During the early stages of his first season as an assistant at Cornell, Jeremy Spates expected to handle the rookies in the room with ease. But one first-year wrestler refused to comply. Spates knew immediately that Kyle Dake was something special.
“Normally I would dominate freshmen, especially 141-pound freshmen,” he said. “But Kyle was different from the beginning. He was already good in every position. If you had asked me then if he would be a four-time national champ, I probably would have said no because it had only been done twice. But I knew immediately that he would be very, very good.”
With some perspective from Spates, we took a look back at the “very, very good” four-year journey the Lansing native took to his unprecedented four NCAA championships at four different weights.
2010, The Rookie: Yes, he was a true freshman, but Kyle Dake expected to do damage at his first NCAA tournament. The seeding committee did as well, as he earned the #1 spot in the bracket after numerous impressive victories in his first year, including over two of the wrestlers placed close behind him: Minnesota’s Mike Thorn (#2) and Ohio State’s returning NCAA finalist Reece Humphrey (#4).
Still, there were plenty of doubters. None of the six expert previews we tracked down on Intermat picked Dake to win the 141-pound crown. Only one writer – Josh Lowe – thought he’d even make the title bout. Another called it a “deep weight class with few real standouts.”
The prevailing opinion seemed to be that Humphrey’s big match experience the previous year would allow him to win the grudge match with Dake (the Buckeye topped Dake in December in sudden victory before the Big Red grappler returned the favor at the National Duals). Others wondered if the freshman would let the enormity of the situation get to him. “Dake might not be ready for the stress,” one of the previewers opined.
On top of that, there was the question of health. Dake appeared to sustain a reasonably serious injury in the EIWA tournament finals. While the coaching staff said it wasn’t significant enough to impact him, another fluke accident would have an effect. During the warmups in Omaha, Dake suffered another setback.
“I was doing a little live wrestling with him the day before the tournament started,” Spates said. “He rolled his ankle pretty badly and he screamed out. I was thinking, what did I do? Being the day before, it was worrisome. I was just hoping we could get him in there ready to go. I guess the good thing is that he had rolled it earlier in the year, so he was used to wrestling on the injury.”
A little adversity? The expectations of being on the top line of the bracket? Freshman jitters? A weight cut that had become increasingly difficult as he grew during the season? According to Spates, Dake still believed that he would win.
In the semifinals, Dake and Humphrey faced off as expected, and many viewers were introduced to Dake’s magic for the first time. Humphrey threw the freshman to his back, but he somehow responded before near fall could be awarded. The bout went to overtime and in the tiebreakers, Dake prevailed 3-2 to move on to the finals.
“I still have no idea how Kyle bridged off his back against Humphrey,” Spates said. “He got body locked and in that situation most guys get pinned. It was unbelievable that he didn’t get pinned and even more unbelievable that he didn’t even give up backs.”
It was on to the title bout where the opponent was Iowa’s Montell Marion.
Once again, spectators were treated to a seemingly impossible getaway. In the first period, it looked like Marion had executed a big move, but Dake not only avoided giving up any points, he instead grabbed a 2-0 lead for himself. He never looked back, demonstrating the top skills he is now well known for in a 7-3 victory that made him the first Big Red rookie to win a national championship.
“That was just crazy,” Spates said. “Marion locked up the throw and in the corner, Rob [Koll] and I are just like, oh no, oh no, oh no. And then instead of the takedown and three back points for Marion, Kyle winds up with the takedown. It was a huge swing in the match and something I’ll always remember. We had high expectations for him, but it’s tough to win it as a true freshman. I don’t blame people for doubting it would happen. People just didn’t know that while most guys would get afraid in that situation, Kyle just got excited. He loves to be in the spotlight.”
2011, “The Underdog”: In the summer of 2010, I remember talking to the Cornell coaches about Dake’s move up to 149 pounds. They laughed as they mentioned people talking about how difficult the higher weight would be for him and how he might struggle there.
With entrance into a new class comes a different set of challengers to overcome. At 149, there was a rather significant one – former NCAA champion Darion Caldwell of North Carolina State. The Wolfpack wrestler had put together one of the more surprising and dominant performances in beating Iowa’s Brent Metcalf for the national title in 2009 and although he was coming off an injury, he was a certain title contender.
“Kyle was really excited for the opportunity to wrestle Caldwell,” Spates said. “He wanted to be the one to knock him down. I would have loved to watch that match. There would have been fireworks for sure.”
A potential clash between Dake and Caldwell didn’t come to pass at the Southern Scuffle when Caldwell pulled out of the event shortly before it began, but the Lansing native did have a tough match for the crown in Greensboro anyway.
Dake edged Penn State’s Frank Molinaro, at the time a two-time All-American, on the strength of an escape. The critics complained that he stalled through the win and calls that Molinaro would win a rematch were heard in the wrestling world.
“Kyle had been injured and hadn’t wrestled in a while before the Scuffle,” Spates said. “He came back pretty big and had to cut a lot of weight. His lungs weren’t quite there yet either. He was hurting in that match; had a tough time even finishing. But the bottom line is, he still found a way to win. He knew things would be different if they met again.”
