And I've seen my share of outstanding performers on the collegiate level.
With Penn State seniors Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf finishing their standout careers as three-time NCAA champions, a frequently asked question was brought to the forefront once again.
Who are the best collegiate wrestlers of all time?
It is a daunting and challenging task to compare so many incredible wrestlers from different eras and rank them accordingly.
But it's also fun to reflect back on some amazing careers.
There is no question that John Smith, Jordan Burroughs and Bruce Baumgartner went on to accomplish incredible feats on the international level after they finished college. They would rank 1-2-3 on most people's list of top Olympic-level wrestlers.
The criteria that I used for this list is based on what wrestlers achieved during their college careers. No doubt, you won't agree with all of my selections. These are my personal choices.
Here is my list of the best college wrestlers of all time:
Cael Sanderson gets his hand raised after winning his fourth NCAA title and finishing undefeated
1. Cael Sanderson, Iowa State
There won't be any argument here. Sanderson was the best of all time at the collegiate level. He was the only wrestler to complete a four-year career unbeaten after going an unthinkable 159-0 for the Cyclones from 1998-2002. He won three NCAA titles at 184 pounds before winning at 197 as a senior. He was a three-time Hodge Trophy winner. He also beat some very good wrestlers, including UFC champion and world medalist Daniel Cormier, world silver medalists Brad Vering and Brandon Eggum, and world bronze medalist Justin Ruiz, during his phenomenal college career. He did it with a wide-open, attacking style where he piled up points and put on a show. He was a skilled technician who pushed the pace and also was very mobile for his size. I wish Sanderson could have competed more internationally, but he proved how good he was by winning an Olympic gold medal and a world silver medal in freestyle. Now he's making a run at being the best college coach in history with his dominating run at Penn State. His Nittany Lions have won eight of the last nine national championships.
Kyle Dake defeated David Taylor to claim his fourth NCAA title (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
2. Kyle Dake, Cornell
This is a tough one. There were several very strong candidates for the No. 2 spot on this list, but Dake's credentials simply speak for themselves. He won four NCAA titles in four different weight classes (141, 149, 157 and 165 pounds), a feat we may never see again. He won the Hodge Trophy as a senior in 2013. He won his final collegiate match against Penn State's David Taylor, who came back to win his second Hodge Trophy the next year. Dake has a diverse skill set and he is adept at any style of wrestling. He was lethal from the top position in college. Dake won a world title in 2018.
3. Yojiro Uetake, Oklahoma State
Other than Sanderson, who he coached, former Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas said Uetake was the best he had ever seen at the collegiate level. Douglas would know. He and Uetake were teammates with the Cowboys. Uetake won three NCAA titles at 130 pounds for Oklahoma State in the 1960s and was undefeated in college. He was twice named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament. Uetake was so dominant he was rarely challenged at the collegiate level. He won Olympic gold medals for Japan in 1964 and 1968.
4. Dan Gable, Iowa State
He was the Cael Sanderson of his time, a dominant wrestler whose punishing, push-the-pace style captured the attention of fans beyond wrestling. He was a legend in his home state and across the country with his work ethic and drive to succeed in wrestling. He won national titles at 130 and 137 pounds in 1968 and 1969. He won every college match before dropping his last match in a stunning 13-11 loss to Washington's Larry Owings in the 142-pound finals in 1970. Even with that setback, Gable was still one of the best ever at this level. He went on to win world and Olympic titles for the U.S before coaching the Iowa Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA titles.
Pat Smith became the first four-time NCAA champion5. Pat Smith, Oklahoma State
He wasn't even the best wrestler in his famous wrestling family, but he definitely had the best college career. Pat Smith was the first wrestler to win four NCAA titles. He finished his career with a 98-match unbeaten streak and won his share of pressure-packed bouts at 158 pounds to make history at the collegiate level. He definitely belongs in the top five on this prestigious list. Pat's older brother, John, is considered the greatest Olympic-level wrestler in history after winning two Olympic gold medals and four world titles. John Smith was a three-time NCAA finalist at Oklahoma State, capturing two titles while going 154-7-2 in college.
6. Logan Stieber, Ohio State
Stieber not only won four NCAA titles and the Hodge Trophy, but he led the Buckeyes to a national team title during his remarkable career. He beat his share of studs in his career, including two-time NCAA champion Jordan Oliver at 133 pounds and eventual two-time Hodge Trophy winner Zain Retherford at 141 pounds. He was at his best when it counted most. Stieber was tough on his feet and he was lethal in the top position in college. He went on to win a world title in freestyle wrestling for the U.S.
