The best of the best. Champions vs. champions. These are the kinds of duals that fans can expect to see at next week’s National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) All-Star Classic, a historic event featuring 15 elite, high-profile weight matches across ten men’s freestyle weights and five women’s freestyle weights.
But, even beyond the All-Star Classic, there are still a number of notable potential matchups this year that breed intriguing storylines and could answer key questions about who might be able to make a run for the top of the podium in March.
Here are five of those exciting possible matchups to anticipate this NCAA wrestling season, all of which include two wrestlers who have not yet faced each other in collegiate competition. Not all of these matches are necessarily scheduled, but they could happen at NCAAs or other winter tournaments.
No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young vs. No. 3 Vito Arujau, 133 pounds
Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young has separated himself from his competition in the traditionally-deep weight class of 133 pounds. He’s been the kind of consistent, championship performer that Penn State fans expect to see atop the podium. However, Bravo-Young will have a new foe in his weight this year, as Cornell’s Vito Arujau is set to move up from 125 pounds, creating a new storyline down at the lightweights. Arujau, a particularly successful freestyle wrestler, finished second in the Olympic Trials in 2021 to eventual Olympic Bronze medalist Thomas Gilman and has two All-American folkstyle honors to his name down at 125 pounds. The Cornell junior is long, savvy and quick, making him a fun matchup for Bravo-Young, another one of the fastest, flashiest wrestlers in the NCAA.
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These two athletes both competed in their first NCAA tournament in 2019, with Bravo-Young finishing eighth at 133 pounds and Arujau taking fourth at 125 pounds.
Arujau opted to take an Olympic redshirt the following season, and this decision shielded him from the heartbreak of the 2020 COVID cancellations. However, this move also ultimately kept him off the folkstyle mat for a second season when the Ivys cancelled the 2021 season and Arujau chose to focus on freestyle ahead of the Olympic Trials.
Bravo-Young, in the meantime, won his first NCAA title by topping another freestyle standout, Daton Fix, in sudden victory at the national tournament in St. Louis in 2021. The Nittany Lion champion added another title win to his resume the following year with a similarly close victory over Fix again, while Arujau finished third, after dropping to national finalist Patrick Glory of Princeton in the semifinals by way of major decision and then topping Patrick McKee and Michael DeAugustino in the consolation bracket.
Arujau has not yet competed this season up at 133 pounds, but his first match against Wisconsin’s All-American Taylor LaMont this coming weekend will provide insight into how the Big Red star looks against ranked competition.
Bravo-Young’s skills at the weight, on the other hand, are well known. He teched Lock Haven’s Gable Strickland last weekend, and he looks every bit as strong and elite on the mat has he has in year’s past. Suggesting that Arujau could push Bravo-Young for a title at this weight before he’s even wrestled a match this year at 133 pounds might be premature, but Arujau has proven himself at 125 pounds and on the freestyle stage. He’s won a Pan American title, a freestyle national title and a junior world silver medal, and he’s translated that freestyle expertise into his two top-four finishes on the collegiate scene.
There is always the possibility that Arujua drops back down to 125 pounds later this season, given that he’s started his two previous collegiate seasons up at 133 pounds before making the cut down to the lightest weight class, but if he stays up at 133, as he’s expected to do for now, he has the chance to challenge Bravo-Young. You can’t ever count out an Olympic Trials finalist, even against a two-time NCAA champion.
No. 1 Quincy Monday vs. No. 7 Austin O’Connor, 157 pounds
Like Bravo-Young, North Carolina's Austin O’Connor has stood atop the NCAA podium. He’s had his moment in the spotlight, and he’ll have one more chance to recreate that experience here in this final season. The North Carolina senior made school history in 2021 when he won his national championship bracket and became the first Tar Heel to accomplish such a feat since 1995. He's certainly in contention to win another title, now up at 157 pounds, but his bracket could be full of potential landmines. One of which may be Princeton’s Quincy Monday.
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A 2022 NCAA finalist at 157 pounds, Monday initially suggested that he would wrestle up at 165 pounds this year but only recently announced that he’d be cutting back down to 157 pounds following his match at the All-Star Classic against Iowa State’s David Carr. At 157 pounds, Monday is certainly a title contender, though O’Connor, as well as a number of other talented All-American athletes including Nebraska’s Peyton Robb, Minnesota’s Brayton Lee and Virginia Tech’s Bryce Andonian will be trying to block him from that opportunity while chasing their own title goals.
