaker). Based on drawing a red or blue ball out of a bag, one wrestler got to start action already on the leg of their opponent. These were dark times.
Nick MARABLE (USA)
Marable would make domestic history as the first American to defeat Burroughs on the senior freestyle circuit at the 2014 Yasar Dogu. 2014 was generally a fantastic year for him, and clearly his peak, but he was unquestionably a tough out even two years prior.
They wrestled again for bronze (spoilers), so I have no idea which match of theirs from the trials this is.
Dake’s run to an Olympic team ended there. He was defeated by Trent Paulson, a three-time All-American and national champion for Iowa State, who himself transitioned quite well to freestyle. By the time he finished competing, Paulson made back-to-back World teams in 2009 and 2010, and medaled at tournaments like the Baku Golden Grand Prix (twice), the Pan-American Championships (twice), and the Waclaw Ziolkowski Memorial.
2012 was the year of Paulson’s Pan-American title, and what would turn out to be his penultimate run at a senior freestyle team.
It was a case of freestyle inexperience for Dake, who repeatedly exposed his own back in scrambles, as he was used to in folk.
He fought back through the consolation bracket, pinning David Taylor before winning his rematch with Nick Marable.
It was one of Dake’s four wins over Taylor, notched while both were in college—they met here, at the NWCA All-Star Classic, the finals of the Southern Scuffle tournament, and in the 2013 NCAA finals. Dake continued to terrorize Taylor in freestyle, as will soon become clear.
2013 USA World Team Trials
Fresh off a title-winning performance over David Taylor to cap off his historic NCAA career, Dake was focused on freestyle and ready for another run at 74 kg. His first significant match was a chance at revenge against Trent Paulson.
Wrestling with poise and patience, Dake shut down the volume shooting of the former Cyclone and capitalized when Paulson finally shot himself out of position, prevailing 8-1.
Next up – Dake vs. Taylor Part 5.
Dake controlled the center of the mat, stifling the Nittany Lion with sturdy underhooks and circling footwork off his shots. Frustrated, Taylor attempted to force action from disadvantageous positions, easily allowing Dake to work his underhooks into rear-standing and hit his high-gut wrench from there. Taylor did his best to fight through bad positions and get to scoring situations, but it wasn’t enough.
7-4 Dake, on to the Challenge Tournament finals.
There he met an absolute monstrosity in Andrew Howe.
Andrew HOWE (USA)
An NCAA champion and three-time finalist, Andrew Howe was a man among boys even as a freshman. He only continued to mature and develop as a wrestler, reaching impressive levels of unitry by the end of his senior freestyle career.
It was a nightmare matchup—Howe was physical enough to match Dake in upper body positions, while still maintaining the poise and mobility to scramble with him and punish his offense. Dake hadn’t yet figured out what his scoring positions would be, but his main focus first and foremost was navigating the clean and powerful attacks of Howe.
This match gave us one of the most disgusting displays of flexibility of all time:
It took chained offense, shots into fakes into short offense into more shots, for Dake to finally get Howe out of position and score. After two periods, it took another five minutes of overtime for Dake to finish the match, locking through the crotch and exposing Howe off his own shot.
Having conquered the Challenge Tournament, Dake moved on to a best of three series with the reigning Olympic champion – Jordan Burroughs.
#2 Jordan BURROUGHS (USA)
For more information on JB, check out this article on his Final X series with Isaiah Martinez to make the 2019 World team.
In Match 1, Dake was shocked.
With a speed and precision Dake had yet to encounter, Jordan Burroughs was on his legs and converting. Dake’s low, nearly four-point stance meant nothing to Burroughs, who was able to tap the head and hit his outside single with ease.
Not long after, Dake returned to his stance, remaining static. And Burroughs hit an identical entry. This time, however, he doubled off and went big for four points. Ultimately Dake was outgunned before he could even get into his own offense. The speed with which Burroughs finished his attacks completely bypassed Dake’s prolific scrambling.
Match 2 was a testament to Burroughs’ short offense. He lowered Dake’s level with shot fakes, and worked off the head to gain dominant angles on Dake’s legs.
