Throwback Thursday: Was the 2016 NCAA final at HWT the greatest ever?

Updated: February 11, 2021

Photo: Nearly a 50-pound difference did not stop Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder (top) from beating NC State’s two-time champion Nick Gwiazdowski in sudden victory of the heavyweight final in the 2016 NCAA Championships in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Note: The following story, written by WIN founder Mike Chapman, appeared in the March 2016 issue of WIN Magazine, following the NCAA Division I Nationals in New York City. You can find this issue and other WIN Magazines back to 2011. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN Magazine.

Commentary by Mike Chapman

Was it the best of all time?

At the recently concluded NCAA Championships, North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski was riding an 88-match winning streak and gunning for his third NCAA title … and Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder was the youngest World freestyle champion in U.S. history. They battled to a 5-5 tie in regulation and the match ended with Snyder scoring a dramatic takedown in overtime.

Now many fans are asking if it is the best college heavyweight contest ever.

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Jim Duschen and Mark Johnson are two of the best authorities on wresting. Between them, they have attended 85 NCAA tournaments and have known many of the top heavyweights personally.

“It’s as good as any heavyweight match I’ve ever seen, especially when you consider both could be on the Olympic team,” said Johnson, who has been to 35 NCAA tournaments. Being a two-time All-American at Michigan and a 1980 Olympian, as well as head coach at both Illinois and Oregon State and an assistant at Iowa, gives him a unique perspective.

“It was a sensational match,” said Duschen, who was an All-American at Iowa State in 1969 at 190 and is a high school coaching legend in Nevada. “Just a great effort by two great athletes going all out.”

Most fans would agree with those assessments. But there have been many other memorable heavyweight matches at the NCAA tournament, and one of the best occurred in Fort Collins, Colo., at the 1949 meet.

There, Verne Gagne of Minnesota defeated Dick Hutton of Oklahoma A&M by a 1-1 referee’s decision. It would turn out to be the only loss of Hutton’s entire college career and stopped him from becoming the nation’s first four-time NCAA champion, as he won the title for the third time the following year in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Gagne had been the 191–pound champion in 1948, but moved up to challenge Hutton when the NCAA dropped the 191-pound class that year. Gagne weighed about 206 pounds for the match while Hutton checked in at 245. They were both extremely quick for heavyweights, with lots of technical skills, good gas tanks and lots of power.  Adding to the drama was the fact that two weeks earlier Gagne became the first wrestler to win four Big Ten titles and Hutton was unbeaten in college.

After a scoreless first period, Hutton rode Gagne for about 20 seconds. Gagne rode Hutton for about 60 seconds in the final period before giving up an escape. With no riding time and no overtime periods back then, the decision was left in the hands of one man: referee Finn Eriksen of Waterloo, Iowa.

Eriksen walked to the scoring table to see who had the edge in riding time and seeing that it was Gagne, raised the hand of the Minnesota star. But until the day he died in November of 2003, Hutton maintained he won that match.

To add to the story, in the 1950s, both men had become highly successful in the professional ranks in the top two competing organizations; Hutton holding the NWA world title and Gagne holding the AWA world title.

That is one of many classic heavyweight showdowns through the decades and it was brought to mind by the superb match between Snyder and Gwiazdowski in Madison Square Garden.

Here are some other great heavyweight matches that took place at the NCAAs.

  • 1963 – Jim Nance of Syracuse edged Larry Kristoff of Southern Illinois, 2-1. Nance went on to a great career as running back in professional football while Kristoff wound up winning a total of 12 freestyle and Greco-Roman national titles and finishing second in the World three times.
  • 1968 – Dave Porter of Michigan came from behind to nip Jess Lewis of Oregon State, 5-4. It would be the only loss ever for Lewis in college as he won NCAA titles the next two years, and closed out at 86-1. Porter finished as a two-time champion, as well.
  • 1977 – Jimmy Jackson of Oklahoma State, weighed around 340, slipped past Larry Bielenberg of Oregon State, who weighed about 215, in a battle of NCAA champions. The two stars battled to a 3-3, 1-1 referee’s decision. Jackson wound up with three NCAA titles.
  • 1981 – Iowa’s Lou Banach, weighing 209 pounds, pinned Indiana State’s Bruce Baumgartner, weighing around 250, late in the third period of a wild, seesaw battle. Baumgartner had pinned Banach in the Midlands three months earlier so this was sweet revenge for the Hawkeye. Both went on to become Olympic champions in 1984 and Baumgartner has the most national titles of any wrestler in American history, with 18.
  • 1982 – The next year, Banach defeated Wayne Cole of Iowa State for third place 11-10. Banach was wrestling with a separated shoulder that kept popping out and a sprained ankle. Duschen said it was the most action he has ever seen in a heavyweight match and Jim has attended 50 NCAA tournaments.
  • 1999 – Stephen Neal of Cal State-Bakersfield defeated Brock Lesnar of Minnesota in a battle of titans, 3-2. Neal was a two-time NCAA champion who won the World Championship the next year, then played ten seasons in the NFL for the New England Patriots, while Lesnar won the NCAAs next year and became a superstar in both pro wrestling and MMA.
  • 2006 – Cole Conrad defeated Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State in the finals, 5-2. Both men wound up with two titles each and then turned to MMA, with Konrad winning the Bellator world title and retiring with a 9-0 record. Mocco is 5-1 and still fighting.

I have attended 45 NCAA tournaments but saw Snyder vs. Gwiazdowski on television. I was very impressed by the effort of both men, but I still think Lou Banach’s performance in the 1981 NCAA tournament is the best I have ever seen by a college heavyweight.

Banach was a scoring machine much like Snyder, winning his five matches via two pins and scores of 24-6, 12-6 and 20-10.  Among his victims were the great Dan Severn, who became a mixed martial arts legend; America’s all-time leader in world medals (Baumgartner) and a pro wrestling superstar (Mike Rotundo). The next year, Lou pinned 405-pound Tab Thacker while weighing about half that much and he pinned 260-pound Steve “Dr. Death” Williams of Oklahoma in a dual meet. Mark Johnson also says he has never seen a better heavyweight than Banach was that year.

To get more perspective on the Snyder-Gwiazdowski match, I called Lou, who is now a bank executive outside of Milwaukee. He was in New York for the event.

“I was very impressed with that match and both wrestlers,” said Lou. “You want to see wrestlers live up to their potential … and that’s definitely what I saw. They really delivered, for themselves, their schools and the sport.”

And then he added this: “What I also saw was the character both exhibited, all the way through the match. They showed the same intensity that Wayne Cole and I did back in 1982, and for me that was very gratifying.

“I’m proud of them and I’m glad we’re all in the same fraternity of heavyweight wrestling.”