After the tough victory over the Nittany Lion, Dake did suffer a pair of losses – the last two of his career. In a January dual meet against Binghamton, he dropped a 5-3 decision to Donnie Vinson, a wrestler he grew up wrestling in Section 4. And in the EIWA title bout, he fell in overtime to Bucknell’s Kevin LeValley.
Spates said an insight from then-volunteer assistant Matt Azevedo (now the head coach at Drexel) might have saved the season.
“Matt was the first one on the staff to see how much trouble Kyle was having with weight because he was growing again,” Spates said. “As the season went on, he was having more and more trouble. A little before Easterns, Kyle changed his diet and workouts. We took him off some lifting and upped his cardio – really changed his wrestling plan. I really believe, had that not happened, Kyle would have had difficulty winning it that year. I give Matt a lot of credit.”
When the NCAA brackets were released, Dake found himself as the #4 seed, with Caldwell, Molinaro and LeValley in front of him. He was now the underdog, a role he wasn’t accustomed to, but one he relished.
“He lost some matches, but the #4 seed was surprising,” Spates said. “The crazy thing was that he was fourth while Molinaro was second. We thought he’d still be ahead of Molinaro. But it set up a potential semifinal date with Caldwell and gave Kyle even more fire.”
Dake never faced Caldwell, as the ACC wrestler injury defaulted out of the event prior to the potential showdown. Meanwhile, Dake cruised through his contests, outscoring his first four opponents 24-0 on his way to a Saturday night meeting with Molinaro.
Dake had heard all the talk about how he was “lucky” to win the first time and he didn’t waste time getting on the board, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead.
And from then on, it was a magnificent display of mat wrestling – over six minutes of riding time, near fall and a reversal on the way to an 8-1 triumph. He might not have begun the year as everyone’s projected champion, but he earned his way to the top again.
“I think a lot of people expected a Molinaro win after their first match,” Spates said. “Kyle was a lot healthier and back in shape and he showed people what he could do. He came out and dominated, one of the more dominant NCAA finals matches I remember.”
2012, The Favorite: In 2011-12, Dake again took a step up in weight. This time, there were fewer voices saying he would have trouble with the adjustment. With the top three NCAA finishers no longer in the class (Bubba Jenkins and Steve Fittery graduated while David Taylor went to 165), Dake was the clear choice as #1.
“Kyle may have been more of a favorite as a junior than in the years before, but I think in his mind, he was going to win it every year,” Spates said. “I don’t think it was a very different mindset for him. Not too much had changed.”
And he turned it up a notch, besting his first three foes by fall in St. Louis.
“Kyle didn’t have a ton of pins that year, but every year he upped his game at Nationals,” Spates said. “As a junior, he really stepped it up. I remember people saying John Nicholson from Old Dominion, his first round opponent, might upset him because he pushes the pace and wrestles hard and Kyle would be coming right in off weigh ins. Then Kyle went out and pinned him in less than two minutes. People were like, wow. I still don’t think everyone realized what a monster he was.”
He was never threatened in his semifinal and title matches, which were won 4-0 (over American’s Ganbayar Sanjaa) and 4-1 (against Iowa’s Derek St. John).
“In the finals, he did what he wanted to do – get the early takedown and the ride,” Spates said. “Once Kyle’s up two or three points, it’s game over. No one can score that many points on him. He didn’t realize how tough St. John would be on bottom; he thought he’d turn him pretty easily.”
Although Dake had become the first wrestler in NCAA history to win three titles in three different classes, he heard a chorus of boos from some Iowa fans. Of course, the remainder of the arena responded with loud applause to commemorate the achievement.
“I’ve been to Nationals since 1992 and I’ve never seen something like that,” Spates said. “The Iowa crowd booing and then the whole rest of the crowd standing up to cheer. It was pretty special, actually. It was like the rest of the wrestling nation took care of it and said – he just made history, what are you doing? Kyle was exhausted at the end of that match, but those boos reenergized him.”
Still, he planned to take some time away from the sport before beginning preparations for his final season in a Big Red singlet.
“He told me he’d be off for at least a week,” Spates said. “Then on Wednesday, he was already on the mat. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was bored and needed to get back to wrestling.”
2013, “The Match of the Century” Showdown: Four titles in four years at four weights is a monumental achievement. But the truth is, neither Dake nor his coaches were sure he would take the step to 165 until late in the fall. In fact, in the summer, the staff indicated he would return to 157, which was a reasonable cut for him.
“The decision came about when the people from the All-Star Dual called and asked him to wrestle David Taylor at 165,” Spates said. “I remember calling him on a Sunday in October and asking him about it, saying they wanted him in the All-Star, whether it was at 157 or against Taylor at 165. He said he had been thinking about some things and wanted to talk about them, but needed a few more days. I said we should just talk now. He said he thought he wanted to go up to 165 – but only if it was best for the team. He said he wanted to spend a season concentrating on getting better and being able to wrestle as hard as he could for the entire seven minutes. He felt like he spent his other seasons focusing a lot on weight rather than improving as much as he could.”
And there were some other factors that played a role as well.