There would be no quick tech this time out. Dake was more responsible with his positioning and fought hard to keep Burroughs limited to one leg, even after his entries—allowing Dake to square up and fight through positions. With that extra breathing room, Dake had time to work double underhooks and get to some of his more dangerous positions.
Even better, with a better feel for Burroughs, Dake was able to catch doubles with his underhooks and shrug his way to the back. There he could lock hands and hit proto-DakeBombs.
The champion Burroughs had to battle back, getting to his motion and level changes to hit a series of low leg attacks and doubles to even the score. The match winning takedown came as Dake lowered himself on all fours to close the window of a straight shot on his legs, only to allow Burroughs to circle off the head to his now-exposed ankle.
As much as Dake had progressed, the offense of Burroughs was undeniable.
Golden Grand Prix
While the loss stung, Dake quickly got back to work on refining his freestyle game—traveling to Azerbaijan for the Baku Golden Grand Prix, one of the top three or four toughest tournaments internationally year-to-year. He had failed to make the World team, however, he proved himself to be championship material with back-to-back upsets over international staples.
First up was Ali Shabanov, a Russian transfer to Belarus.
#9 Ali SHABANOV (BLR)
I don’t necessarily believe in wins that ‘age well,’ but Shabanov was already World medal caliber when he met Dake in Baku. Match video was unavailable, but Dake dominated in a 7-1 showcase.
As fantastic as that win was, though, no one could have predicted what ‘Kid Dynamite’ would pull off next. He hit Jordan Burroughs’ chief international rival—the Russian Denis Tsargush.
Denis TSARGUSH (RUS)
Already a two-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist, Tsargush was at his peak. His greatest achievement, a 9-2 victory over Jordan Burroughs on his way to 2014 World gold, had yet to come.
Battling through a broken hand, Dake put up 10 points on the Russian, placing him in the semifinals. It was a heroic effort, but Dake was too battered to put on a repeat performance. He lost 7-1 to Russian standout Gadzhi Gadzhiev and dropped his bronze medal match to 2011 World bronze medalist Ashraf Aliyev, an especially harsh loss.
Rehabbing injuries took some time. Dake competed at the 2014 ‘Granma Cup’ (aka Cerro Pelado) in Cuba, earning gold over an unimpressive field—but sat out the rest of the year.
2015 USA World Team Trials
Relatively healthy and rested, Dake was back for another World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. At 74 kg, there were no easy matchups. Right off the bat, again, was Andrew Howe.
The dynamics of the match had changed little in two years, Dake still needed to control center and pick his spots. And when he did shoot, it was imperative that he not meet Howe’s cement hips head-on, turning the corner immediately.
As ridiculous as Dake’s single leg defense was in 2013 against Howe, he pulled off something at least equally as alien in 2015.
Twice, Dake fended off Howe’s advances, as the former Sooner attempting to trip out his base leg and capture his ankles. With just 10 seconds remaining in the match, Howe looked to step and block the base leg, turning Dake over it to trip.
Instead of reacting like a normal person with bones and joints, Dake turned against his own knee and sat to the corner behind Howe, gripping a single leg of his own to stay alive and avoid exposure. Howe did exactly what he was supposed to, he gained height, turned in and looked to cover.
As soon as he did, Dake turned and kicked out—swiftly turning back in to meet Howe’s shot, defending in a split as the clock hit zero. Unreal.
With the win, of course, Dake had to wrestle David Taylor again.
Stealing a look from Jordan Burroughs, Dake level faked Taylor out of position and doubled him across the mat. Taylor responded with aggression, and his reached hands fed perfectly into Dake’s ability to post and duck under for singles—which he ran through and converted on the edge.
Taylor had his moments, but the early high-powered offense of Dake saw him through the match for another shot at Jordan Burroughs.
In Match 1, it was obvious Dake had made improvements to his motion and reactions. Burroughs couldn’t shake him out of position so easily. After getting pushed out on a double, Dake struck back, shooting an outside single and countering a short Burroughs reattack to go-behind.
