Penn State Wrestling: What is going on with Max Dean?

Mar 19, 2022; Detroit, MI, USA; Penn State wrestler Max Dean (right) wrestles Iowa wrestler Jacob Warner in the 197 pound weight class final match during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Little Cesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 19, 2022; Detroit, MI, USA; Penn State wrestler Max Dean (right) wrestles Iowa wrestler Jacob Warner in the 197 pound weight class final match during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Little Cesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Trying to make sense of what happened to Penn State Wrestling’s Max Dean in back-to-back losses from the prior weekend

Now, before you think I’m going to completely go off the deep end with this article, don’t worry Penn State Wrestling fans. I’m not going to do what everyone thinks I’m going to do, and flip out, man!

But look, is it slightly concerning for the reigning NCAA Champion at 197 to drop two straight matches? And for Dean to lose more matches in one weekend than he had in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 seasons combined? Oh, and the last time Max dropped back-to-back matches was way back in the 2018 Cliff Keen Invitational when he lost to Ohio State’s Myles Martin and Virginia Tech’s Zack Zavatsky.

Yes, obviously there has to be some concern. But I want to try to keep a level head and break down the circumstances and situations involved in both matches from last weekend.

And before I do that, I’d like to put out this disclaimer: I, in no way, have any clue what it takes to be a D1 collegiate wrestler. Let alone one who wrestles for an all-time great like Cael Sanderson and one who won a Big Ten title and an NCAA title. I would never question anything about Max Dean and the world class coaching staff the Nittany Lions have.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at Dean’s match against Rider’s Ethan Laird on Friday evening.

Ethan Laird dec. over Max Dean 3-1 SV-1

Before diving into the match, I would venture to guess most casual wrestling fans have no clue who Ethan Laird is. But make no mistake about it, Laird will be a household name by the end of the 2022-2023 wrestling season.

Laird started out his Rider career wrestling at 197 for his freshman, sophomore, and junior seasons. Then in late 2020 he bumped up to 285 and wrestled the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons at this weight class and put together an impressive 22-4 record.

Ethan finished in the round of 12 at the 2021 NCAA’s and he finished third at the World Team Trials at 97kg in May of 2022. For the majority of those two seasons, Ethan Laird was wrestling around 220 to 230 pounds.

The reason I’m bringing this up?

For starters, there is a massive difference between a grappler wrestling at 197 and one going at 285. And even though Laird was light for a heavyweight, he was still a highly competitive and strong wrestler as evident by him taking down ranked guys like Lehigh’s Jordan Wood (8-5 dec.), NC State’s Deonte Wilson (7-2 dec.), and Illinois’ Luke Luffman (fall).

Now this same competitive and strong guy dropped 30+ pounds in the off season and is wreaking havoc at 197 this year. Prior to his match against Dean, Laird already dispatched of Princeton’s No. 16 Luke Stout (4-3 dec.) and Arizona State’s No. 19 Kordell Norfleet (7-6 dec.).

Now let’s take a closer look at the match.

From the onset of the match, it was clear that both of these grapplers were going to be very tentative and measured with their shots early. Dean had to be extra cautious due to Laird’s massive reach advantage given his large frame (Dean is 5’10 and Laird is 6’2). The first period ended with the score tied at 0-0 and Dean started the second period in the bottom position.

Max quickly worked the escape to go up 1-0, however he still couldn’t find any openings for his offense and the match went to the third period with the same score.

Laird started the third period on bottom and just like Dean, he earned the fast escape to knot the score at 1-1. Roughly a minute into the third period, it looked like Dean was going to finally strike as he landed a double. The only problem was that it was too high, and Laird was able to muscle his way out of it.

Then late in the third period, Max snagged a double leg and this time it looked like he had Ethan for good. There was a scramble at the center of the mat and unfortunately for Dean, the clock hit all zeros before he could take full control of the take down. So, the match moved to sudden victory.

But, not before a lengthy video review following the late scramble. This review was very beneficial for Laird as it gave him a couple of minutes to regroup and to get some energy back. Because he was very much on the defensive late in the third period.

And a mere 10 seconds into sudden victory, Laird landed a single leg on Dean which then turned into a double. Laird continued to work, and he got Max into a bear hug at the center of the match, a split second later he used his strength and picked Dean up and threw him to the mat.