7. Dan Hodge, Oklahoma
When college wrestling's top honor is named after you, it is tough not to have Hodge near the top of this list. He was unbeaten in college as a middleweight while winning three NCAA titles and pinning almost everybody during his career in the 1950s. He went on to win an Olympic silver medal. He went out there and did what you are supposed to do in a wrestling match: pin your opponent. The guy was still crushing apples with one hand while in his 80s. He remains the only wrestler to make the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Lee Kemp8. Lee Kemp, Wisconsin
He was the Jordan Burroughs of his era, but Kemp was even better than Burroughs was at the collegiate level. Kemp won three NCAA titles at 158 pounds for the Badgers after dropping a close decision in the finals as a freshman. Kemp had a 110-match unbeaten streak. He was a physically gifted athlete who had a strong mental toughness and intelligence to match. He went on to win three world titles in freestyle wrestling. He would have been the favorite to win a gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia, but was unable to compete because of the U.S. boycott of the Olympics.
9. Mark Schultz, Oklahoma
Schultz won one of the biggest and best matchups in NCAA history when he defeated Iowa's Ed Banach in the 1982 NCAA finals at 177 pounds. Banach was on course to winning his third NCAA title as a junior before falling in a wild, high-scoring bout to the powerful Schultz in the finals. Schultz finished his college career with three national titles before going on to win an Olympic gold medal and two world titles for the United States. His brother, Dave, also won NCAA, Olympic and world titles.
10. Kyle Snyder, Ohio State
It is crazy to think that Snyder won three NCAA titles as an undersized college heavyweight while becoming the best international wrestler in the world. Snyder didn't wrestle a lot of college matches because he was also competing internationally. But what he did was impressive while wrestling opponents who outweighed him by 40 or more pounds. Two wrestlers he beat in the NCAA finals, Nick Gwiazdowski and Adam Coon, went on to win world medals as heavyweights on the Senior level. Snyder was a four-time NCAA finalist after placing second as a freshman at 197 pounds. Snyder became the youngest world champion in U.S. history in 2015 before becoming the youngest Olympic champion a year later. He added a second world title in 2017 before placing second in 2018.
11. Ed Banach, Iowa
Known as Eddie "The Horse" Banach during his college days, Banach was one of the most exciting wrestlers in Hawkeye history while wrestling at 177 and 190 pounds. He recorded 73 pins in his career. The explosive Banach was on course to win his third NCAA title as a junior in 1982 before falling to Mark Schultz in the finals. Schultz went on to win three national titles. Banach came back to win his third national championship in 1983 before winning an Olympic gold medal a year later in Los Angeles. Banach's twin brother, Lou, won two NCAA titles at heavyweight for Iowa before capturing an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
12. David Taylor, Penn State
The two-time Hodge Trophy winner was one of the best I've seen at the collegiate level while competing at 157 and 165 pounds. Taylor was a dynamic, aggressive wrestler who had a similar style to his mentor and head coach, Cael Sanderson. Taylor lost a hard-fought, 5-4 finals match to Kyle Dake when Dake captured his fourth NCAA crown in 2013. Taylor was a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion for the Nittany Lions. He led Penn State to four NCAA team titles from 2011-14. He went on to win a world title for the United States in 2018.
Ben Askren celebrates after winning the NCAA title in 2006 (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)13. Ben Askren, Missouri
A four-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion at 174 pounds, Askren twice won the Hodge Trophy as the best wrestler in college. He wrestled a style Hodge liked, pinning a majority of his opponents. He set several records and finished his college career with 91 pins. He was another guy who put on a show when he competed. Askren won his first title over Jake Herbert, who went on to win the Hodge Trophy and a world silver medal. Askren went on to make the 2008 Olympic Team before embarking on a successful career in mixed martial arts.
14. Tom Brands, Iowa
Tom and his twin brother, Terry, embodied the hard-nosed, blue-collar style of the Dan Gable-era at Iowa in the early 1990s. Tom captured three NCAA titles at 134 pounds for the Hawkeyes and Terry won two titles at 126. Tom went on to win Olympic and world titles while Terry won a pair of world titles and an Olympic bronze medal. Tom Brands is one of only three wrestlers to win three NCAA titles, an Olympic title and a world title. Mark Schultz and Kyle Snyder also achieved that feat. Tom Brands has coached the Iowa Hawkeyes to three NCAA team titles.