“I think the four titles in four different weights was somewhere in the back of his mind all along,” Spates continued. “The chance to wrestle Taylor, the conversation with Jordan Burroughs. It all factored in. He would have made weight at 157, but he would have spent a lot more time thinking about cutting. He didn’t want that – he wanted to be dominant in his last season.”
So, 165 it was. And when Dake and Taylor agreed to square off at the NWCA All-Star Classic to kick off the season in November, it looked like it would be the first of three meetings between the superpowers. That turned out to the case.
Round 1, November 2012, Washington D.C.: Dake 2, Taylor 1, TB
Taylor moved forward, but took few shots in this match. The only time the Penn State wrestler came close to scoring was off a Dake shot. However, in that scenario Dake used the scrambling ability fans saw so many times before to avoid what seemed like sure points for Taylor. In the end, it came down to the tiebreakers and Dake won that battle, getting the escape during his turn on bottom and riding Taylor out for 30 seconds when the roles were reversed.
Round 2, January 2013, Chattanooga, TN: Dake 3, Taylor 2
After hearing that he didn’t take the initiative on his feet in the initial meeting, Dake came out firing in the Southern Scuffle finals, nearly taking Taylor down off the opening whistle. However, Taylor showed some strong defense of his own and there were few other scoring chances for either wrestler in neutral. Most of the action came on the mat, where Taylor reversed Dake and then the Big Red grappler returned the favor, for the winning points. The bout had plenty of controversy as some believed Dake hadn’t secured the reversal or that Taylor had escaped at the end. The intrigue and the debates set up what would be an epic third battle – this time for the NCAA championship.
ESPN and the NCAA were counting on another meeting. For the first time, the finals schedule was changed so that 165 pounds would be the last bout of the evening. The wrestlers both complied, breezing through their first four tilts in Des Moines. Taylor took all four by fall while Dake outpointed his foes 28-0. And so on Saturday night, they would tangle again.
Dake had a prediction that he shared with his coach.
“After his semifinal match, Kyle told me it was going to be just like his sophomore year with Molinaro,” Spates said. “He said – close match at the Scuffle, domination in the finals.”
What was he going to do to accomplish that?
“It’s funny because Kyle’s mom asked me what the gameplan was,” Spates said. “I told her there wasn’t a real gameplan because he adapts so well out there. But we had been working on ‘Taylor things’ all year, starting before the All-Star. At times, Kyle was annoyed at me because he thought we were training too much for David Taylor. But the fact is, we were doing things to beat the best guys anywhere. We definitely made some adjustments after the Scuffle match that were important for the finals.”
Spates had a good feeling before the match started.
“Kyle slaps my hand before every match,” Spates said. “My college teammate Mark Bader [now at Flowrestling] did the same thing. With Bader, I would give a little bit so it hurt less, but with Kyle, I just take it. When he slapped me before the finals match, it hurt really, really badly. I told Rob [Koll], ‘That one was big, we’re in good shape. This is going to be a great match.’”
Round 3, March 2013, Des Moines, IA: Dake 5, Taylor 4
1st Period: When Dake fell behind less than 20 seconds in on a beautiful ankle pick by Taylor, he didn’t panic. He demonstrated his strength and athleticism while getting the escape, which was very close to being a reversal. He then calmly picked up two more with a takedown of his own with around 30 seconds remaining in the first. 3-2 Dake.
“I thought it was a good gameplan for them early,” Spates said. “In the previous matches, Taylor allowed Kyle to control the action with the ties. Getting that quick takedown really got Taylor fired up. But that might have backfired because when Kyle turned the tide, Taylor went from being in a great position to losing and getting ridden out. That changed the tone completely. It was huge.”
2nd Period: Taylor had been effective riding Dake, especially in their Scuffle bout. But there was no hesitation for the Big Red senior in choosing down and little delay in getting out. About 15 seconds into the middle stanza, Dake was up 4-2. That’s how the second would end.
“Kyle’s rarely been ridden in his career,” Spates said. “In the finals at Vegas this year, [North Dakota State’s Steven] Monk rode him for almost a whole period. Taylor used the same ride at the Scuffle. Riding hips, staying behind, trying to bump forward, not really trying to turn. We worked on countering that.”
3rd Period: Just two minutes left in Dake’s career. 4-2 advantage. Taylor took bottom. Dake remembered Taylor’s reversal back in January. This time, he broke his opponent’s spirit with a ride that lasted until just around 20 ticks remained on the clock. Even a questionable stall warning on the Cornellian and a later point awarded to Taylor couldn’t change the outcome.
Perfect execution led to a perfect four-for-four at the NCAA tournament. It’s something that Dake had mentioned, all the way back in 2009.
Prior to the start of his freshman season, Dake told Mark Palmer of Intermat, “Right now, my goal would be to never lose a match, and win four NCAA titles. Is that doable? Given my coaches, with hard work and lots of luck, anything is possible.”
Perhaps anything is possible. And now four years later, he’s a four-time champion at four different weights. It had never been done before. It may not be done again. Each season presented different challenges and different viewpoints. Through being the rookie, the “underdog”, the favorite and the member of an epic showdown, one thing stayed constant – Kyle Dake stood atop the podium as a true champion.