It's rare for a wrestler's fame to enter even a sliver of the consciousness of mainstream college sports fans. Dan Gable transcended wrestling at Iowa State in the 1960s and '70s by going 181--1 in three seasons. Pat Smith did it at Oklahoma State in the '90s by becoming the first four-time national champ. Cael Sanderson did it at Iowa State in the 2000s by going 159--0. Sanderson's quest for a perfect career resonated throughout sports, and he is widely considered the greatest college wrestler of all time.
Koll believes Dake should be part of the G.O.A.T. discussion. "What Kyle did is more remarkable than anybody who came before him," the coach says. "I'm not saying he was better than Cael or better than Pat Smith. I'm just saying I believe what he did was more remarkable, even though he lost some matches in his career."
Dake went 137--4 at Cornell but forced his way into the G.O.A.T. debate from different angles. For one, he did not redshirt, as Sanderson did and other elite recruits have. (Sanderson also lost a match while redshirting.) And while Sanderson spent his entire career in two weight classes, Dake set himself apart by dominating four.
Dake's first two jumps, from 141 to 149 to 157, were due to natural growth. The senior-year move to 165 was made for several reasons: It helped Cornell's team, which had more options at 157 than at 165. (The Big Red would finish fifth at nationals in 2013.) It let Dake prove that he could bulk up, rather than starve himself, and still succeed. ("The [weight-cutting] stigma has turned some people off wrestling," he says, "and I wanted to show that you didn't need to do it to win.") And it allowed him to chase history. While Dake served as a pre-Olympic training partner for Jordan Burroughs last summer, the eventual 74-kg gold medalist told him to make the jump in weight "for the fans." Burroughs believed the four-titles-in-four-classes feat was even more unlikely than going undefeated for an entire career, and he wanted to see it done.
Dake's move to 165 also created a wrestling megarivalry. For someone as competitive as Dake, going undefeated as a junior, winning his third straight national title and still not receiving the 2012 Hodge Trophy (wrestling's Heisman) had to sting. The award went to Penn State 165-pounder David Taylor, who had a history with Dake: Their families became friends at junior tournaments, and when the Dakes spent holidays with relatives in Ohio, they would drive Kyle up to train with David near Dayton. In a photo from the 2006 cadet nationals, Taylor, then a much bigger star, stands atop the awards podium while a miserable Dake is below him, holding a third-place plaque. Dake's memory of it remains vivid: "I was pissed, to say the least."
The three Dake-Taylor meetings in 2012--13—at the All-Star Classic in Washington, D.C., in November; at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga in January; and in the national finals in Des Moines—were among the most anticipated college wrestling matches of the decade. Dake opened the season ranked No. 2, but he took over No. 1 and stayed there by beating Taylor the first two times. Dake and Cornell assistant coach Jeremy Spates worked all season on what Spates called "Taylor things"—techniques that might keep the reigning Hodge winner off-guard. Otherwise, Dake stuck to his routine. On the morning of the final, he wrote 2013 165 lb DI National Champion in the notebook four times. Then he went out with his family for their customary pre-title-match breakfast of chocolate-chip pancakes. Finally, after Dake filled four more pages at the hotel, he went before a sold-out crowd of 16,131 and did his superstitious prematch hand slap with Spates, who said he could tell from its sting that Dake was good and ready.
In his letter before the season Dake had told himself, You are the best in the country, no one can touch you! You can take anyone down, defend all takedowns, escape at will and ride anyone! He rode Taylor relentlessly in the final match, earning a riding-time point (for being in control of the match at least a full minute more than Taylor) that was the difference in a tense 5--4 victory. All of Dake's 2,978 lines had come true, so he retired the notebook. He'll start another for the next three world championships and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Kyle Dake is done with college, but he has not finished writing.