Maybe, just maybe, for a tiny, minuscule, fraction of a second you could make an argument Laird had control and the takedown, but I have no earthly clue how you could be a referee and make that call live. Well, this is exactly what the referee did, and he awarded Laird the takedown and the win.

Sanderson immediately threw the challenge brick, and he was up on his feet to talk to the referee. As I just mentioned, you could possibly make an argument for the takedown, but it was really close even when watching the slowed down review. I would have guessed the split would be 90% for “no takedown” and 10% for a “takedown”.

Of course, Penn State Wrestling fans know what happened. The referees took the 10% and Max Dean had his first loss of the year.

Oh, and had the referee not snap-called the initial takedown, Max was going to roll through the throw and get a takedown of his own.

Moving on.

Michael Beard dec. over Max Dean 11-9

I’m honestly not surprised at the outcome of this match one bit. Michael Beard is already an All-American (2020), he was wrestling in front of a packed home crowd, and this was a match he circled on the calendar with the fattest sharpie you could buy.

Think about it, you just finished in the top eight in the NCAA’s and a top transfer comes in and supplants you as the starter the following year. Then you go to another school because the transfer still had another year of eligibility, and your team just so happens to have a dual scheduled against them. This is where you get to show the world that they made the wrong decision about you.

So clearly, I’m sure Beard’s emotions were high, and adrenaline was coursing through his veins prior to the match.

As for the match, it was the complete opposite of the feeling-each-other-out-athon that Dean and Laird had.

Beard struck first when he snagged a single and took Dean to the match early in the first period. Max quickly escaped and later in the period got a single of his own which he worked into a takedown and a 3-2 lead.

While riding Beard, Dean was hit with a stall warning prior to a reset. Following the reset, Dean got hit with another quick stall call and the match was tied 3-3.

This is where I have a huge problem. You can make a case for the first stall warning. But there is no chance you can justify the second stall call which happened literally seconds after the first one. I realize stall warnings are subjective in nature, but you cannot make that call as a wrestling referee. Because if you make that call there, then you need to make it every single time. And that would lead to a metric ton of stall warnings. Which no wrestling fans want to see.

Okay, moving on.

Dean started the second period down and he wriggled free of Beard’s grip to take a 4-3 lead. Michael then struck with another low single, and he worked his second takedown of the match for a 5-4 lead. Max escaped again to make it 5-5 and following a scramble late in the second period he was able to roll through and notch his second takedown and the lead once again, 7-5. But with only seconds remaining in the period, Beard escaped to push the score to 7-6 going into the third period.

Beard was on bottom to start the third period and he broke free of Dean’s grasp to tie it up at seven apiece. And just like in the prior two periods, Beard got to his offense first and landed a takedown early in the final period. Max escaped to make the score 9-8, but this time he wasn’t able to counter. Rather it was Beard who was on the attack again.

Michael countered a Dean shot and worked the winning takedown with 30 seconds remaining in the period. Max cut out of Beard’s grip, and he needed a takedown to force sudden victory with the score 11-9 in Beard’s favor. And with Michael Beard literally running around the mat to avoid Dean, there’s no way any human could get a takedown. It would have been difficult for a Kodiak bear to snag a piece of Beard.

Remember when I said something about being consistent with making calls as a referee? Yep. This same referee swallowed his whistle and didn’t hit Beard with a single stall call.

And no, I am not pitting these two losses on the referees or any other outside influence. The fact is Max Dean lost two straight matches. But they were against some high-quality opponents and honestly, I would put his loss to Sparty’s Cam Caffey last season as a far worse loss than any of these two.

Oh, and the back-to-back losses Dean suffered in the 2018 Cliff Keen Invitational to Myles Martin and Zack Zavatsky? Those guys went on to All-American that season with Martin finishing third and Zavatsky finishing eighth.

Mark my words, both Laird and Beard will be All-Americans this year too. They are darn good wrestlers.

As for Max Dean, I’m sure he learned something about himself, and I guarantee he’s working his tail off in the wrestling room to get better each and every day. And for the Penn State wrestling fans, you’re going to see exactly how well Dean took these defeats because he’s going up against another top tier guy this Sunday as Oregon State comes to town and No. 11 Tanner Harvey gets a chance to tangle with Dean.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Max Dean isn’t going to lose three straight matches.