Early in the second period Burroughs attempted to drive out with a high single through Dake’s underhooks. Feeling strong in that position, Dake looked to arch and toss Burroughs on the edge. But Burroughs cut his charge short, and it was Dake who exposed as the two drove out of bounds.
The Cornell coaches challenged, and that failure gave Burroughs one more point. A 6-2 deficit was dire, in such a tight match.
Burroughs controlled the aggressive, surging Dake from front headlock, only giving up points in the final seconds as Dake ran a knee tap from the edge of their mat onto the center of another. One moment’s error made the difference, but Dake had another chance.
It was short-lived.
Off the whistle, Burroughs dropped to the ankle, converted, cinched up a lace and rolled through for eight points in less than 15 seconds. Dake came up limping, his knee clearly roughed up in the lace.
When he came back out to wrestle, Dake was ferocious, firing off outside shots and turning the corner hard—even attempting to crunch Burroughs up for a nearside cradle. But, his success was temporary.
Burroughs got a read on his attacks, stuffed him, stepped off to an angle and blew Dake over to his back for four points. Dake’s desperate charge to take back the match only allowed Burroughs easier entries. He dropped to the ankle once more and converted for the technical fall.
2016 USA Olympic Team Trials
After two failed bids to unseat Burroughs, Dake knew he needed a change. He was a fine fit for 74 kg, but with such a dominant force at the top, the odds just weren’t in his favor. The next available Olympic weight was 86 kg, about 25 pounds up from his natural class. But it was the Olympic year, and risks were necessary.
Dake qualified for the trials and set out with confidence. There was no Jordan Burroughs to stop him now.
His first test was the massive Richard Perry, a solid Division 1 wrestler who had transformed into a world-class talent while training under Olympic champion Brandon Slay at the Pennsylvania RTC in Philadelphia. He gave Dake an excellent match, but ultimately fell 10-7.
Back in 2018, Perry was seriously injured in a training exercise hosted by the US Marine Corps. He suffered traumatic brain damage and was left unable to walk, his outlook was grim.
Fortunately, Perry has made a miraculous recovery. He can speak clearly – and even wrestle a bit – but his life will never be the same. Read further to learn more about Richard’s journey to recovery and support his family.
After falling to Jordan Burroughs in the 2014 World Team Trials, guess who else felt a move to 86 kg was the change they needed? David Taylor.
It’s comical, at this point.
However, this was one of their most tightly contested matches since college.
Taylor had begun putting on weight in earnest for a real run at 86. And the extra muscle worked well with his lankier frame. He was no longer athletically outclassed by the explosive Cornell grad, and the fight for superior position was fierce.
Dake scraped by in a 4-3 match, leaning heavily on his trademark split defense. This would be the last time they met, so let’s take a look at how David Taylor has done since then.
David TAYLOR (USA)
Wrestling is a cruel, cruel sport.
There’s always a bigger fish. Even collegiate legends and World champions run into opponents that they can’t beat in seven attempts. Taylor had Dake and Burroughs, Dake had Burroughs, but would he finally be the man at 86?
Unfortunately, there was a new phenom on the rise named J’den Cox.
#1 J’den COX (USA)
Even if Dake had been a full-sized 86, he still likely would have struggled with a generational talent in Cox. Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of Cox’s game, for those interested.
For the sake of brevity, and because I can’t find the Match 1 video for this series, let’s not talk about these matches in any sort of depth. Dake lost Match 1 by a wide margin, but came back to slow down and control the second for a 5-3 win.
The third match has a bit of controversy, as some thought Dake earned a match-changing pushout, but ultimately Cox was the better man.
Cox would go on to earn Olympic bronze. His one loss in the semifinals was largely due to a lack of awareness. Cox thought he was winning and made no effort to close out the match, failing to hear his coaches’ instructions (J’den Cox is partially deaf).
Dake got some work in at 86 kg, traveling to the Medved tournament where he knocked off a tough Georgian in Irakli Mtsituri.
Irakli MTSITURI (GEO)
However, Dake dropped his next match to a relatively unknown Russian and did not place at the tournament. Moving to 86 was not the solution, and Dake returned to 74.
