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No. 6 Story of 2013: Penn State wins NCAA title in exciting, MMA-flavored finals

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The 2013 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship finals may have been the most anticipated – and most hyped – conclusion to the nationals in memory… but it more than lived up to advance expectations in a number of ways beyond Kyle Dake’s quest to win his fourth national title, thanks to some mixed martial arts-inspired elements. (More on that later.)

For starters, Penn State won its third straight team title (and its fourth overall, having won its first at the 1953 NCAAs)… but it was a bit too close for comfort for Nittany Lions fans, as Cael Sanderson’s wrestlers edged Oklahoma State by just four team points in the final tally, 123.5 to 119.5. (In fact, the Cowboys briefly took the lead in the team race during the finals.)

The Nittany Lions had five finalists… with two leaving Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines with individual championships: Ed Ruth at 184 pounds, and Quentin Wright at 197. By comparison, Oklahoma State had two finalists – Chris Perry at 174, and Jordan Oliver at 149 -- and both had their arms raised at the end of their title matches.

As expected, the greatest advance build-up surrounded the 165-pound finals, featuring Dake, Cornell University senior, attempting to join the ultra-exclusive Four-Time Champions Club. (In the 83-year history of NCAA mat championships, only two wrestlers – Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, and Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson – had won four Division I titles.) To add to the excitement, the irrepressible Dake faced off against another great college wrestler, David Taylor of Penn State.

After seven minutes of action, Dake defeated his long-time friend Taylor, 5-4, not only becoming the third wrestler to win four NCAA titles, but the first to do it in four different weight classes. He has previously won NCAAs at 141, 149 and 157.

Additional elements of excitement

As if these storylines weren’t enough to put fans in the stands and in front of their TVs at home, the NCAA and broadcaster ESPN pulled out all the stops to add even more MMA-inspired elements of excitement to the 2013 NCAA Division I finals.

Let’s start with the order of matches. Going back to the first NCAA championships in 1928, finals matches have been wrestled in traditional weight order, lightest to heavyweight. Breaking with tradition – and taking a cue from major mixed martial arts events -- the 2013 NCAA finals saved the Dake-Taylor 165-pound title bout for last, giving it main event, top-of-the-card status to keep fans invested in the other nine finals matches all Saturday night long.

The entire evening featured showbiz elements not usually seen at an NCAA mat championship. In the introductory slides showing the two finalists for each match, some of the wrestlers were shown bare-chested, in fight shorts, looking more MMA than NCAA. (According to one of the wrestlers shown stripped to the waist, Edinboro’s Mitchell Port, finalists were photographed in fight shorts and in their singlets, then ESPN decided which image to show onscreen.) Beyond the pre-match slides, viewers saw a LOT of Kyle Dake, as ESPN showed multiple photos of the Big Red 165-pounder shirtless throughout the 3-hour broadcast to build excitement for the last match of the evening… while his opponent Taylor was always shown in warm-ups or in his Penn State singlet.

To add to the MMA-style theatrics, wrestlers entered the arena and approached the mat accompanied by dramatic lighting… and each match ended with smoke columns and additional light shows. The overall affect added some elements of showbiz without detracting from the serious, for-real wrestling that took place that night in Des Moines.

Before the curtain came down on the 2013 NCAA finals, the live ESPN concluded with a live interview with the newest four-time champ Kyle Dake that carried into ESPN’s flagship 11 p.m. SportsCenter telecast.

The Dake-Taylor match, coupled with a neck-and-neck team race – along with added MMA-style glitz – all may have had a hand in providing ESPN with record ratings for this year’s NCAA finals. The good news didn’t stop there. Months later, the sports network announced that, for the first time, fans not able to come to Oklahoma City for the 2014 NCAAs will be able to see the action on every mat, either on TV or online. So get ready for more excitement come next March.

About the photo: Smoke and shirtlessness were elements of this year’s NCAAs. From left: Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry is declared the champ as smoke shoots into the air; a slide shown before the 165-pound match shows a bare-chested Kyle Dake and a singlet-wearing David Taylor was typical of the MMA-inspired graphics used by ESPN.

See what the NCAA finals looked like 50 years ago: Earlier this year, 1962 NCAA host school Oklahoma State posted to YouTube silent, black-and-white film of the entire finals… back before ESPN and singlets (in fact, most of wrestlers are shirtless). The ’62 NCAA finals film begins with what late wrestling historian Jay Hammond considered to be one of the top three upsets in NCAA wrestling finals history. Check out the YouTube videoread about the matches… and see photos of some of the finalists.

College Wrestling Examiner’s Year in Review: For the fifth straight year, College Wrestling Examiner will be taking a look at the Top Ten stories of the year. Now through the end of this year, we’ll be posting our choices for the ten most significant stories in the world of collegiate wrestling in 2013. Want to be among the first to know? Click on the “subscribe” button on this page, and you’ll be notified right away when a new story is posted.

Top Ten Stories for 2013 (so far):

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