15. John Smith, Oklahoma State
He won two NCAA titles and was an NCAA runner-up for the Cowboys during a standout college career. He won national titles in 1987 and 1988 at 134 pounds. Between his junior and senior year, he won a gold medal at the 1987 World Championships. That launched the most amazing run by an American wrestler in history. Smith followed by winning two Olympic gold medals and three more world titles during a remarkable international career.
16. Zain Retherford, Penn State
This is a guy who definitely could've been higher on the list. He won two Hodge Trophy awards and three national titles for the Nittany Lions while dominating the competition at 149 pounds. He also was a leader during one of the best runs by a team in NCAA history. He won a Cadet world title and made a Senior world team in 2017. He may be adding more medals on the international scene before he's done.
17. Stephen Abas, Fresno State
Abas won three NCAA titles during a superb collegiate career as one of the best lightweight wrestlers of all time. Abas was superb on his feet -- technically sound with the athleticism and toughness to go with it. He was 144-4 in his career with 46 pins at 125 pounds. He went unbeaten during his final two seasons in college. Abas won an Olympic silver medal for the United States in 2004.
18. Lincoln McIlravy, Iowa
During Iowa's magical run under legendary coach Dan Gable, McIlravy made a strong run at becoming the first Hawkeye to win four NCAA titles. He won national titles his first two seasons before suffering a stunning loss in the 1995 NCAA finals at his home arena against Steve Marianetti of Illinois. McIlvravy came back after an Olympic redshirt to beat returning champion Chris Bono of Iowa State in the 150-pound finals in 1997. McIlravy went on to win an Olympic bronze medal along with world silver and bronze medals for the U.S.
19. Ed Ruth, Penn State
Ruth played a huge role in leading the incredible revival of the Penn State program after Cael Sanderson took over as head coach. He competed at 174 and 184 pounds while winning three national titles for the Nittany Lions after placing third as a freshman. He led Penn State to four NCAA team championships. Ruth made a U.S. world team in 2014 before pursuing a career in mixed martial arts. Ruth was another dominant wrestler who tacked up a ton of bonus points at the collegiate level. He sometimes didn't receive all of the credit he deserved while wrestling alongside David Taylor. But Ruth had a phenomenal career.
20. Gray Simons, Lock Haven
He won seven national titles in college from 1959-62 -- three NCAA and four NAIA -- and was named outstanding wrestler in six of those seven tournaments. He was 91-2 in college while competing at 115 pounds. He made the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Team.
21. Kurt Angle, Clarion
This is another guy who certainly could have been higher on this list. Angle was a small heavyweight who weighed just over 200 pounds, but he was a tremendous athlete who was strong and explosive for his size. Angle captured NCAA titles in 1990 and 1992 for Clarion University. He was second in the country in 1991. Angle found the perfect weight class internationally, winning a world title in 1995 and an Olympic gold medal in 1996 while wrestling at 220 pounds. He went on to win numerous titles in pro wrestling for World Wrestling Entertainment.
22. Jordan Burroughs, Nebraska
I feel bad about having Burroughs this low on the list, but he lands here when just considering his college credentials. He had a superb career for the Huskers. He fell short of placing as a true freshman at nationals before becoming a three-time All-American in three different weight classes. He was third in a stacked bracket at the 2008 NCAA tournament at 149 pounds before winning a national title at 157 in 2009 and adding a second championship at 165 in 2011. He was undefeated during his last two full college seasons. He won the Hodge Trophy in 2011. Burroughs has gone on to an incredible international career. He won the 2012 Olympics along with four world titles and two world bronze medals.
23. Bill Koll, Northern Iowa
He was a three-time national champion for Iowa State Teachers College, now Northern Iowa. Koll won three straight national titles from 1946-48 while going unbeaten with a spotless 72-0 record. He was the first wrestler to twice be voted outstanding wrestler at the national tournament. He wrestled for the U.S. at the 1948 Olympic Games. His son, Rob, is the long-time coach at Cornell. Rob Koll coached Kyle Dake to four NCAA titles.
