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Leistikow: How does Iowa's Spencer Lee make wrestling dominance look so easy?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The legend of Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee grows by the minute.

And, if you’re an opponent of Lee’s, a minute is about all you’ll get before he’s pinned you and said good-bye with a handshake and a smile.

During last weekend’s broadcast against Minnesota, Big Ten Network announcers marveled at how college wrestling’s most dynamic star makes it look so easy. They’ve watched wrestling for decades. They know it’s not this easy.

Analyst Tim Johnson shared that a friend recently told him, “I would pay 50 dollars just to feel the pressure of Spencer Lee.”

Shane Sparks replied that he would love to know what it feels like to try to get out from the bottom position against Lee, as the Hawkeye tilted Minnesota’s ninth-ranked Patrick McKee for a fourth four-point near fall in a span of 60 seconds before finishing him with a pin.

“This is the Big Ten. He makes a mockery of this sport!” Sparks boomed. “It’s not that easy.”

Their amazement sparked that all kinds of conversation about Lee's increasing, unfathomable dominance.

Will he pin his way to a third NCAA championship? How many weight classes could he climb and still be competitive?

And, simply … how does he make it look so easy?

“If I knew that,” former Hawkeye all-American Sammy Brooks said, “it would look like that when I wrestled, too.”

This week, I reached out to Brooks, who was an explosive 184-pounder at Iowa, after hearing that he and Lee — 60-70 pounds lighter than him — will sweat and spar together on occasion in the Hawkeye wrestling room. They obviously don’t wrestle with 100% effort (that’d be a good way for Iowa’s 125-pound star to get hurt), but Lee is always looking for different ways to challenge himself.

Plus, it's more fun than running for 30 minutes on the treadmill.

What does Brooks vs. Lee look like?

“It’s like that Bruce Lee scene, where he’s fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” Brooks said, then later texted the YouTube video that shows the 1972 scene in "Game of Death." “Spencer’s like Bruce Lee reincarnated, where it doesn’t matter that I have two heads and (nearly) 100 pounds on him.

“When we spar, there’s a lot of cartwheeling and goofy stuff. He’s flying over my head. I’m trying to find out where he is all the time.”

Another bigger guy in the wrestling room who Lee battles is the country’s top-ranked 141-pounder, Jaydin Eierman. The Missouri transfer is known for his free-wheeling and explosive style. So, when he and Lee are sparring for 30 minutes to work up a sweat, the room will take notice.

“The positions we get in are just insane,” Eierman said. “Sometimes we’ll be rolling and everybody’s just watching us because we’re getting in some (unique) positions.”

Eierman doesn’t use his extra 15 pounds against Lee. They spar to make each other better. Lee also moves up in class to practice against fourth-ranked 133-pounder Austin DeSanto and former NCAA champion Cory Clark. Former Olympian Dan Dennis is also the Hawkeye Wrestling Club head coach.

All of that answers another one of my questions about Lee; yes, he's challenged more on a daily basis than he is during college competition.

“If you’re in a two-hour workout, you’re going to be pushed in one way or another,” Brooks said. “For Spencer, it’s (whether) he’s being pushed mentally. And that’s something the coaches (Tom and Terry Brands) do such a good job of with him.”

So, back to the earlier question: How’s he make it look so easy?

Brooks and Eierman agree on one not-so-secret aspect of Lee's success. His "death grip," as Eierman puts it, on his opponent’s wrist.

“If he gets that wrist, you’re not getting off bottom, I can tell you that,” Eierman said. “Even at my size, I can sometimes outmuscle it because I’m bigger. But, man, I have to fight for it.”

That grip is so tight when Lee starts into his array of tilts that opponents are often helpless to stop it.

Spencer Lee manhandled Nebraska's Liam Cronin in the season opener. Here, Lee scores one of his frequent four-point near falls.

“He’s about as close to a human vise grip as you’ll ever find,” Brooks added.

What adds to Lee’s mystique is that he’s the nicest guy in the room; maybe among the most down-to-earth guys on campus. Off the mat, he wears glasses in an unassuming 5-foot-3 frame.

Iowa's version of Clark Kent?

He's certainly Iowa's Superman. And Lee is always a step (or 10) ahead of his competition.

“He’s uncompromising in that he’s going to find a way to score those points," Brooks said, "and he’s going to put you in those positions he’s incredible at,."

If you’re facing Lee, you’ve maybe got 10 or 15 seconds before he takes you down.

Then, you probably aren't getting up again.

“He’s just super-cool and calm,” Brooks said. “He doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but he’s got a keen sense of what your reaction is going to be (to his attacks), and how to capitalize on it.”

Yes, it’s early in this pandemic-shortened college wrestling season. Lee has pinned both of his opponents (ranked in the top 10 nationally) in a combined 3 minutes, 14 seconds. Who could challenge him? Well, the nation’s No. 2-ranked 125-pounder lost to Lee by 18-0 technical fall in their lone meeting.

Lee seems poised to steamroll (and tilt) the competition, wowing his passionate Hawkeye followers with every cat-quick, powerful move.

Since the start of last season, Lee has wrestled in 19 college matches. Only four have gone the full seven minutes. Ten bouts have ended in the first period.

In a season with no spectators other than family, Lee could actually become even more of a mythical figure in 2021 than ever. Few will see him compete in person. But he leaves his audience with amazement and wonder.

As in ... what will he do next?

What could he do next?

That’s a fun topic to kick around. Lee, who wasn’t made available for interviews this week, would never boastfully say who he has beaten or could beat. I asked Tom Brands this week if he would consider moving Lee up to 133 pounds, just for a stiffer challenge. Lee will likely see top-ranked 133-pounder Daton Fix of Oklahoma State in the Olympic Trials in April.

“We'll see what happens,” Brands said. “But I think he could probably be a capable fill-in for any weight class. But he’s our 25-pounder. He’s a spark plug.”

Brooks and I discussed the topic, and he thought Lee could win a Division III national title at a middle-upper weight.

“I would take him D-3 at 165 (pounds),” Brooks said. “I’d put my money there.”

In D-I, Brooks thinks Lee could be an all-American at 141. He’s that strong, that smart, that determined.

We will never know. But it’s fun to wonder.

And if Lee ever gets a little overconfident? Tom Brands jokingly knows he can send Lee home to mom Cathy, who was an Olympian in judo.

“As tough as Spencer Lee is, all he has to do is go home for a Sunday-afternoon dinner," Brands said, "and his 106-pound mom will grab his shirt by the collar and foot-sweep his ass to the floor."

That in-jest quote is a reminder that the pedal is always to the metal, physically and mentally, for Lee in the Iowa wrestling room.

And we're seeing the results on the mat, if only a few minutes at a time.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.