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Best Husker Wrestlers Ever: Nos. 9 and 10

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An Olympic heavyweight legend and a dominant 126-pounder kick off the Top 10

Sydney 2000 Olympics - Wrestling -130kg
Former Husker Rulon Gardner celebrates his epic upset victory at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Well, here goes.

I’ll start by unveiling Nos. 9 and 10 on my Top-10 Husker Wrestlers list. Obviously, this list was hard to settle down. Many impressive resumes were left off the list. Before I go into the list, I’ll give you an indication of how I selected and ranked these former Huskers.

Criteria

There are many things I took into consideration when deciding this list. While many of these men have done impressive things for the sport of wrestling as coaches and ambassadors at all levels, I stuck strictly to on-the-mat production. I mainly considered their careers as Huskers, but their international careers also came into play, especially those with extraordinary careers at the Olympics and the World Championships.

As for their collegiate careers at Nebraska, the biggest deciders for me were NCAA titles, Conference titles and how many years these wrestlers earned All-American status (finishing in the top-8 at the NCAA tournament). Win percentage was important too, as consistency in winning really helped set them apart and solidify some rankings.

No. 10 - Rulon Gardner

Now, I will start by admitting one thing about Rulon Gardner. The heavyweight wrestler did not have an overly dominant career at Nebraska. In fact, there isn’t much information out there about Gardner’s career as a Husker. But his resume, to me, is impressive enough that he deserves a spot in the Top 10, even if his most impressive feats didn’t happen in a Husker singlet.

Gardner won a state title in high school in Wyoming before going on to wrestle at Ricks College, a junior college, where he won the NJCAA national championship at heavyweight as a sophomore. He then transferred to Nebraska. As a junior in 1991-92, Gardner advanced to the NCAA tournament at 275 pounds as the 12-seed where he went 2-2. As a senior, the Husker heavyweight improved and earned the 3-seed going into the NCAA tournament. After wins in the first two rounds, Gardner lost to Michigan State’s Don Whipp (finished 2nd) in the quarterfinal round. Gardner won three straight matches in the consolation bracket to finish in fourth place, earning All-American honors.

That resume alone is impressive, but wouldn’t be even close to putting him on this list. But as I said, extraordinary international performances are important here.

And hot damn did Gardner impress on the international stage.

After Graduating from Nebraska in 1993, Gardner transitioned from folkstyle wrestling (the form used at the NCAA level) to Greco-Roman wrestling, a style of wrestling that forbids holds below the waist and emphasizes upper-body throws.

Gardner went on to win the U.S. Championship in 1995, 1997 and 2001. However, it was on the world’s biggest stage that Gardner made a real name for himself.

In fact, Gardner is one of the most well-knows Olympians ever, as he pulled off what is widely considered the greatest upset in sporting history. Not just the Olympics, and not just wrestling. But arguably the greatest upset victory in history. Period.

Going into the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, there was this Russian who was looking to cement his status as the greatest wrestler and possibly the greatest Olympian of all time. Aleksandr Karelin was an absolute wrecking ball. Going into the 2000 Olympic games, Karelin was the defending three-time Olympic champ at heavyweight in Greco-Roman wrestling and hadn’t lost a match in over 13 years. In fact, he hadn’t given up a single point in six years.

Starting with a Junior World Championship in 1985, Karelin never won anything but gold until he met up with Gardner. The Russian won 29 career gold medals between the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, European Championships, Junior World Championships and Junior European Championships. Until he took home the silver medal in 2000 of course. In fact, his career international record is literally absurd, as he finished his career with a 887-2 record.

And here came Gardner, a much softer looking individual than the chiseled Karelin, who once famously bear hugged and carried a refrigerator up eight flights of stairs to his apartment. But Gardner didn’t care. He never backed down. Gardner unthinkably neutralized the “Russian Bear” and earned a 1-0 overtime victory to cement his status as an Olympic great.

The next year, Gardner won the 2001 World Championship, making him the only American to ever win both an Olympic and a World Championship in Greco-Roman wrestling. In 2004, Gardner attempted to defend his historic gold medal at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. The former Husker fell short, but he still took home the bronze metal. After winning in the bronze medal match, Gardner took off and placed his shoes in the middle of the mat as a symbol of his retirement from wrestling.

No. 9 Jason Kelber

Jason Kelber no doubt had one of the best careers as a Husker. If it wasn’t for his less-than-dominant first two years in the program, the former 126-pounder would be much higher on this list.

Kelber started his career with a 54-24 combined record as a freshman and sophomore with a sixth-place finish and All-American status as a sophomore in 1989.

But as an upperclassman, Kelber really turned things up, going 69-6 with an NCAA title and a Big Eight championship in 1991 while earning All-American status both seasons as he twice advanced to the NCAA championship match, winning one and losing one.

As a junior, Kelber lost a 3-2 decision to Terry Brands of Iowa. Brands, the current Associate Head Coach of Iowa under twin brother Tom Brands, is an all-time Iowa great. Terry Brands went 137-7 throughout his collegiate career while earning two NCAA titles along the way.

But it was Kelber who exacted revenge on Terry Brands in the 1991 NCAA final. The top-seeded Brands was 43-1 going into the match and was looking to earn his second straight title, but the 2-seed Kelber was 33-2 on the year. The rematch lived up to the hype, as Kelber took a 3-2 lead after the first period only to open up a 7-2 lead with a four-point nearfall when he nearly pinned Terry in a cradle. Kelber led 8-5 after two periods and added two more in the third to earn the resounding 10-5 win. Terry Brands was so upset, he refused to shake Kelber’s hand, costing his Iowa squad a team point in the process.

Kelber finished his Husker career with a 123-30 career record, currently ranking No. 8 in Husker history in career wins. Nebraska’s third three-time All-American, Kelber went on to a successful coaching career, culminating with a four-year stint as an assistant coach for Nebraska from 1997-2000.