Monday is 72-21 in his three seasons with the Princeton Tigers, but he had a breakout season last year while making his run to the NCAA finals. His only losses last year came against NCAA champion Ryan Deakin, national qualifier Ed Scott and All-American Jacori Teemer, and he scored wins against All-Americans Will Lewan, Peyton Robb and Kaleb Young. This was the kind of season that Monday had been building toward throughout his career at Princeton, and he now has one more chance to chase the championship title that has still eluded him.
O'Connor's season last year was a little different, as he roared through the regular season with just one loss before going 1-1 at the ACC tournament due to an injury. This injury ultimately forced him to medically forfeit out of the NCAA tournament after his Blood Round win over Josh Humphreys of Lehigh, but the Carolina senior earned great credit and support for his gritty wrestling during the tournament. O'Connor looks to be healthy and set for a full return this year, and his potential matchup with Monday would be epic. These two are unlikely to meet before the national tournament, but if the seeds align, this would be a match absolutely worth watching.
No. 2 Shane Griffith vs. No. 3 David Carr, 165 pounds
Like O'Connor, Stanford's Shane Griffith and Iowa State's David Carr have also won NCAA titles, with Griffith earning his title at 165 pounds in 2021 and Carr taking home top honors at 157 pounds that same year. These two wrestlers then finished second and third respectively at 165 and 157 pounds in 2022 but are both now up at the heavier of those two weights, preparing to face off in one of the most top-heavy weight classes in the country this year.
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Carr comes into the season with a slightly more impressive career record, though neither wrestler has lost more than half a dozen times over the course of their combined six years of varsity action.
Griffith entered the NCAA tournament in 2022 with losses to Evan Wick and Julian Ramirez, but he redeemed both of those losses on his way to a national runner-up finish after dropping to Mizzou's Keegan O'Toole in the finals.
Carr, on the other hand, took his only loss of the year in the second-round of the NCAA tournament to Hunter Willits before battling back for third. Both of these wrestlers have shown tremendous grit in the face of adversity, and the intensity they bring the mat will likely only intensify if they have the chance to meet one another for a match this year.
With Carr as a leader, the Iowa State Cyclones have been off to a hot start this season, rolling past Wisconsin 26-6 and racking up Ws against Campbell, Little Rock and California Baptist as well. They are not set to wrestle Stanford during the regular season, though both do have the Southern Scuffle on their team schedules. Carr could also have a tougher dual schedule than Griffith simply because of the fact that he will likely have to take on 2022 NCAA champion O'Toole of Missouri both in the dual and potentially in the Big 12 Tournament. Carr's decision to bump up from 157 pounds, a weight where he would also have been a title favorite, to 165 pounds, means that three former champs now occupy this weight, and watching any two of those champs do battle would bring fans to their feet.
Griffith and Carr have both become the faces of their programs for their leadership and class. But, make no mistake, these two are savages on the mat and would crank up the savvy offense if given the chance to wrestle one another.
No. 1 Max Dean vs. No. 4 Rocky Elam, 197 pounds
Much like 165 pounds, the 197-pound weight class this year features depth, though only one former champ occupies the ranks in this weight. Penn State's Max Dean stands alone as the only athlete with this honor. Dean demonstrated early dominance last year at his weight, but his close matches at the NCAA tournament suggest that he could be challenged by a number of guys at 197 pounds this year, particularly Jacob Warner of Iowa, Bernie Truax of Cal Poly and Rocky Elam of Missouri.
Dean and Warner have already wrestled each other several times in their careers already, with Dean earning the W both times. But the Penn State upperweight has yet to meet rising Missouri star Elam, and this potential matchup could really create some intrigue.
