Kyle Snyder is the best pound-for-pound wrestler on the planet. This is not hyperbole; this is not an exaggeration. A student-athlete preparing for his final season of NCAA competition is the three-time, reigning, defending, undisputed 97 kg champion of the world, and he is nowhere near the end of his career.
While most students were moving back onto campus to start autumn semester, one of their classmates was in Paris, France, earning his third consecutive world or Olympic gold medal. He did so by winning what was dubbed "The Match of the Century," facing off against another reigning Olympic gold medalist Abdulrashid Sadulaev, a man more commonly known as "The Russian Tank."
Snyder won the heavily hyped match with an aggressive gameplan, upsetting a dominant athlete who hadn't dropped a match in nearly four years.
Undisputed. pic.twitter.com/Y1mkgBdB4k— Kyle Snyder (@Snyder_man45) August 31, 2017
Snyder, for his part, took the victory in stride.
"Pound for pound, Sadulaev was definitely No. 1 before that match, and I was definitely a top 5 pound-for-pound guy," Snyder told Eleven Warriors. "Those are the type of matches I get excited about, those are the type of matches I train for and those are the type of guys I want to compete against."
With his international freestyle resume, it's not hard to understand why Snyder is undefeated over his past two collegiate seasons, with two Big Ten and NCAA championships to his credit.
Making his place in history
When Snyder wins his third conference and third national championship next March (say "if," should you prefer not to consider the upcoming season a foregone conclusion), he'll join elite, though not especially exclusive company. After all, more than two dozen men have won three NCAA titles to this point. He can't win a fourth, a feat only four men (including fellow Buckeye and world championship teammate Logan Stieber) have ever accomplished.
But those four 4-time champions haven't done what Snyder has done.
- Cael Sanderson, easily the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time with his perfect 159-0 record (a feat Sports Illustrated ranked as the second-most impressive college sports feat ever, coming in behind a gentleman you may have heard of), only won one Olympic gold medal and a silver at worlds the year before.
- Pat Smith, the first four-time champ in NCAA history, had a relatively lackluster international freestyle career.
- Cornell's Kyle Dake, the only wrestler in NCAA history to win four championships in four different weight classes, has found it a challenge to make a world team, let alone win a title.
- Stieber fell short of the medal round in Paris, but his international career, like Snyder's, is far from over.
"He understands that deep, consistent, relentless suffering is needed to attain what many think is impossible."– Ohio State Head Wrestling Coach Tom Ryan
So where does Snyder fall in the ranks of wrestling's titans?
"He's the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time right now," Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said during an appearance on The Eleven Dubcast in mid-October, employing a common internet appellation. "I don't know if an American has ever been the pound-for-pound best wrestler in the world."
Greatest of all time? What about Dan Gable, John Smith, Dan Hodge, Bruce Baumgartner, not to mention Russian or Soviet legends like Medved, Satiev or Yarygin? Smith makes a strong case, with his second Olympic gold medal in 1992 capping a 6-year run of world-level championship finishes. He "only" won two NCAA titles, and Synder is halfway to matching his six-year run in freestyle.
Gable's single Olympic gold came in 1972 at Munich, but his opponents there failed to score a single point on him. None. Wrestling at Iowa State, he only lost a single match over his three-year career, with that single loss costing him a third NCAA title.
Baumgartner is one of only two men in history to win medals at four different Olympics, earning gold in 1984 and 1992, silver in 1988 and bronze in 1996. He also won three gold, three silver and three bronze medals at the world championships between 1983 and 1995.
Could Snyder match Baumgartner's longevity in international competition? When asked if he had two more Olympiads in him, he quickly responded, "Hopefully four." Snyder will turn 22 next month, meaning four more Olympic appearances would culminate with the 2032 games at the ripe old age of 36. Baumgartner turned 36 the November after his bronze medal finish in Atlanta.
One match at a time
In the "Match of the Century" that earned him the best pound-for-pound standing, Snyder took a "business as usual" approach to an unprecedented contest. His approach to wrestling, and life, is simply to improve every single day, in every single practice or match.
"You get about a four-hour break in between the semi-finals and the finals, so I was able to think about it, to think about how I wanted to compete and get excited about the challenge," Snyder said. "I was able to get my mind right and prepare to go and compete with everything I had."
He says that approach is the same way he handles every match, from the NCAA folkstyle to the faster freestyle competitions on the international scene:
My mindset stays the same no matter what style I'm competing. My wrestling is very similar in both styles; I'm not much of a funk guy and I don't really do too many moves on top, so I'm mostly just on my feet whether it be freestyle or folkstyle collegiate wrestling. I handle it the same way: I just try to take people down as many times as I can and then end the match as soon as I can.
Evaluating his World Championship performance in Paris, Snyder said he was fairly pleased with himself, beyond the obvious. At the end of the day, he said he was happy with how he performed relative to his own self-set standard.
"I wrestled extremely hard throughout the entire tournament and I feel like I was able to open up and give 100% of myself while I was on the mat," he explained. "In the matches where I wrestled some of the better guys in the world, I came out attacking and was able to score points."
Only those who truly assess themselves, can use the guidance of others to produce stronger disciplines.— Kyle Snyder (@Snyder_man45) October 11, 2017
His approach to Sadulaev was simple enough: to take shots early and often to get the Russian Tank on the mat and score some points. That's the same approach he'll take when Ohio State opens its season Nov. 12, hosting Arizona State at St. John Arena. For his coach, Snyder is the best wrestler on the planet because he knows that what it takes to be the greatest is relatively simple, but certainly not easy.
"He understands that deep, consistent, relentless suffering is needed to attain what many think is impossible," Ryan said. "This guy, day in and day out, understands 'chosen suffering.' He puts himself through a lot of discomfort constantly so that when showtime comes, he's really ready."
One more season in scarlet & gray
Fans hoping to witness greatness will have the chance to do so a few times this season, as Snyder will balance his responsibilities to the Buckeyes with a few overseas business trips, as he did last year.
He'll wrestle in scarlet and gray at the home opener, versus Minnesota and Iowa in the Schottenstein Center come January, and on the road at Penn State and Michigan in February. Internationally, he'll compete Dec. 7-8 at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup in Tehran, Iran, likely squaring up against "The Leopard of Juybar," two-time world champ Reza Yazdani. In January he'll take the rematch to Sadulaev's home turf as the defending Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix champion.
Last year to do it for the Bucks pic.twitter.com/MOptR5AJir— Kyle Snyder (@Snyder_man45) October 20, 2017
"There's nothing I want to do that I haven't already done," Snyder said, reflecting on his accomplishments and looking to the season to come. "I just want to become a better wrestler. I think there are positions where I can get better, and can improve my mentality and strength and all those things that go into being a good athlete."
He said his main goal is to look back five years from now and say he's a much better version of himself: a stronger, more experienced technician.
"All the tournaments you can probably win as a wrestler, I've won them, but I still love wrestling. I'm here for that reason and because I think I can get better."