24. Alex Dieringer, Oklahoma State
Dieringer was another guy who continually raised his level of wrestling while excelling in college. A Junior world silver medalist in freestyle, he won three NCAA titles for the Cowboys. He captured the Hodge Trophy in 2016. He won the final 82 matches of his career for Oklahoma State. He went 133-4 during his brilliant career with the Cowboys while competing at 157 and 165 pounds.
25. Brent Metcalf, Iowa
There is no doubt that Metcalf was one of the most dominating wrestlers at this level. He was a three-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion at 149 pounds while winning the Hodge Trophy. He beat Jordan Burroughs, who went on to win an Olympic gold medal and four world titles, in the NCAA semifinals in 2008. Metcalf led the Hawkeyes to three NCAA team titles and lost just three matches in three seasons. He could've done even more, but he lost a year of eligibility after transferring from Virginia Tech to Iowa. He went on to make four world teams in freestyle wrestling.
26. Bo Nickal, Penn State
Nickal led the second wave of Penn State championship teams, capturing three individual titles. He beat past champions Gabe Dean and Myles Martin to win his first two titles at 184 pounds before winning at 197 as a senior. Nickal was another dominant wrestler who won the Hodge Trophy in 2019 with three-time national champion and teammate Jason Nolf also in the mix for that honor. Nickal's go-for-broke style was fun to watch.
J'den Cox (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
27. J'den Cox, Missouri
This is a guy who has consistently competed at an extremely high level and knows how to deliver when the stakes are highest. He's a winner, and he continues to prove that. Cox captured three national titles and was a four-time All-American at 197 pounds for his hometown Missouri Tigers before going on to win an Olympic bronze medal, a world bronze medal and a world title for the U.S. in freestyle wrestling.
28. Stephen Neal, CSU Bakersfield
One of the best heavyweights of all time, Neal placed fourth, second, first and first in four trips to the NCAA Championships. He won the Hodge Trophy as a senior. A powerful and mobile big man, Neal won a world title for the United States in 1999. After falling to Kerry McCoy in the finals of the 2000 Olympic Trials, Neal pursued a career in the National Football League. He became a starting offensive lineman for New England, collecting three Super Bowl championship rings with the Patriots.
29. Mark Churella, Michigan
Wrestlers from past eras sometimes are ranked lower than they should be, but it would be unfair for Churella to fall into that category. He was a three-time NCAA champion who also earned an OW award at the national tournament. Churella was one of the best I've ever seen while competing for the Wolverines in the 1970s. He won two NCAA titles at 150 pounds before bumping up two weight classes to win a national title at 167 as a senior in 1979.
30. Nate Carr, Iowa State
This was one of my favorite wrestlers to watch when I was growing up in the 1980s. Carr was a human highlight reel who had all of the intangibles to be a great wrestler with his speed, strength and skill. He won three NCAA titles at 150 pounds while facing strong competition. Carr beat Oklahoma State's Kenny Monday in overtime in the 1982 and 1983 national finals. Monday went on to win Olympic and world titles. Carr captured an Olympic bronze medal in 1988.
31. Jason Nolf, Penn State
He had a phenomenal career on powerhouse Nittany Lion teams that won four consecutive NCAA team titles. Nolf was a dominant wrestler at 157 pounds who won three national titles from 2017-19 after finishing second at the NCAA tournament as a freshman.
Kerry McCoy32. Kerry McCoy, Penn State
Another heavyweight who dominated opponents in the 1990s was McCoy, a two-time national champion for the Nittany Lions. He won 131 of his last 132 matches in college while compiling an 88-match winning streak. He won the Hodge Trophy in 1997. McCoy was a fixture on the international scene for years. He won a world silver medal in 2003 and made the U.S. Olympic Team in 2000 and 2004. He beat 1999 world champion Stephen Neal in the finals of the Olympic Trials in 2000.
33. Randy Lewis, Iowa
If not for suffering a dislocated elbow his senior year, Lewis could have made a strong case for being the best Hawkeye ever. Lewis was arguably the most exciting Iowa wrestler of all time with a fearless and relentless style. Lewis placed second at his first NCAA tournament before downing Cal State Bakersfield's John Azevedo 20-14 in the 126-pound national finals in 1979. Lewis followed by winning nationals at 134 pounds a year later before making the 1980 Olympic Team. He finished seventh at NCAAs as a senior in 1981 after badly injuring his elbow during the season. He went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
34. Jake Varner, Iowa State
Another Cael Sanderson protégé, Varner was a four-time NCAA finalist during a stellar career for the Cyclones where he competed at 184 and 197 pounds. Varner captured NCAA titles at 197 pounds during his final two seasons at Iowa State in 2009 and 2010. He went on to win a world bronze medal in 2011 before earning an Olympic gold medal for the United States in men's freestyle wrestling in 2012 in London.
