Foley: Top ten college wrestlers of the 2000s

The top ten wrestlers of the 2000s is not based solely on empirical data. Were we just to list wrestlers in order of championship trophies hoisted and aggregate wins versus aggregate losses, we'd lose out on some of the context. The reality is that some eras and some weight classes were more robust than others, some wrestlers influenced the sport more than others, and some unbeaten streaks were too great to ignore. The only wrestlers considered are those who finished their careers in the aughties. Those, like Jordan Burroughs who finished in this decade, are ineligible.

Chris Pendleton (Oklahoma State) and Ben Askren (Missouri) wrestled eight times over two seasons, with Pendleton winning seven of those meetings (Photo/Danielle Hobeika)
The top ten considers the number of NCAA championships to be the most important stat (though as you'll see it doesn't hold up in every situation) and the numbers of finals appearances to be second-most important. Head-to-head match-ups aren't always weighed heavily since many of the wrestlers met at different points in their careers. The opponents faced within a given season does have some bearing, as does media attention and how that wrestler influenced the modern style of American wrestling.

Enjoy the list and be sure to leave your comment below. I'm sure there will be plenty of disagreement, but I'll be sure to read each comment you post and when appropriate shed some lonely tears as I recount my own stupidity.

Honorable Mention: Every two-time NCAA champion from last decade: Damion Hahn (Minnesota), Ryan Bertin (Michigan), Matt Valenti (Penn), Mark Perry (Iowa), Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma State), Eric Juergens (Iowa), Johnny Thompson (Oklahoma State), Teyon Ware (Oklahoma), Tommy Rowlands (Ohio State), Donny Pritzlaff (Wisconsin), Steve Mocco (Iowa/Oklahoma State), Joe Dubuque (Indiana), J Jaggers (Ohio State), Travis Lee (Cornell), and Jake Varner (Iowa State). (Nebraska's Jordan Burroughs was omitted because he finished his career in this decade.)

10. Chris Pendleton
College: Oklahoma State
NCAA Finishes: Two-time NCAA finalist, two-time NCAA champion (2004, 2005)
Career Record: 118-12

Why He Made the List: In addition to being a two-time NCAA champion, what stands out most about Pendleton's career was his dominance over Ben Askren. The final record from their eight college meetings has Pendleton in the lead 7-1. Add in the fact that he had single-loss seasons in '04 and '05 and Pendleton is the favorite in a large and distinguished field of two-time NCAA champions and three-time finalists that were left out of the top ten.

9. Cole Konrad
College: Minnesota
NCAA Finishes: Three-time NCAA finalist, two-time NCAA champion, (2006, 2007)
Career Record: 155-13

Why He Made the List: It's hard to overstate how dominant Konrad was during his final two seasons as Minnesota's heavyweight. He went undefeated in those two seasons, reeling off 76 consecutive victories and 29 pins. During the 2005-06 season, Konrad defeated Steve Mocco, a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time NCAA champion, three times, including once by pin in the finals of the NWCA/Cliff National Duals. Konrad finished his college wrestling career with a .922 winning percentage, two NCAA titles, and four All-American honors.

8. Brent Metcalf
College: Iowa
NCAA Finishes: Three-time NCAA finalist, two-time NCAA champion (2008, 2010)
Career Record: 108-3

Why He Made the List: Few wrestlers have entered NCAA wrestling with more hype or pressure than Brent Metcalf. The Michigan native wanted to live the Iowa style even when it was located in southwestern Virginia. Metcalf signed with Tom Brands at Virginia Tech out of high school and eventually was forced to take a one-year penalty from the NCAA for transferring, which in turn only caused more controversy. When Metcalf finally took the mat he put on three years of dominant performances. In 111 matches he only endured three losses, two at the hands of an NCAA champion (Darrion Caldwell) and one by NCAA finalist (Lance Palmer). Perhaps the most compelling reason for Metcalf to be included -- if not a justification for being higher -- is that he won the NCAA title at 149 pounds in 2008, arguably the most loaded weight class in the history of NCAA wrestling.

7. Jake Herbert
College: Northwestern
NCAA Finishes: Three-time NCAA finalist, two-time NCAA champion (2007, 2009)
Career Record: 149-4

Why He Made the List: Lots of people go to college for six years! Like many of the other wrestlers on the list, Herbert is as popular off the mat as he is dominant on it. He finished his career with two NCAA titles, two undefeated seasons, and the knowledge that his last collegiate loss was to Ben Askren all the way back in the 2006 NCAA finals. What most fans probably remember about Herbert is the strength with which he was able to control opponents on the mat and his unrelenting pressure late in matches (when it mattered). The Wexford, Pa. native had a questionable selection of setups, but every time he managed to grab hold of a leg he seemed assured a finish. The 2012 U.S. Olympic Team member at 84 kilos, look for Herbert to try and improve on his silver medal performance at the 2009 World Championships. He also helped usher in arguably the greatest five-year span in the history of Northwestern wrestling.