2017 USA World Team Trials
Jordan Burroughs did not place at the 2016 Olympics. He was defeated by Russia’s Aniuar Geduev and his will to compete seemed to vanish, losing wide to Bekzod Abdurakhmonov shortly after. With his mentality in question, Burroughs seemed more vulnerable than ever. Many believed it was finally Dake’s time.
His first significant match was against four-time NCAA finalist and two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez. Still a freestyle novice at this point, “IMar” had little to offer the established veteran.
Next up was another collegiate hammer, three-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner Alex Dieringer, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy. A highly skilled and physical athlete, Dieringer earned the nickname ‘Lion’ due to his ferocity and ‘mane’ of curly hair.
Alex DIERINGER (USA)
While Dake has never been particularly vulnerable to any of Dieringer’s attacks, the two are strong in the same positions—which has lead to low scoring matches between them. Against Dieringer, Dake has often ended up either exploding early and hanging onto his lead, or capitalizing on Dieringer’s offense once he’s become vulnerable out of frustration.
The two have met many times, and this match was typical of their dynamic. The razor-thin victory led Kyle Dake back to Jordan Burroughs.
Dake knew that to beat Burroughs, even on a bad day, he’d have to operate on a hair-trigger to get to his attacks. Early in Match 1, he timed the reaching hands of Burroughs to duck and snatch up a single leg.
Getting height, Dake countered a Burroughs attempted cross-pick to flatten out the World and Olympic champion for two points.
Burroughs struck back, shooting head inside and forcing Dake out of bounds. Working off a head jab, Burroughs dropped low and went head inside yet again, but this time Dake had a nasty surprise waiting.
Locking his hands under the chest of Burroughs, Dake cranked Burroughs off his feet, arched his back and launched him. Dake bomb.
Up 6-1, Dake only needed to survive.
Burroughs pressed forward, playing with distance to straighten up his opponent, shooting back in on the break for two. Dake did his best to keep Burroughs static, pressuring in with underhooks and keeping things slow in collar ties. It wasn’t until late in the match that Burroughs could get going again, working off the wrists to shoot past the head-hands defense of Dake. He found his scores, but pushouts were not enough, Dake’s four-point move gave him the edge on criteria and his first win over Jordan Burroughs.
Burroughs carried that late momentum into Match 2. Working hard with clubs and snaps on the head of Dake, he found ways to plant the younger man’s feet and swing to low shots of Dake’s reactive reach. Burroughs drove toward the outer boundary, where Dake definitely stepped out first, but the official saw Burroughs falling out of bounds attempting to finish the shot and awarded the stepout to Dake.
Dake had new looks to show, too. After using the collar ties to hang and stall in their first match, Dake dragged low off the collar and dropped for an ankle pick, catching Burroughs as he kicked out to escape.
Up 3-0, Dake was in position to close out the series and make his first World team. Unfortunately, Dake’s passivity came back to bite him; a point was awarded to Burroughs after the shot clock expired on Dake. Next, Burroughs got back to his aggressive handfighting, timing Dake’s ties to level change for low doubles. Thankfully, Dake’s chest wrap was enough of a threat to stall out the position.
Just when Dake thought he had him figured out, Burroughs switched off to singles, getting height and finished on the head to knock over the typically agile New Yorker. Dake’s defensive attempts put him in a vulnerable position, and Burroughs drove in to throw Dake across his back—earning two points for exposure.
With only 30 seconds remaining, Dake’s attacks were stifled, and he fell 8-4. They went to a third match, and the dynamic remained.
Burroughs’ motion was too much for Dake after two rough matches, and the Nebraska-trained wrestler imposed himself physically.
He attacked early and held on to his lead. Dake didn’t have the steam to get any offensive momentum. Burroughs was too strong in the handfight, and Dake was worried enough as it was, about fakes off the hands turning into low shots. Dake just didn’t have the tools or the athletic threat to consistently get the better of Burroughs, who went on to reclaim World gold that year in Paris.
In Part 2, we’ll see Dake move up to the non-Olympic weight of 79 kg and demonstrate just how dangerous he’s been all along.
About the author