Why Iowa's Spencer Lee treats every wrestling match like 'the biggest match in the world'

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Spencer Lee is tired of talking about last month’s loss at the Midlands Championships. He’s the kind of person who prefers to look forward, to focus on the next match, to treat it like it’s “the biggest match in the world.”

“I’ve been wrestling big matches my whole life,” Lee, a sophomore on the Iowa wrestling team, said earlier this week. “There’s no difference.”

Well, Sunday’s potential matchup is a pretty big one.

Iowa's Spencer Lee has his hand raised after pinning Rutgers' Nick Denora at 125 during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Hawkeyes are on the road for a Friday-Sunday doubleheader this weekend. Ranked third nationally by Trackwrestling with an 8-0 dual record, Iowa takes on No. 13 Illinois on Friday night, then No. 9 Northwestern on Sunday afternoon.

Friday’s dual against the Illini is something of an appetizer for Sunday’s main course. In the Hawkeyes’ trip to newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena, Lee is expected to wrestle Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera in a battle of the country’s top two wrestlers at 125 pounds.

This will be the fourth meeting between the two. Lee twice beat Rivera last season — 7-4 in a dual, then 12-0 at the Big Ten tournament. Last month, in the finals of the 2018 Midlands, Rivera got his revenge, scoring three takedowns in a 7-3 win.

“That match is a good example of just not getting ready to go,” Lee said. “He was ready to go, and he wrestled hard. He’s a great opponent. He’s always going to wrestle hard against everybody. He brought it for me that day.”

The result sent ripples through the wrestling world. Lee, of course, is the reigning NCAA Champion. But Rivera, by virtue of his win last month, is now the unanimous No. 1-ranked 125-pounder in the country. He enters the weekend 17-0. Lee, at 11-1, is second.

“He saw that it’s not automatic to repeat,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “His game is upped.”


Come Sunday, it will have been 28 days since that Midlands match. Lee has had time to dissect it and understand what went wrong. The Hawkeyes had two weeks off after the Midlands before entering a stretch of four duals in 15 days.

In that time, Lee is 2-0. He beat Minnesota’s sixth-ranked Sean Russell 4-0 and pinned Rutgers’ Nick Denora in 38 seconds. But behind closed doors, his teammates have seen even more.

“His mindset is a lot different,” said Alex Marinelli, Iowa’s 165-pounder. “He treats each match like it’s the biggest one now — not that he didn’t do that before, but it’s more evident now. In practices, he wants to get better, and he knows he can.

“A lot of times, when you win a national title, you get what you wanted. But now, let’s build and get even better. Let’s get world-class, Olympic-champ better. I know who Spencer is, and he will be world-class, Olympic-champ material.”

Lee understands what it takes to win at wrestling’s highest levels. He is a three-time age-level world champion, after all.

But when speaking ahead of this weekend’s matchups, he thought back to when he first started wrestling — when he and his father, Larry, traveled the country to find the toughest competition. He learned many lessons then that he still uses today.

“Just because you win nationals doesn’t mean every guy is going to go out there and lay down for you,” Lee said. “I would get mad if I didn’t beat someone by 15 points or if I didn’t pin them. But my dad said, ‘They want to win, too, so you need to respect them.’

“But — 'respect all, fear none.' He said that a lot, too.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee is introduced during a NCAA wrestling dual on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

► MORE ON SPENCER LEE: Inside Spencer Lee's chase of wrestling greatness

So Lee is ready for another crack at Rivera. Just like he’ll be ready for the opportunity to wrestle another set of Big Ten opponents through February. Just like he’ll be ready for the conference and national tournaments in March.

He’s tired of talking about the past. There is so much to look forward to. He’s ready to move on, toward the biggest match in the world.

“You want the best from everyone you wrestle,” Lee said. “That’s why you wrestle. You don’t want to go out and go through the motions. You want it to be a battle. We love this sport, and everybody wants to fight hard in a good match and be the better man.

“There’s a lot of things that go into losing or even winning. Like I said, he wrestled a great match, and he was the better wrestler that day. That’s pretty much all I have to say about that.”

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


No. 3 Hawkeyes (8-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten)

at No. 13 Illinois (2-3, 1-2)
WHEN: Friday, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Huff Hall, Champaign, Illinois
WATCH: Big Ten Network

at No. 9 Northwestern (3-6, 1-3)
WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m.
WHERE: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Illinois
WATCH: BTN2Go/Flowrestling