6. T.J. Williams
College: Iowa
NCAA Finishes: Two-time NCAA finalist, two-time NCAA champion (1999, 2001)
Career Record: 98-1

Why He Made the List: Did you know that T.J. Williams owns the record for best winning percentage in Iowa wrestling history? Were it not for his overtime loss to Boise State's Larry Quisel in the semifinals of the 2000 NCAA tournament, Williams would be the most celebrated wrestler in the history of Hawkeye wrestling. As it is he had one of the most astonishing and accomplished careers, even though he had to stuff it into three seasons.

5. Jake Rosholt
College: Oklahoma State
NCAA Finishes: Three-time NCAA finalist, three-time NCAA champion (2003, 2005, 2006)
Career Record: 105-20

Why He Made the List: Rosholt was just 18-9 heading into his first NCAA tournament in 2002. As a freshman, the most any critic would've granted the 184-pound Rosholt was a shot at an All-American statue. Rosholt had different plans. After a first-round decision victory against the wrestler from The Citadel, Rosholt pinned Greg Parker (Princeton) and almost majored Josh Lambrecht (Oklahoma) by a score of 7-2 -- both NCAA finalists. Rosholt ended up beating Scott Barker (Missouri) in the finals by major decision, 13-5, only two weeks after Barker had dominated Rosholt at the Big 12 Championships. Oklahoma State head coach John Smith once said that Rosholt was one of his favorite wrestlers, mostly because he was capable of seeing past his regular season losses and focusing on what mattered most. I'd like to think that's what we're doing by ranking him fifth.

4. Ben Askren
College: Missouri
NCAA Finishes: Four-time NCAA finalist, two-time NCAA champion (2006, 2007)
Career Record: 153-8

Why He Made the List: Askren was undoubtedly one of the most popular NCAA wrestlers of the aughties. With a hairstyle that belied his fondness to entertain the crowd, wrestling fans were treated to the Mizzou wrestler's unique brand of funk and penchant for finishing matches by fall. Askren had an INCREDIBLE 91 pins over his four seasons in Columbia. If the four-time finalist had a blight on his resume it was his 1-7 record versus Chris Pendleton -- all of which occurred in his first two seasons of competition. Every great wrestler has a nemesis (minus the guy at No. 1) and the ever-talented Pendleton was Askren's kryptonite. Despite those losses, Askren had arguably the most dominant stat line of any wrestler in NCAA history, which more than compensates for the spat of early career losses at the hands of Pendleton. His wrestling career ended a year after his appearance at the 2008 Olympic Games, but fans can still watch him impress in his skyrocketing MMA career. Askren is currently undefeated and carrying the Bellator welterweight championship.

3. Greg Jones
College: West Virginia
NCAA Finishes: Three-time NCAA finalist, three-time NCAA champion (2002, 2004, 2005)
Career Record: 126-4

Why He Made the List: Jones is simply one of the greatest college wrestlers of all-time. The Slickville, Pa. native native won 97-percent of his matches and won an NCAA title in each of his three NCAA finals appearances. His style wasn't always punishing, but by executing with perfect technique and explosive power he often turned what might have been contestable matches into blowouts. His sophomore slump at the NCAA tournament was unexpected, losing to Ralph Everett (Hofstra) on the top side of the bracket and future UFC star Rashad Evans (Michigan State) in the consolation bracket. But his junior and senior efforts did enough to outshine that lapse. In those last two seasons Jones' dominance became even more evident with a variety of attacks on his feet and a re-upped top game that transitioned into more falls for the Mountaineers. He finished his career with 51 straight wins.

2. Stephen Abas
College: Fresno State
NCAA Finishes: Three-time NCAA finalist, three-time NCAA champion (1999, 2001, 2002)
Career Record: 144-4

Why He Made the List: Stephen and his older brother Gerry Abas could be the single most technically influential wrestling family of the last decade. Before the Abas brothers, few wrestlers were diving through legs, finishing scrambles with tilts, or otherwise being exceedingly creative at the most difficult moments of a match. At times it seemed that the longer the odds of wiggling out of a position the more likely Abas would score back points. The Abas style redefined the sport of college wrestling and with only four losses and three NCAA titles, Stephen Abas is inarguably one of the greatest NCAA wrestlers ever.

