Leistikow: In Iowa's Spencer Lee, wrestling fans are witnessing greatness

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CLEVELAND — When Tom Brands walks into his wrestling room back in Iowa City, he sees greatness in a 19-year-old from Western Pennsylvania.

“We see him every day,” Brands said of 125-pound phenom Spencer Lee. “… It’s something that you crave. I crave it. It’s like a drug. You’ve got to get your fix.”

Now the wrestling-watching nation is getting a sense of what Brands does, too.

Spencer Lee pins Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello in the 125 semifinals at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday, March 16, 2018.

On the sport’s grandest college stage, Lee has been — in a word — incredible.

The true freshman is heading to the NCAA finals in a stacked bracket, his stirring third-period pin of national champ Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State resoundingly sending him into Saturday night's title bout.

RELATED:Inside Spencer Lee's endless chase for Olympic greatness

"I just pulled his legs up and ran him over," Lee said matter-of-factly, as if it's a breeze to toss around a four-time Big Ten Conference champion with elite strength and skill. "... He wasn't letting go. I just sat on it hard and ended up getting the fall."

For two days at Quicken Loans Arena, Lee has demonstrated why he's such a unique and rare talent.

He’s athletic. He’s intelligent. He’s bungee-cord flexible. And in a sturdy 5-foot-3 frame, he’s ultra-powerful in his hands, legs and hips. He makes it look easy.

What Lee did in Friday morning’s quarterfinal bout against Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni was jaw-droppingly ridiculous.

Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands celebrates with assistant coach Ben Berhow as Spencer Lee pins Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello in the 125 semifinals at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday, March 16, 2018.

Lee made Piccininni, an all-American wrestler who has beaten defending 125-pound national champ Darian Cruz, look ordinary. He cranked him for two four-point near falls before turning him on his back one more time for a second-period pin.

A few moments earlier, it looked like Lee was on the defensive. Piccininni was in on a shot, and Lee balanced on one leg to try to stave it off.

RELATED:Match-by-match analysis from Friday night's action

Most wrestlers would be helpless to defend such an attack. Yet Lee actually went on the offensive — and somehow somersaulted his body into position to score a takedown and back points … to set up the finishing pin.

Amazing. One-of-a-kind stuff.

More Spencer Lee: 

“(Lee) got out of a single-leg and double-legged the guy,” fellow Hawkeye freshman Alex Marinelli marveled. “I was like, ‘How’d you do that?’ I don’t understand it. He’s a freak.”

He’s so good.

Iowa wrestling radio analyst Mark Ironside’s description of the move?

“I’m going to call that the 'Spencer Lee' now,” Ironside said Friday. “He just invented it.”

Get ready to witness more “Spencer Lee” moves before his time at Iowa is up.

A two-time NCAA champ at Iowa, Ironside said the only wrestler that comes to mind when he watches Lee is Lincoln McIlravy. His former teammate in the 1990s is one of the Hawkeyes’ all-time greats, a three-time NCAA champ and 2000 Olympian who owned a creative, attacking, relentless style.

“What makes him so good? My answer to that is he can do things you can’t teach,” Ironside said. “… The guy is just so unpredictable. You just never know what he’s going to do next.”

I’ve found it to be true in watching sports: You know greatness when you see it.

There’s little doubt we’re all watching greatness in Lee.

In two previous low-scoring meetings against Tomasello (with each wrestler winning once), Lee hadn't recorded a takedown. 

Friday night, Lee showed his rapid learning curve. He lurched in for an early takedown and eventual back points, a first-period haymaker for a 4-0 lead.

Tom and Terry Brands urged Lee beforehand to wrestle aggressively. They know he's great. They've seen it daily.

They knew Lee could up his mental game from two weeks ago, when he finished third at the Big Ten Championships. 

Lee realized they were right. He had to remind himself how good he can be.

"I gave (Tomasello) a lot of respect (in the first two meetings). I think I almost gave him too much respect," Lee said. "I wasn't giving myself the opportunity to score. I think the difference in this match was believing in my offense, and knowing this is a stage where you can't hold back."

He didn't.

Lee was leading, 8-2, at the time of the fall. His total match scores for the week have been 55-3. He has two technical falls and two pins on the way to the finals. Not one match has gone the distance.


Sure, Lee has one step to go — a Saturday-night bout against Rutgers’ fourth-seeded Nick Suriano — before he even wins his first NCAA championship. Talk of him becoming Iowa’s first four-timer (there have been only four in NCAA history) can wait.

But if Lee stays on his current trajectory, he will do bigger things in wrestling, beyond the college stage. World championships. Olympics.

That’s why Brands had little hesitation in pulling Lee’s redshirt this year, even though they could’ve taken the easy way out — in taking a year off to avoid Tomasello and Cruz, national champs who are seniors, following Lee's ACL surgery.

But instead of shying from a challenge, Brands and Lee charged into it. And kept getting better.

He’s the primary reason the Hawkeyes are well-positioned for a team trophy (top four) at these NCAA Championships. For the first time in Brands' 12 years at Iowa, he has two freshman all-Americans in Lee and Marinelli.

More octane is on the way, with guys like Max Murin and Jacob Warner in redshirt.

“It’s been a blast watching him change our room a little bit,” Brands said. “He’s been a hugely positive impact on our entire team.”

Lee has been an inspiration for the Hawkeye program.

He’s been the same here in Cleveland.

There hasn't been a more dominant wrestler here this week. If he beats Suriano, he deserves to be the tournament's most outstanding wrestler.

And he’s just a true freshman.

“I always believed in myself that I could make it here," Lee said. "If you don’t believe, you won’t achieve.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.