35. Barry Davis, Iowa
He had an outstanding career for the Hawkeyes. He captured three NCAA titles, including the tournament OW as a senior. He won an Olympic silver medal in 1984 while still in college. He was named Big Ten Athlete of the Year in 1985. He set school records for wins in a season and career. He went on to win world silver and bronze medals.
36. Cary Kolat, Lock Haven
This is another guy who was a tremendous wrestler who probably doesn't receive all of the credit he deserves. Kolat started his career at Penn State, finishing second at NCAAs as a freshman to eventual three-time national champion T.J. Jaworsky of North Carolina. Kolat placed third as a sophomore before transferring to Lock Haven. He followed by winning national titles for Lock Haven in 1996 and 1997. He was 111-7 in college with 53 falls while wrestling at 134 and 142 pounds. Kolat went on to win world silver and bronze medals while making the 2000 Olympic team for the U.S.
37. Jake Herbert, Northwestern
Herbert was another dynamic performer who lost just four matches during his standout collegiate career. Herbert was a three-time NCAA finalist and won two titles. He beat eventual Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner in the 2007 NCAA finals, took an Olympic redshirt in 2008 and capped his career with a second NCAA title at 184 pounds in 2009. He won the Hodge Trophy and a few months later won a silver medal for the U.S. at the 2009 World Championships. He was a 2012 Olympian.
38. T.J. Jaworsky, North Carolina
Jaworsky was a force at 134 pounds during the 1990s, winning three straight NCAA championships for the Tar Heels. Jaworsky beat Penn State's Cary Kolat, who went on to win two NCAA titles and two world medals, in the 1993 finals. After winning his second title by major decision in 1994, Jaworsky rolled to his third national title in 1995, winning a weight class that included 1998 Hodge Trophy winner Mark Ironside of Iowa. Jaworsky won the inaugural Hodge Trophy in 1995.
39. Carlton Haselrig, Pitt-Johnstown
The powerful Haselrig accomplished something we likely will never see again in college wrestling. He won six national titles in a span of three seasons at the collegiate level. The standout heavyweight was an NCAA Division I and II champion from 1987-89. He went on to become a Pro Bowl lineman in the National Football League for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Carl Adams, Iowa State
Lou Banach, Iowa
Bruce Baumgartner, Indiana State
Ricky Bonomo, Bloomsburg
Terry Brands, Iowa
Darryl Burley, Lehigh
Chris Campbell, Iowa
Mike Caruso, Lehigh
Gabe Dean, Cornell
Eric Guerrero, Oklahoma State
Les Gutches, Oregon State
Nick Gwiazdowski, North Carolina State
Larry Hayes, Iowa State
Sammie Henson, Clemson
Stanley Henson, Oklahoma State
Mark Ironside, Iowa
Jimmy Jackson, Oklahoma State
Greg Johnson, Michigan State
Greg Jones, West Virginia
Jim Jordan, Wisconsin
Cole Konrad, Minnesota
Gerald Leeman, Northern Iowa
Isaiah Martinez, Illinois
Earl McCready, Oklahoma State
Andre Metzger, Oklahoma
Pat Milkovich, Michigan State
Steve Mocco, Iowa, Oklahoma State
Kenny Monday, Oklahoma State
Tony Nelson, Minnesota
Gene Mills, Syracuse
Bill Nelson, Northern Iowa
Jordan Oliver, Oklahoma State
Rex Peery, Oklahoma State
Chris Pendleton, Oklahoma State
Ben Peterson, Iowa State
Donny Pritzlaff, Wisconsin
Kevin Randleman, Ohio State
Myron Roderick, Oklahoma State
Jake Rosholt, Oklahoma State
Tommy Rowlands, Ohio State
Rick Sanders, Portland State
Wade Schalles, Clarion
Dave Schultz, Oklahoma
Bill Smith, Northern Iowa
Chris Taylor, Iowa State
T.J. Williams, Iowa
Joe Williams, Iowa
Jim Zalesky, Iowa