1. Cael Sanderson
College: Iowa State
NCAA Finishes: Four-time NCAA finalist, four-time NCAA champion (1999-2002)
Career Record: 159-0

Why He Made the List: Cael Sanderson became the first-ever four-time undefeated NCAA Division I champion in history on March 23, 2002. Sanderson went on to win an Olympic gold medal two years later, and most recently back-to-back NCAA team titles as a coach at Penn State. But nothing outshines the brilliance of his four years winning four titles at two weight classes. The greatest collegiate wrestler of all time, Sanderson was hardly challenged and it seems unlikely that we'll ever see another collegiate wrestler be as dominant as Cael.


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Randy Hartsinger (2) about 7 years ago
Nice list of the ten best college wrestlers of the 2000s. But how can you leave off Steve Mocco? He went 137-6, reached the NCAA finals four times, and won two NCAA titles. There have only been two heavyweights since 1928 to reach the NCAA finals four times, Dick Hutton and Steve Mocco. If that's not worthy of being in the top ten, I don't know what is.
dkman610 (1) about 7 years ago
With all due respect Randy, it was explained why Mocco wasn't in the top 10 because he was dominated by someone much younger...
MGoBlue (1) about 7 years ago
NIce article, but Jake Varner should be higher than honorable mention. Varner, a two-time champion, was also a four-time finalist with a record of 159-10 which included 132 falls! Go Jake, bring home the Gold from London!!!
trfoley (1) about 7 years ago
Varner was on the original list, but didn't see him as being quite the influence as the other two-timers. Your stat of 132 FALLS scared the hell out of me because that might've justified a move up in the rankings. Fortunately I checked and Varner had 42 falls in his four seasons in Ames.
MGoBlue (1) about 7 years ago
Yes, you are right. Sorry the 132 falls was his high school fall record. Thanks for the reply.
trfoley (1) about 7 years ago
Technically we shouldn't have added Metcalf because he finished in THIS decade. Varner is the same. But I think that most of their impact came in the 2000s, even if it doesn't fit precisely into the rules.
brennan81 (1) about 7 years ago
I see that Damion Hahn was omitted from your list. He was a 4x AA and 2x Champ. In addition I can think of a few guys that were 1x or multiple time finalists that were pretty influential. Jon Trenge comes to mind as one of those guys. His Freshman year he beat at least 3 of AA's including both finalists. His sophmore year he had 3 falls & a major at NCAA's before he lost to Sanderson in the finals. His junior year he lost the finals in the closing seconds to Hahn. His senior year he beat the NCAA champ Rosholt twice.
jsmallwood (1) about 7 years ago
My favorite from this era is Jesse Jantzen. OW of an NCAA tournament, exciting style, had a move named for him.
jmichael (1) about 7 years ago
It's nice to hear someone recognize Jon Trenge. I think he was the most snake bit wrestler in history. You forgot to mention the detached retina that caused him to miss the NCAA's one year and forced him to wear the faceguard the rest of his career. I think he was better than Rosholt but has no titles to show for it.
Diesel67 (1) about 7 years ago
Don't forget Jaggers of Ohio State, who had his ankle shredded by Chad Mendes with 16 seconds left to go. The Buckeye gutted out the 16 seconds and hobbled off with the win and the title.
Diesel67 (1) about 7 years ago
Spoke too soon. Jaggers did get an honorable mention. Mendes just came off a stunning win in MMA. KOd his opponent with a punch in the solar plexus.
DMillsTheChamp (1) about 7 years ago
149 in 2008 is defiantly the hardest weight class of all time
aiso65 (1) about 7 years ago
Love the mentions of Jon Trenge... had a clinic with him just last night. 3-Time AA, 2-0 against Rosholt... best wrestler in 2000's to not win a title... hands down...
gabas (1) about 6 and a half years ago
I really appreciate the acknowledgement! An interesting fact that I must point out- Stephen Abas beat Cael Sanderson when they were in high school at the Cadets USAW Western Regionals.
gabas (1) about 6 and a half years ago
...if head-to-head match-ups makes any difference ;-)
gabas (1) about 6 and a half years ago
TRAVIS LEE is very impressive!! He honed his skills on an island, with very little competition, before going to Cornell and being a 2x champ. He deserves more then honorable mention...
ryanhenry (1) about 4 and a half years ago
TJ Williams lost to Glenn Garrison in the JUCO's as a Freshman. Though it was one of the toughest JUCO brackets ever. With Garrison beating him and Reggie Wright.
doncooper (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Top college wrestlers of the 2000s!
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PaulHutchison (1) about 5 months ago
The ideals of the modern college wrestling keeps going away from what was originally intended. To complete fairly and not have professionals compete and to have profit be a deciding factor.
PaulHutchison (1) about 5 months ago
The ideals of the modern college wrestling keeps going away from what was originally intended. To complete fairly and not have professionals compete and to have profit be a deciding factor.
Jhon_constantine (1) about 3 weeks ago
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