Remember to check earlier entries in the Factgrinder story stream for a richer discussion of amateur wrestling's various divisions and classifications.
Ah, the round of twelve at the NCAA Division 1 wrestling championships, the blood round. Win and you place top eight, an All American. Lose and you're left with little but tears and regrets. A final loss in the blood round will tattoo the soul of a college wrestler, permanently marking something at their core with an ink that will only fade with time, but never quite disappear. College wrestlers often invest in the pursuit of All American honors at a level that resembles complete obsession. For them, to lose in the blood round is to harpoon the great white whale, only to have it break the rope and swim off into the depths, a chance for glory gone forever.
I suppose the desire for glory, never properly sated, may drive some of these wrestlers to greatness in future athletic endeavors. A striking number of MMA standouts suffered the demise of their college wrestling careers in the blood round: Scott Jorgensen, Urijah Faber, Frankie Edgar, Charlie Brenneman, Jay Hieron (then James Hieronymus) and probably others whom I am forgetting. Evans, like so many great wrestlers before him, fell victim to the blood round, which takes the prize, for my money, as the most emotionally wrenching spectacle in college sports.
Evans didn't make it this deep into the NCAA wrestling tournament by fluke. Rashad had, up to that point, accomplished a good bit in college wrestling. He first arrived at Michigan State after a year at Niagara Junior College. Like fellow UFC champions Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar, and quite a few other MMA notables, Evans won a junior college (NJCAA) national title. This JUCO national title, I'm sure, generated interest from Division 1 teams. One thing led to another, and Rashad became a Spartan.
Rashad did not wrestle much his first year at MSU; this serves as both a testimony to the toughness of the Division 1 level, and to just how good Michigan State's wrestling used to be. At that point, in the early part of the 2000s, Michigan State regularly produced All Americans and national title contenders. Hard times have now fallen on this once-proud program, which is one of the few outside the "big four" of Iowa State, Iowa, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to win a team national title (I suppose if you include Penn State's four national titles and Minnesota's 3, then there is now a "big six". For the record, the only other teams to have actually won team championships are Arizona State, Northern Iowa, Indiana, and Cornell College of Iowa). Rashad, however, took the mat clad in the green and white MSU Spartan singlet a few years before the program dropped into irrelevance.
Improvement, whether steady or sudden, always impresses me, and Rashad did nothing in college if not improve as a wrestler. After seeing little action in his first year in East Lansing, Rashad's second year saw him competing at an extremely high level. During this year, Rashad rose to as high as tenth in the nation in one ranking service, and qualified for the NCAA tournament after taking fourth place in the Big Ten.
Merely placing in the top half of a weight in the Big Ten tournament proves that a wrestler has what it takes to compete on a national level. The Big Ten can boast the toughest conference in all of wrestling, year in and year out, with little dispute. In last year's NCAA tournament, six of the eight All Americans in the 174 pound weight class hailed from Big Ten schools. Wrestlers in the past have placed fourth at the Big Ten championships, and gone on to win a national championship two weeks later. Rashad's fourth place in the Big Ten as a junior constitutes a fairly notable achievement.
Rashad then entered the 2002-03 season, his senior year, as an established force in the 174 pound weight class. While he registered an impressive third place showing at the Big Ten tournament, his overall body of work in his final season fell a bit short of amazing; he secured a berth to the NCAA tournament, but failed to earn a coveted seed. However, it was at this tournament where Evans would earn the most meaningful victory of his wrestling career.
At the 2003 NCAA tournament, after a first round victory over future All American Nate Yetzer of Edinboro, Rashad would fall to eventual champion Robbie Waller of Oklahoma, and drop to the consolation bracket. There Evans would face West Virginia's Greg Jones, the first seed, cast down to the repechage by an unlikely upset. Jones today claims three NCAA championships, and if not for one lousy national tournament during his sophomore year, he would be known as one of top four greatest college wrestlers of all time. Jones lost twice after his freshman year, both at the 2003 national tournament. He owes one of those losses to Rashad Evans.
Evans, in the highpoint of his wrestling career, bested a three time NCAA champion to punch his ticket to the blood round. As a reward he had to wrestle Purdue's Ryan Lange to earn the title of All American. Unfortunately for Rashad, Lange was super tough, a multiple time All American in his own right, and one of the very few wrestlers with a collegiate win over the legendary Ben Askren. Evans lost to Lange, ending his college wrestling career and All American bid. Just as always, there were more great wrestlers than there were spots on the podium.
That marked the end for Rashad in competitive amateur wrestling. He coached for a couple years at MSU, but he never tried his hand in any of the Olympic wrestling styles in any meaningful way. The NCAA blood round seemingly drove him off the wrestling mat and into a career where he beats people up for a living; that merciless bastard of a round apparently has that effect on people.
Factgrinder Final Analysis:
Rashad finished his NCAA Division 1 career in the round of 12 in the NCAA tournament, and this serves as a just representation of his skill level. While never one of wrestling's true elites, Rashad was pretty darned good, and not too terribly far away from greatness.