Wrestling takeaways: Breaking down Spencer Lee’s Midlands performance

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

We learned a lot from watching Iowa’s Spencer Lee compete at the 55th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships last weekend. 

We saw that the star freshman is aggressive and quick on his feet. 

We saw that he can be dynamic and ruthless when wrestling on top. 

And we also saw that Lee is, in fact, human. 

Spencer Lee defeated Edinboro's Sean Russell by a 15-0 technical fall during the first day of competition at the Midlands Championships on Friday. Lee has advanced to the 125-pound semifinals.

The following is an attempt to break down Lee’s Midlands performance. He was sensational during Friday’s competition, securing a pin in one match and dismantling a returning All-American in another. He also made small mistakes that turned big during his semifinal loss. 

“College wrestling is different than high school,” said Lee, who wrestled at 125 pounds. “You have to be ready to go every match, where in high school, you may not have to be. That’s a big difference between college and high school wrestling.”

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This assessment will look specifically at what makes Lee so dangerous from top and so lethal from neutral. We’ll also take a peek at his loss to Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser, including the controversial no-call at the end of the match. 

Worked ties, quick reactions in neutral

One of Lee’s greatest strengths is his ability to attack from most any position. In his quarterfinal match against Edinboro’s Sean Russell, he showed small bits of his offensive repertoire.

In the first 30 seconds, Lee attempted a two-on-one, a front headlock and almost shot in after a pass-by. He was active yet calm. Wrestlers will sometimes take the early part of the first period to feel each other out if they haven’t wrestled before.

Then Lee struck by taking Russell feet-to-back off a little fireman’s dump. Lee gained inside control, level-changed and went for the inside leg. Because he already had Russell’s left elbow, Lee was able to hold him for a four count after he put him in danger — a six-point sequence.

“He’s dynamic,” Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said. “He’s explosive. He can score points in a hurry. He’s relentless in all positions. That’s what we love.”

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In all, Lee scored seven takedowns in three matches, all of them seemingly in different ways. He could’ve very easily had more, but he also spent a good amount of time working on top.

Controls wrists, hips on top

Shortly after the fireman’s against Russell, Lee showed why he is so good on top. Russell builds back to his base and leans back into Lee on a standup, but Lee has a wicked grip on Russell’s wrists and full control of his hips, and brings him back down to the mat.

As Russell sits into Lee, Lee immediately switches his right hand to Russell’s left wrist and his left hand to Russell’s left elbow. Lee simultaneously runs his legs around the outside and, as soon as Russell builds a base, shoots his head through the gap to flip Russell over for a tilt — and four more back points.

Lee’s top game is insanely good. He controls his opponents’ wrists and hips nearly at all times, making it extremely difficult for them to build a base and attempt escape. Lee racked up 18 total nearfall points on the weekend. He could’ve had more, but he pinned Old Dominion’s Killian Cardinale with an armbar after a first-period takedown.

“I just went out and did what the coaches told me to do,” Lee said. “Just relax and be yourself, and the points are going to be there. That’s how it has to be. That’s what I’m focusing on.

“Just kept composure, staying on my offense and staying relaxed, I think, was the biggest thing.”

After that four-point tilt, Russell came back to his feet, but didn’t break wrist control. Lee did like a knee slide back underneath Russell’s hips to get another tilt on the edge for two more points and a 12-0 lead.

An escape and a takedown in the third ended the match via technical superiority. For reference: Russell placed seventh at last year’s NCAA Championships at 125, was ranked eighth prior to the weekend, and had never before lost a collegiate match by tech fall.

Lee went up 15-0 after just four minutes and four seconds.

Spencer Lee defeated Edinboro's Sean Russell by a 15-0 technical fall during the first day of competition at the Midlands Championships on Friday.

A closer look at Lee-Bresser

This match reminded me of the Darian Cruz-Thomas Gilman semifinal at last year’s NCAA Championships. Ronnie Bresser, Oregon State's 14th-ranked 125-pounder, did a good job staying active and frustrating Lee, and when the opportunity arose in the third period, he capitalized for a 3-1 win. 

When in neutral, Bresser avoided tying up with Lee. He often changed his level and posted an arm on Lee’s head so as to keep a distance. Lee got in on roughly three or four shots, but Bresser was quick and athletic enough to stretch Lee out and square back up each time. 

Bresser nearly struck in the first period when he got ahold of a head-inside single. He picked it up, but Lee hand-fought his way to a stalemate, using good balance, a calm demeanor and some flexibility to stave off trouble. 

In the third, Bresser chose down, and Lee eclipsed a minute of riding time without much resistance. It looked as if Lee would ride him out for a 2-0 win. But with 36 seconds left, Bresser sat out and sparked a scramble. Lee, instead of just chasing Bresser’s hips and maintaining top position, tried to throw his legs in from a funky angle. Bresser quickly reached for an underhook, and stood up for an escape.

When they came to their feet, they were in an upper-body-type lock. Moments after getting his one, Bresser’s opportunity opened up in the form of an inside trip. He went from down 1-0 to up 3-1 in about 13 seconds. 

Oregon State's Ronnie Bresser connected on an inside trip to score a takedown and beat Iowa's Spencer Lee, 3-1, at the 55th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in Evanston, Illinois.

That led to the controversial reversal sequence. Lee stood up and dove for Bresser’s legs, snatching one and forcing Bresser to his butt. As time ticked down, Lee tried to readjust his grip for a reversal, but the ref didn't give it to him as the clock hit zero. 

A different ref may have awarded two in that position. But if Lee could have removed all doubt by bringing his right arm out and wrapping it around Bresser’s waist. The ref likely thought Bresser was still behind Lee’s arms on the scramble.

“That guy wrestled exactly how he wanted to wrestle,” Brands said. “We talk about strategy, where guys run away for the last 15 to 30 seconds in a match, and that happened in that match.

“But we chased a position when we didn’t have to and got out of position a little bit. We had riding time built up, so just cut the guy. Then he ended up in that scramble … he didn’t let it fly.”

Moving forward

It is unclear if Lee will stay in redshirt or if he will chase an NCAA title as a true freshman. His status is a hot-button topic not just here in Iowa, but within the national wrestling conversation, as well. Should he come out of redshirt, it could drastically change how an already-deep 125-pound weight class looks moving forward. 

“He could be the immediate future of that weight class,” Brands said. “… We’re just going to keep communicating and moving forward. He’s new in the program, and there’s expectations, an the knows what those expectations are.

“But (he showed) a lot of good there because of the potential he has.”

To translate: Lee would be a national-title contender at a weight where arguably 10 guys could win it. It would make the 125-pound bracket at the NCAA tournament even more fun.

But Lee will also have to be wary of opponents who employ a strategy similar to Bresser’s last Saturday. The blueprint is now out there for how to beat him. Lee is a savvy enough wrestler to figure out how to avoid matches like that, but he’s also smart enough to know that certainly won’t be the last time an opponent tries it. 

The loss undoubtedly put a damper on Lee’s weekend, but the talent that has helped him earn three age-level world titles was also on display, and has wrestling fans in Iowa and beyond eagerly waiting for his next collegiate match. 

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.