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Biggest NCAA heavyweight battle in a half century headlines MSG; pro wrestling tie-ins abound

Kyle Snyder

What was tabbed as the biggest amateur wrestling heavyweight battle in more than a half century is a match that, until recently, figured to be impossible.

Ohio State sophomore Kyle Snyder, who captured the world championship at 216 pounds last year, and sometimes training partner senior Nick Gwiazdowski of North Carolina State, will meet in Saturday night's main event at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in the first time "the world's most famous arena" is hosting the NCAA wrestling tournament.

Snyder (seen above), the youngest American world champion ever at 19, had originally decided to take a redshirt season to concentrate on the 2016 Olympics. But late in the season he decided to come back as a heavyweight. He only wrestled three times in dual meets before capturing the Big 10 Championship. 

The two were the top seeds going into the tournament, but still had to battle their way through a relatively strong heavyweight division to reach the finals. Snyder lost in the finals at 197 pounds last year, while Gwiazdowski won his 88th match in a row last night when he beat #2 Adan Coon of Michigan in the semifinals on Friday night before a sold out crowd of 18,309 fans. Snyder defeated 2014 teenage world champion Amir Dhesi of Oregon State earlier in the tournament, and beat No. 3 seed Ty Wlaz of Virginia Tech, 10-6, in the semifinals.

Snyder and Gwiazdowski trained together at lot this past summer, and are expected to continue to do so this year as both attempt to make the Olympic team in different weight classes later this year.

It was a formality that after tonight's matches that the NCAA announced Snyder vs. Gwiazdowski as the main event.

A History of Three-Time NCAA Title Winners

Gwiazdowski will attempt to become only the fifth heavyweight in history to win three NCAA titles. 

The first three were pro wrestlers: Earl McCready, a Hall of Famer who was one of the greatest Canadian wrestlers in history; Dick Hutton, a former NWA champion who was a major star in the 50s and 60s; and Jimmie Jackson, who only had a cup of coffee as a pro wrestler working for Leroy McGurik in the 70s. 

The most recent three-time champion was Carleton Haselrig, who won in 1985, 1986 and 1987. He also won the Division II championships all three years, later becoming an NFL star before embarking on an MMA career at the age of 42.

Lesnar vs. Neal

Verne Gagne & The Biggest NCAA Heavyweight Finals of All Time

While some will tab the Stephen Neal vs. Brock Lesnar 1999 championship match, where Neal beat Lesnar 3-2, as one of the biggest heavyweight battles, that's more because of what both men did later. The 1999 heavyweight wrestling world champion Neal also became a top lineman with the New England Patriots, while Lesnar became a celebrity as both a major WWE star and a huge draw in the UFC. But at the time of the match, neither man was considered at the level either of Saturday's main eventers are.

What is generally considered the biggest NCAA heavyweight final of all-time featured future pro wrestling stars. In 1949, Verne Gagne beat the aformentioned Hutton via a very controversial decision after the two had tied 1-1 after overtime was completed. Hutton, who won the title in 1947, 1948 and 1950, would have been the first wrestler in history to not only win four NCAA titles, but to also go undefeated for an entire college career had he won that bout.

Only Cael Sanderson (who beat Daniel Cormier in his last final) has ever gone undefeated over four years (159-0) with four titles, but he did it at 184 pounds. A few wrestlers, most notably Danny Hodge and McCready, went undefeated their entire careers but competed at a time when freshmen weren't eligible.

Tonight's lineup, which airs on ESPN at 8 p.m.

  • 125 - Thomas Gilman (Iowa) vs. Nico Megaludis (Penn State)
  • 133 - Nahshon Garrett (Cornell) vs. Cory Clark (Iowa)
  • 141 - Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) vs. Bryce Meredith (Wyoming)
  • 149 - Zain Retherford (Penn State) vs. Brandon Sorensen (Iowa)
  • 157 - Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) vs. Jason Nolf (Penn State)
  • 165 - Alex Deiringer (Oklahoma State) vs. Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin)
  • 174 - Bo Nickal (Penn State) vs. Myles Martin (Ohio State)
  • 184 - Gabe Dean (Cornell) vs. Timothy Dudley (Nebraska)
  • 197 - Morgan McIntosh (Penn State) vs. J'den Cox (Missouri)
  • HWT - Nick Gwiazdowski (North Carolina State) vs. Kyle Snyder (Ohio
  • State)