One of the hardest things to do is live up to the hype, especially when the hype is sky-high. Spencer Lee arrived at Iowa as probably the most hyped recruit ever to set foot in Iowa City, the #1 overall recruit in the class of 2017, a three-time world champion at various age levels, and a high school wrestler who utterly dominated the Pennsylvania prep ranks. The hype for him was deafening, the expectations were stratospheric. And then he hit the mat... and he lived up to the hype.
Lee won an NCAA championship as a true freshman this past March. In doing so he became the first freshman at Iowa to win a national championship since Matt McDonough won a national title during his redshirt freshman year in 2010. He became the first true freshman at Iowa to win a national championship since the great Lincoln McIlravy won a national title in 1993. Moreover, Lee didn't just "win a national championship," although that would have been plenty impressive in its own right -- he dominated his way to a national championship. He recorded 18-0 technical falls in his first two matches, then recorded two pins in his next two matches -- in the quarterfinals and semifinals. He "only" won the final 5-1, but even that was impressive since the two takedowns he recorded against Nick Suriano in the final were the only two takedowns Suriano conceded in the entire NCAA Tournament.
Lee was the high scorer of the NCAA Tournament, recording 27 points (28% of Iowa's entire team score). No other individual had more than 25 points. And Lee did that in a brutally difficult bracket that featured two former NCAA champions, four former NCAA finalists, and a slew of All-Americans. It didn't matter: Spencer slew all comers in his path this March. His incredible title run earned him Amateur Wrestling News' Hammer Award, doled out to the winner of the toughest weight class at the NCAA Tournament.
And, of course, Lee did all of this as a true freshman, just a year removed from wrapping up his decorated high school career and only a few months after arriving on the Iowa campus. Which begs the question: what might Lee be able to do for a follow-up act? It's exciting (if you're an Iowa fan) or frightening (if you're a fan of another team) to consider that Lee might be able to improve upon his dazzling freshman season, but there's reason to think that he can.
For one thing, there's his health. Lee's high school career ended with him tearing an ACL (and still coming seconds away from winning a fourth-straight state championship) and he arrived at Iowa still recovering from that injury and the subsequent surgery to repair his knee. He wrestled most of the year with an extremely bulky brace on his right leg, to better protect his still-healing knee and leg. But he took the brace off before the NCAA Tournament and we saw an even better version of Lee than we'd seen all season -- and that Lee had still been very good, capable of buzzsawing through almost everyone he faced, minus a few hiccups against Oregon State's Ronnie Bresser and Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello. But Lee without a knee brace was even better -- he looked quicker, more agile, and more confident in his movements, which made him a whirlwind of action. ACL repair is a major surgery, though, and it takes most athletes 1-2 years to make a full recovery. As Lee gets further removed from that injury, we should see an even healthier -- and even better -- Lee on the mat. We'll also get to see a Lee who has the benefit of going through a full offseason strength training program and a full year of training and practice in the Iowa wrestling room, which should only make him stronger, sharper, and better-prepared for what he faces on the mat.
That said, the health question is one that will always loom over everything with Lee. It does for all athletes, but Lee has dealt with several injuries while assembling his glittering resume. In addition to his ACL injury he also dealt with a major shoulder injury during his prep career. Keeping him healthy for the next three years will be of paramount importance. But we also know that wrestling is, simply put, a brutally hard spot and it can be hard to avoid injuries over the course of a career. Plenty of the very best wrestlers the sport has had in recent years have dealt with serious injuries during their careers. Matt McDonough's quest for a third national championship was cruelly derailed by arm/shoulder injuries as a senior. Cory Clark finally won his elusive national championship as a senior, but he had to battle through a mountain of ailments to do it. Penn State's Jason Nolf wrestled through a significant knee injury this season on his way to winning another national championship.
Another reason Lee might be able to reach an even more dominant level has to do with his competition -- or rather the lack thereof. Tomasello was one of two guys to defeat Lee during his freshman season (via 2-1 decision at the Big Ten Championships). He's graduated now, though, and won't be back in 2018-19. Darian Cruz, the 125 lb national champion in 2017, has also graduated.
Lee also showed an impressive ability to improve in rematches against opponents and either reverse a result or (more commonly) extend the gap in his margin of victory. He beat Oklahoma State's Nick Piccinnini 10-5 in their first match; he pinned him in 3:58 (in a match he was on his way to winning via technical fall) in the rematch. He beat Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera 7-4 in their first match; he beat him 12-0 in the rematch. After beating Tomasello 3-2 in their first match, he lost the rematch 2-1, but he won the rubber match in a pin in 6:05 in a match he was winning comfortably before the pin. You don't have a great shot of beating Lee the first time you face him; you really don't have a good shot of beating him if he's seen you before and has a chance to prepare.
In addition to guys vacating the 125 lb weight class via graduation, there's also the issue of guys vacating the weight class to move to a different weight class. Nick Suriano, Lee's victim in the NCAA finals and one of the most highly-touted lightweight recruits outside of Lee in the last few years, is expected to move up to 133 lbs. Likewise, Minnesota's Ethan Lizak, an NCAA finalist at 125 lbs in 2017, is moving to 133 lbs for next season. Oklahoma State's Daton Fix, who, like Lee and Suriano, was a highly-touted and much-hyped lightweight recruit in recent years, may debut at 133 lbs next year after redshirting in 2017-18. If he doesn't, then that will likely push Piccinnini out of the 125 lb weight class.
Depending on what happens with the Oklahoma State guys, the most notable remaining names at 125 next year might be Rivera and Oregon State's Ronnie Bresser. Lee is already 2-0 against Rivera and opened up the gap on him in their second match. Bresser did hand Lee his only non-Tomasello defeat of the season (via 3-1 decision at the 2017 Midlands Championships), but that loss came in a very close match and in just Lee's fifth match of the season. No offense to Bresser, but the Lee we saw in December was a far cry from the Lee who was steamrolling the field in March.
Perhaps some quality challengers will emerge -- maybe Fix will opt to start his career at 125 lbs after all. Maybe Rivera will level up -- like Lee, he was just a freshman this past season. Maybe some unknown faces will emerge as threats at 125 lbs. Or maybe we're just seeing the beginning stages of the Spencer Lee World Domination Tour and he's about to collect all the trophies and salt the earth at 125 lbs for the next three years. Either way, it's sure to be a great ride for Iowa fans, so let's be sure to savor it. It's not every day that you get to watch something -- or someone -- truly special and Lee is a very, very special talent.