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Missouri's Elam has finished fifth and fourth in his two NCAA tournament appearances, and he’s lost just nine times during his varsity career, all but three of which have come against All-Americans. The young Tiger is tough, smart and experienced for his age, and he has the potentially to really challenge Dean. Let's take a look at some of the common opponents these two have seen throughout their varsity careers:
|COMMON OPPONENT||MAX DEAN RESULT||ROCKY ELAM RESULT|
|Louie DePrez||W 4-3 (3/17/22)
L 5-3 SV (11/30/18)
W 4-1 (11/19/21)
W 3-2 (11/12/17)
|W 4-0 (12/20/21)|
|Will Feldcamp||W 17-1 4:41 (3/17/22)||W FALL 1:39 (1/23/21)|
|Gavin Hoffman||W 9-3 (3/17/22)
W 5-3 SV (12/21/21)
|W 3-2 (3/17/22)|
|Eric Schultz||W 4-2 (3/05/22)||W 3-2 (3/17/22)
W 12-3 (3/18/21)
|Kordell Norfleet||W 10-1 (12/21/21)||W 4-2 (2/12/22)
W 9-1 (3/18/21)
|Noah Glaser||W 19-3 5:21 (12/20/21)||W 12-4 (12/04/21)|
|JT Davis||FALL 2:58 (12/05/21)||W 12/3 (12/21/21)|
|Nino Bonaccorsi||W 6-0 (3/21/19||W 6-1 (3/17/22)|
Elam's best performance on this list is his major decision against All-American Eric Schultz of Nebraska, while Dean has the slightest edge in the matches against Noah Glaser and JT Davis. Overall, though, these are two similar wrestlers, results-wise.
Outside of common opponents, Dean's best career win came in the 2019 NCAA semifinals when he stunned No. 1 seed Myles Martin and marched into the finals behind that victory. Though Dean fell in the finals match to Northern Iowa's Dean Foster, his growth and development at Penn State since his transfer decision in 2020 has helped him continue to improve. His 2022 NCAA title showed what Dean is capable of. Dean is dangerous from so many positions, though his bow-and-arrow is particularly threatening, and he would have the advantage on paper against someone like Elam in a match like this.
Elam, however, is set to compete in the 2022 All-Star Classic against 2022 NCAA finalist Jacob Warner of Iowa, and that bout will once again add another data point in the comparison between Elam and Dean. Penn State's Dean has beaten Warner twice, the first time more definitively than the second, but Elam has a shot now against the Hawkeye. That match against Jacob Warner will provide the Tiger athlete with an excellent early-season test against a national finalist, but a potential match-up with NCAA champion Max Dean would also be particularly exciting and noteworthy.
Of course, another big match for Max Dean that IS on the schedule is his potential upcoming battle with No. 8 Michael Beard, the former Penn State All-American who transferred Lehigh after sitting on the bench behind Dean last year. This match has everything that a high-profile match would want, and, lucky for fans, these two are actually set to face off in just a few weeks on December 4th. Circle that date on the calendar but also be looking ahead to some of Dean's other competitors that he could see at nationals, such as Elam.
No. 2 Jacob Warner vs. No. 5 Bernie Truax, 197 pounds
Iowa's Jacob Warner became the Hawkeyes' unexpected hero last spring when he upset No. 2-seeded Stephen Buchanan in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament to advance to the finals, keeping Iowa's streak of 31 straight consecutive national finalists alive for at least another season. Now a three-time national placewinner, Jacob Warner is looking to end his career on top. Like Carr and Monday, he'll also be competing in the All-Star Classic, where’s he’s set to wrestle Rocky Elam of Missouri, an athlete he was not yet wrestled. Elam is just one of several athletes at 197 pounds that could create a fun match against Warner.
Cal Poly's Bernie Truax is another decorated wrestler who creates interest every time he wrestles, given his hard-nosed style and his rapid upward trajectory as a Mustang. A battle between him and Iowa's upperweight is one that would be worth watching.
Truax has finished fourth in the last two NCAA tournaments and currently holds a 64-24 career record overall, though his varsity record is an even more impressive 55-18. He's undefeated so far in the 2022-2023 season and has bonused everyone except Maryland's star freshman Jaxon Smith, who he beat 6-4. Truax wrestled down at 184 pounds last year, and he was even lighter at 174 pounds the year before. Truax has the potential to push for a finals spot up at 197 pounds.
At last year's NCAA tournament, the Mustang All-American navigated a truly challenging path in his weight to make the podium, as he beat Ohio State All-American Kaleb Romero, Wyoming's multiple-time qualifier Tate Samuelson and Gregg Harvey to earn a match against Olympic bronze medalist Myles Amine.
While Amine beat Truax, he wrestled hard, forcing Amine into overtime. Truax would ultimately settle for fourth place after another narrow loss to All-American Parker Keckeisen, but he's someone that always puts up a challenge.
Given that Iowa's Warner is the kind of athlete who wrestles narrow, close matches with athletes up and down the rankings, Truax would push the pace and force Warner to shoot. This contrast of styles, combined with the depth of 197, makes this an ideal, highly-anticipated match, one of just several that could come, perhaps in the postseason.