For the athletes of today to become the mixed martial arts superstars of tomorrow, they need a launching point. Some take classes at an academy or a gym, others choose to wrestle at the high school level of competition to help mold their raw talent into pure athletic potential, which eventually leads them to compete at the collegiate level. How big of an opportunity can one receive in college, though?

The answer to that question, for high-level wrestlers with Olympic aspirations and other dreams in mind, is the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. Notable mixed martial artists like Johny Hendricks, Mark Munoz, Josh Koscheck and Ben Askren went through the Division I ranks, as did former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman. In fact, plenty of wrestlers join the fray year in and year out in order to cement their status as the best in the world at the sport of wrestling.

Since 1928, the NCAA has awarded the championships to college wrestling teams that prevailed, with Oklahoma State holding the title 34 times, including three unofficial title wins, and the University of Iowa holding the title 23 times, including a nine-year streak of success in the championships from 1978 to 1986. Also, aside from Hendricks, Munoz, Koscheck, Askren and Randleman, standouts like Dan Gable, Pat Smith and Cael Sanderson competed for—and won—individual titles. Smith, one of the most overlooked names in the history of the game, owns four championship wins in the 158-pound weight class, and the legendary Gable won titles at 130 pounds and 137 pounds.

Still, for the story of this year’s upcoming championships, we must speak of four-time winner Sanderson, one of the greatest to ever don a singlet. Although it is true that he, like Gable and Smith, won titles in two different weight classes, Sanderson’s contributions to the sport and to the NCAA Division I Championships come in the fact of him winning 159 official matches without a single loss in between any of them. In his 2001 and 2002 NCAA seasons, he went a perfect 40-0 without much difficulty or controversy.

Recently, Sanderson embraced the opportunity to coach for the Penn State Nittany Lions team, the winners of the NCAA Division I Championships for the past three years. Last year, Penn State earned a total of 123.5 points to win the team championship and bested the likes of Oklahoma State, Missouri, Iowa and Cornell.

Sanderson and his Nittany Lions arguably hold the favorite to claim the title this year as well. Their moment to attempt a four-year streak will come this weekend, with the first event of the championships on Thursday and the final session on Saturday. Those concerned about watching the action live can either attend the event when it comes to the Chesapeake Energy in Oklahoma City, or they can watch the action live from the comfort of their own home by tuning into ESPN, ESPN 2 and ESPN 3.

This year, ESPN opted to include the first two sessions as part of its televised lineup, something which had never happened before. Yes, ESPNU was on top of coverage for last year’s championships, but not every match aired on television. As is the case with some sporting events, fans needed to go through the ESPN 3 platform in order to watch those parts of the competition. This year, however, fans can choose to either watch it in its entirety on ESPN 3, complete with the option of watching up to four mats at a time, or they can follow the action from start to finish on television, where ESPNU will host the preliminary and medal rounds and ESPN will air the semifinals and the championship finals.

With these wrestlers on the verge of national exposure, let’s preview what’s in store for this weekend’s NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

For starters, look to Sanderson’s two top seniors, Ed Ruth and David Taylor, to create waves this weekend for the Nittany Lions.

Ruth, according to his official NCAA record, stands at 29-1 this season, but the young man entered the season on a 68-match winning streak, including two straight national championship victories. Ruth, who looks to become a four-time All-American, helped secure two of Penn State’s past three team championships, as well as earning individual titles for himself in 2012 and 2013. This year, he will face Wisconsin’s Jackson Hein, who carries a 12-7 record onto the mat and will prove a stern test for the Susquehanna Township alum. Still, Ruth went 5-0 in last year’s championships, thanks in no small part to his natural skill, and to date, no Big 10 athlete can claim a win over him. Arguably, the rest of the competition will look at one of the best to ever rock a Penn State singlet as the man to defeat this year.

Taylor, much like his teammate, can claim that no Big 10 wrestler could ever pin him down. Now, he aims to chase down the school’s all-time pins record. The NCAA recognizes Taylor as an undefeated 29-0 product, but Taylor did drop a 5-4 decision to Cornell standout Kyle Dake in last year’s 165-pound individual title bout. Taylor also gets a tough test in San Diego State University’s Joseph Brewster. However, much like his teammate Ruth, Taylor knows the feeling of getting to the finals and claiming the title. He did it once in 2012, and very little can stop him from doing it again.

Speaking of guys that can repeat previous successes, we can’t overlook Chris Perry. The Oklahoma State product, who closed out his season last year at 35-2, defeated Penn State’s Matt Brown and claimed the 174-pound title, all while aforementioned favorite Ruth competed at 184 and earned a title there. Perry and Brown both appear on course to see each other again Friday night, but half of that rematch depends on how Perry handles the task of Wisconsin’s Scott Liegel.

The other half of it depends on how Brown does against Cody Walters. Although Brown represents as much of a true contender as Perry or anyone else in the 174-pound title hunt, Walters bring a wrestling style that could give Brown some trouble this time around. The two last met during the 2012-13 season, when Brown handed Walters his first loss of the season.

Finally, two more champions will look to defend their titles. On one end of the spectrum, the University of Oklahoma’s Kendric Maple, who won the title at 141 pounds last year, will hunt down a 149-pound title previously held by Jordan Oliver. That field includes the likes of potential opponents James English, Drake Houdashelt and Dylan Cottrell, as well as opening-round opponent Tywan Claxton.

On the other side of the spectrum, Anthony Nelson, a two-time winner at 285 pounds, will return Thursday. Looking for a third successful run in his division, Nelson will put his skills to work against University of Northern Iowa’s own Blaize Cabell. Should Nelson succeed in this competition, starting with a win over Cabell, he will make history by becoming the only 285-pounder to “three-peat” in the weight class. His two championships ties him with the likes of Cole Konrad and Steve Mocco, among others.

All of these names and more will look to succeed this weekend, but the person who should prevail on paper might differ from the person who actually succeeds. Still, with the plans in place for ESPN to air every single session live, including the championship rounds in a three-hour broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. ET on March 22, fans at least know that they won’t miss a single minute of action this year.

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.