After a day that began with Iowa wrestling finally clinching a cathartic and long-awaited team championship and a finals session that began with two painful losses for Iowa wrestlers, at least the night ended with a truly satisfying bang: Spencer Lee, 2021 NCAA champion at 125 lbs.
Lee took on 3-seed Brandon Courtney of Arizona State in the finals and the 125 lb final was positioned as the main event and final match of the evening by the NCAA, with the 285 lb final, featuring Minnesota's Gable Steveson, as the secondary main event. It made sense: Lee and Steveson are college wrestling's two most dominant performers and its biggest stars -- why not spotlight them in your marquee event of the season? Moments after Steveson claimed a national title (his first), Lee did the same, methodically earning a 7-0 victory over Arizona State's Brandon Courtney.
Courtney's gameplan was clear from the start: run, run, and then run some more. Hope the refs are lenient on handing out stall calls and try to tire Lee out and catch him late. His gameplan worked for a period, as the first period ended at 0-0, a rarity for a Spencer Lee match. Lee had trouble getting hold of the elusive Courtney, who spent a lot of time scrambling backward or hugging the edge of the match.
Lee chose down to start the second period and got an easy escape; Courtney didn't even try to ride him (which was a bit surprising, given that Lee has been susceptible to being ridden in the past, and particularly at this tournament). That gave Lee a 1-0 lead; he got another point on a third caution call against Courtney. He turned that into a 4-0 lead by finally getting a takedown on Courtney near the edge of the mat as the period was coming to a close. With only 20-ish seconds to work with, Lee didn't have much time to spend on top and trying to take Courtney into tilt town, though he still managed to come close.
Courtney chose neutral in the third period, not wanting to risk going under Lee (a wise move, frankly) and Lee was finally able to secure a second takedown halfway through the period and ride him out, which earned him a riding time point and pushed the score to 7-0. That ended his streak of scoring bonus points in all of his matches this season, though it probably shouldn't have ended here, had the refs been less reluctant to hand out stall calls. So it goes.
But the most incredible part of Lee's performance tonight may have been his post-match interview, in which he revealed that he just won a national championship without any functional ACLs in his knees.
We suffer together, we love together, we fight together. No matter what, were going to get through it... you have to believe in those around you... and you can do anything.— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) March 21, 2021
-@LeeSpencerlee36, 3x National Champion. pic.twitter.com/c836W24uUR
Correction: he just dominated the field at 125 lbs, outscoring his opponents 59-8 (including his last two opponents by a combined score of 18-0), WITHOUT ANY DAMN ACLS.
WHAT IN THE GODDAMN HELL
"Eight days ago, I tore my ACL in my other knee. I'm wrestling with no ACLs," Lee said. "Whatever, man. I didn't want to tell anybody, because excuses are for wusses.
"That was a tough tournament for me. I could barely wrestle. I could barely shoot. I can't sprawl. But you know what? I believe in my coaching staff and everybody who believed in me."
Incredible. So if Lee didn't look quite like himself this week... well, I guess we know why. AND HE STILL DOMINATED PEOPLE.
Lee said he tore an ACL in one of his knees two years ago, in the NCAA final against Virginia's Jack Mueller. That means he's wrestled the last two seasons with a torn ACL in one knee. Two seasons in which he went undefeated and scored bonus points in 93% of his matches, and outscored opponents 430-40 over his last 35 matches. And he one-upped that performance this week by winning a national championship with torn ACLs in both knees.
Spencer Lee's teammates have given him the nickname "Yoda" lately and they're absolutely right -- because he ain't human and he can do absolutely otherworldly things.
I don't even know what to say about him anymore. He's the greatest Iowa wrestler I've ever seen and on the short list of the greatest college wrestlers of all-time. He's an impossibly skilled wrestler, able to do things on the mat that few wrestlers can even comprehend, let alone duplicate. Jim Gibbons noted this weekend that he's taken the parallel ride, widely viewed as primarily a stall ride, and transformed it into one of the most dangerous scoring positions in the sport, thanks to his unreal bar-arm tilt. And as skilled as he is -- and, again, he is phenomenally, transcendentally skilled as a wrestler -- his toughness is even more impressive. Doing what he's done the last two seasons on one torn ACL is outrageously impressive; winning a national championship this week -- and doing it while still dominating his competition, he wasn't eking out 3-2 wins here -- with two torn ACLs is just flabbergasting.
With this year's triumph, Lee, who tied Gable Steveson for the most team points scored at this year's NCAA Tournament (24.5), becomes the seventh wrestler in Iowa history to win three NCAA championships and the first to do so since Joe Williams in 1998. He joins Williams (1996-98), Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 1994, 1997), Tom Brands (1990-92), Barry Davis (1982, 1983, 1985), Jim Zalesky (1982-84), and Ed Banach (1980, 1981, 1983) as the members of the three-timers club. That's pretty elite company.
As for what Lee's injured knees mean for his attempt to make the Olympic team and compete in the Tokyo Olympics this summer? TBD.
Asked Spencer Lee if he plans to wrestle at the Olympic Trials in two weeks:— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) March 21, 2021
"We'll take it day by day and see, but that's my goal. I want to go down swinging. How's that?"
Olympic Trials are just a few weeks away, so he doesn't have much time to rest or heal up (though there isn't really much non-surgical healing that one can do with two torn ACLs). But would you want to bet against him, knowing what you know about him and seeing what you've seen from him? I sure wouldn't.
For good or ill, Lee's national championship triumph relegated the results of Iowa's earlier championship matches, Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer at 141 and 174 lbs, respectively, to footnotes in tonight's action. They were, sadly, almost identical matches. After a scoreless first period, Eierman got an escape against Lee, before Lee chose neutral to start the third and got a takedown. Eierman's subsequent escape made it 2-2, but neither man could find a winning move before sudden victory, where Lee powered through on a slick inside trip to get the decisive takedown for a 4-2 victory. Kemerer and Starocci also wrestled a 0-0 first period before trading escapes in the second and third periods. Their match too went to sudden victory and it was the Penn State wrestler finishing with an explosive attack and getting the winning takedown. It was a brutally disappointing and painful way for Eierman and Kemerer to end their otherwise-brilliant seasons. There's more to unpack about these matches, but I think that's best left for another post right now.
For now, the attention once again shines brightly upon Spencer Lee. He's been a supernova in the wrestling world since he was a child and the face of the Iowa program since he set foot on campus in 2017 (if not from the moment he committed to Iowa). Being able to watch him for the last four years has been nothing but a privilege and, thanks to the NCAA's decision to grant all fall and winter sport athletes this year an eligibility waiver if they want to use it (Lee has already said he plans to use it and return next season), that privilege isn't over just yet.
Spencer Lee, three-time NCAA champion. Congratulations, Spencer, you are truly remarkable.