It's the final day of the 2012 NCAA Wrestling Championship, with the finals taking place at 7:30 p.m. ET tonight (March 17, 2012) at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Unlike the hugely popular NCAA basketball tournament that takes place over the course of three weeks, the wrestling championships are short and sweet, running over 350 competitors through 10 weight classes in just three days.
Going into the finals the team championship has all but been decided, with Penn State University (PSU) holding a commanding 22.5 point lead over Minnesota University. The Nittany Lions will send five wrestlers out to the mats for the finals, including three top seeds.
Here are the standings:
Here are the match ups, with a little information on how they got there:
125 Final: 1st: Matt McDonough (Iowa) vs 10th: Nicholas Megaludis (Penn State)
McDonough is in his third straight final, looking to win for a second time after being knocked off in the finals last year by the one legged Anthony Robles. In Megaludis he is facing the 10th seed, who has put it all together at the tournament after a good, but not great, regular season. Megaludis got PSU started off with upset victories in both the quarters and semis and he'll try to do the same tonight.
133 Final: 1st: Jordan Oliver (Oklahoma State) vs 2nd: Logan Stieber (Ohio State)
Oliver will be after his second straight title, trying to duplicate a feat that UFC welterweight contender Johny Hendricks accomplished for Oklahoma State (165) in 2005 and 2006. He'll be facing second seeded freshman Logan Stieber. The good news for Oliver is that he's already beaten Stieber once this year and only a month ago at that, so the psychological edge is definitely with Oliver. The two have combined for five pins so far in the tournament, so this one could have fireworks.
141 Final: 1st: Kellen Russell (Michigan) vs 3rd: Montell Marion (Iowa)
Two familiar faces match up at 141 pounds, with defending champion Kellen Russell taking on three time final four qualifier Montell Marion. Russell has beaten Marion three over their collegiate careers, including in last year's tournament, so the money is squarely on Russell to take home back to back championships.
149 Final: 1st: Frank Molinaro (Penn State) vs 7th: Dylan Ness (Minnesota)
Molinaro has steadily improved each year at the tournament, going from 9th to 7th to 2nd. He's put together an undefeated season and along with David Taylor and Ed Ruth comprises the meat of the Penn State team. Dylan Ness has had a good tournament but he's lost three times to Molinaro this season alone. This one should be academic.
157 Final: 1st: Kyle Dake (Cornell) vs 2nd: Derek St. John (Iowa)
Another undefeated top seed who has mowed through the field, Kyle Dake is in the rare position of having a chance to win three straight NCAA titles in three different weight classes. He won the 141 pound division as a freshman, dispatched Molinaro last year at 149 and has moved up to 157, where he really hasn't found any more of a challenge. Derek St. John is certainly a tough opponent, but Dake is really in a class of his own.
165 Final: 1st: David Taylor (Penn State) vs 11th: Brandon Hatchett (Lehigh)
Brandon Hatchett has been one of the surprises of the tournament and is the highest seed to make it to the finals. His prize? Only the most impressive wrestler of the tournament so far, Penn State's super sophomore David Taylor. It's taken Taylor just 8:46 seconds to dispatch of his four foes, all by way of the pin. I wouldn't want to miss this one, as Taylor might not end up going into mixed martial arts but he certainly has "future Olympic champion" written all over him.
174 Final: 1st: Edward Ruth (Penn State) vs 3rd: Nick Amuchastegui (Stanford)
If there is any single match that you shouldn't miss, it's this one. Both Ruth and Amuchastegui have gone undefeated this year. Amuchastegui fell one win short last year, but in the process he took out Ruth. For Amuchastegui, the championship is all that matters, while Ruth will be looking not only for the title, but a little revenge.
184 Final: 4th: Steve Bosak (Cornell) vs 6th: Quentin Wright (Penn State)
The only final that doesn't involve a first or second seed, don't be fooled. Quentin Wright is the defending champion, who actually had a better regular season this year than he did last year, when he came into the tournament ranked 9th. He didn't get much love this year from the seeding system either but it hasn't stopped him from marching right through the tournament again. Bosak finished fourth last year and has already gotten one win further than he did last year. He'll be in tough against Wright, who defeated him earlier this season in a lopsided decision.
197 Final: 1st: Cam Simaz (Cornell) vs 2nd: Christopher Honeycutt (Edinboro)
Another battle of the top two seeds. Cam Simaz finished third in the last two NCAA championships and has finally gotten over the hump and made it to the finals. Meanwhile, Christopher Honeycutt is trying to finish his career with a championship at 197 after spending his entire career at 184 pounds.
2nd: Anthony Nelson (Minnesota) vs 4th: Zachery Rey (Lehigh)
Defending champion Zachery Rey wrestled like it in the semifinals, taking out a very impressive number one seed in Ryan Flores in the semis, earning the chance to go up against Anthony Nelson. The Minnesota product has already greatly improved on last year's seventh place showing.
Join us here for live updates as the finals progress. They can be seen live on both ESPN and ESPN 3.
I know some of you are asking "why should I care about this?" and I thought I'd take a moment to address that a little deeper than the standard "because wrestling creates the most athletes for mixed martial arts (MMA) in North America." In most major sports leagues and certainly in the big four North American leagues: The NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball, the scouting systems are identifying potential big league talents as early as 10 years old.
Simple, there is a lot of money in it, and the earlier you can get a talented kid into an elite program, whether it be at the high school or college level, the more chances you'll have at making some money off him in the future. Another driving factor is the competition for talent; we've particularly seen a cross-over between basketball and football, where a decent amount of professionals could likely have played either sport.
There has really been no such scouting system in MMA. Up until very recently, most of the fighters came to the sport on their own accord after they were done college, in some cases long after they completed their college career. There wasn't much money in the sport, so there wasn't many guys going around looking to recruit talented martial artists in any discipline.
With the rapid increase in popularity the sport has seen, this is almost surely going to change. As the pay increases, elite wrestlers who weren't too stoked on getting punched in the face are going to start coming around to the idea. It seems to me that it's only a matter of time before a wrestling program pops up that presents itself as a "home to future UFC champions," in an attempt to attract top talent.
It is already happening to some extent.
Bubba Jenkins, who won the 157-pound class last year, spent his first four years of college wrestling at PSU, before academic restrictions prevented him from competing for the Nittany Lions as a senior. Forced to chose a new school to wrestle at for his senior year, Jenkins went to Arizona State University (ASU), which of course was the college home to a handful of current UFC fighters, including Cain Velasquez, Ryan Bader and C.B. Dollaway. Jenkins is now one fight into his professional MMA career.
Was his decision to go to ASU as simple as all that? Obviously not. But I wonder if it didn't play a role and will play a role in the future as MMA continues to grow. So that's why you should, at the very least, be checking out the names of some of the champions.
Chances are, one guy competing this evening is going to be UFC champion one day in the near future.