IOWA CITY, Iowa — Just when it seems Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands might run out of superlatives when describing freshman Spencer Lee, the charismatic Brands delivers yet another one-liner.
After Lee’s 16-0 technical fall of Minnesota’s No. 6-ranked Ethan Lizak on Friday, Brands was asked if Lee surprises him anymore.
“No,” Brands said.
What is surprising is how the No. 3-ranked 125-pounder brutally has mowed down his foes like a tractor in a pasture since moving up to the varsity barely a month ago. Taking off his redshirt after fully recovering from ACL surgery, Lee (11-1 overall) stuck Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley in 46 seconds. Lee then beat No. 6 Nick Piccininni of Oklahoma State 10-5, upset Ohio State’s top-ranked Nathan Tomasello 3-2 and blasted No. 9 Drew Mattin of Michigan by technical fall 15-0.
Lizak is the latest casualty in a run of ranked opponents.
“When you choose to get in the Big Ten, you know what you’re getting into, right?” Lee said. “This is the SEC of wrestling, people say. You get ready to wrestle every match like it’s the Olympic finals.”
Lee has beaten opponents in multiple ways. Not only is he aggressive on his feet with pinning capabilities, Lee is a tenacious rider. Lee rode Tomasello the entire second period, which enabled him to gain the decisive riding point.
Against Lizak, Lee picked up a takedown 17 seconds into the match. Lee turned the Minnesota wrestler over for 4 near-fall points and led 6-0 at the end of the first. Lizak, who demonstrated his riding skills last year in a big match against Iowa’s Thomas Gilman, chose on top to start the second. Lee reversed Lizak 28 seconds later and took him to his back for 4 more near-fall points. Lizak couldn’t do anything and gave up a stalling point.
To start the third period, Lee selected neutral, attacked Lizak and picked up the match-ending takedown 45 seconds into the period. Lee built nearly four minutes of riding time against the nation’s No. 6 wrestler.
“I was just working for whatever was there,” Lee said. “I didn’t want to force anything. He’s a rolly kind of guy. He’s funky, he’s good on top. He wants to get there again. I didn’t want to roll over or do something stupid and have him end up on top, legs flattened out. So I was wrestling smart and looking for holds that I was favorable in and just scoring points.”
The effort has Brands and Iowa radio color commentator Mark Ironside making what could be considered hyperbolic comparisons — if they weren’t true. Brands and Ironside have a combined five NCAA individual titles between them. With Lee’s riding skills, the duo compared him with 2017 NCAA champion Cory Clark, who was a four-time All-American for the Hawkeyes.
“Mark Ironside said it best in the radio interview,” Brands said. “He said there’s guys like Cory Clark who can ride. And then there’s Spencer Lee, who can ride.”
When Lee heads to the mat with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blaring from one end of the arena to the other, fans stand and cheer. After Lee walks off the mat, the applause is deafening. Friday, because Lee’s match was the evening’s eighth, several fans headed for the exits after his victory.
But Lee is just getting started at Iowa. He exudes maturity and energy. Brands raved about Lee’s focus on how he wanted to learn the best way to prepare for a Sunday match against Northwestern’s No. 10-ranked Sebastian Rivera.
“He told me once, and this is brilliant, that he doesn’t speed or drive reckless and he wears his seatbelt because if he dies, he won’t be able to wrestle anymore,” Brands said. “So think about that. That means the sport means a lot to him.”
Lee is locked in on the task at hand, from concentrating on how to properly rehydrate after a match to preparing for practice. With that focus, Lee could — and should — wrestle on the final Saturday night in each of the next four years.