IOWA CITY, Iowa — Wrestlers often come across as unfiltered and bombastic in their rhetoric, and God bless them for it.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and three NCAA titles for the Hawkeyes, rarely disappoints when the microphones are turned on. He generally doesn’t surprise anyone with his candor, either. But Wednesday, the wrestling icon said something about freshman 125-pounder Spencer Lee that made me blink fast and shake my head.
“He’s a unique talent,” Brands said. “Good student. Good kid. Represents our program the way we want our young guys to represent our program. He reminds me of me socially, not in wrestling. He would have whipped my tail when I was his age.”
Whoa. Brands finished fourth nationally as a freshman with a 32-4-1 record. Then Brands happened to finish with a 158-7-2 career record, ranking second in all-time wins at Iowa. He was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at the 1992 NCAA Tournament.
Whoa again. Brands likes his guys, talks up their strengths and always displays plenty of bravado. Brands likes showmanship and aggressive wrestling, just the way legendary coach Dan Gable taught him 25 years ago. And Lee will provide it.
Lee is the next big thing, and Brands knows it. So do his teammates. Lee was the nation’s top recruit coming to Iowa. He won three straight Pennsylvania state titles, was a Cadet world champion and a two-time world champion. He was undefeated in high school. Midway through his senior season, Lee suffered a torn ACL. He was advised to stop wrestling by his family and everyone involved. He chose to sit out five weeks until sectionals, won on a bad leg and went back to state. Lee advanced to the state finals where he lost his only high school match. On a torn ACL.
Lee didn’t see live action at Iowa until October. The plan was methodical. Lee wrested unattached in two tournaments. He scored three falls and three technical falls. He lost his final match at Midlands to No. 10-ranked Ronnie Bresser of Oregon State 3-1 when Lee’s rust showed a bit. But in that tournament, Lee also produced a 15-0 technical fall over Edinboro’s Sean Russell, who was an All-American last season.
The performance showed that Lee was capable of dominating great competition. His knee has recovered fully. It was obvious he could help Iowa at 125 pounds and could become an All-American for the Hawkeyes in March. But was he ready to pull the redshirt? Frankly, it was killing him.
“I just think that sitting on the bench maybe isn’t the best thing for me,” Lee said. “Maybe we could have pulled earlier, I don’t know. That was a decision that we were still kind of waffling back and forth. It’s done now. It’s a done deal.”
“Spencer Lee is free,” Brands said. “One reason this is big news is because it’s Spencer Lee. He’s special. On another level, it’s just a decision that’s made in your program. Not that it’s ho-hum, but you’d like it to be business as usual. But that’s not what the media or fans or probably opponents, they don’t want to leave it lay like that. That’s why we’re talking about it.”
It’s not ho-hum to Lee’s teammates. Michael Kemerer, who is ranked No. 2 nationally at 157 pounds with a 13-0 record, was Lee’s teammate at Franklin Regional in Murrysville, Pa. He described Lee joining the Hawkeyes army as “huge.”
“To see the bonus-point potential that he has, you even saw it this weekend. That was a returning All-American that he tech-falled,” said Kemerer, who finished third nationally last season at 157. “We know that he can score lots of points, score them fast and turn guys over and pin them. It’s awesome. I’m excited.
“I could tell that he’s not the type of kid that wants to be watching. You see how he wrestles and how hard he wrestles and he’s ready to be out there competing and wrestling for a national title right away. It’s just the kind of kid he is.”
Iowa wrestling is built on tenacity, toughness, technique and intimidation. Lee has all of those characteristics and has yet to wrestle one match in a Hawkeyes singlet. But six years ago he watched an Iowa-Penn State dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and envisioned himself in this environment. On Friday against Michigan State, he’ll be in it.
“I imagined running into Carver for the first time in seventh grade when I watched [Tony] Ramos pin one of the Penn State guys,” Lee said. “And it got so loud that I couldn’t even hear myself think. I was sitting with my Young Guns coach. I told him, ‘I think I’d look pretty good in black and gold.’ I was like in seventh grade.”
And what can Lee bring to the top of the lineup at an Iowa legacy weight class laced with national powerhouses such as Matt McDonough, Thomas Gilman and Tom Brands?
“Hopefully I can follow in their footsteps,” Lee said. “I know Gilman and McDonough and my coach, they all did their part and their job. Hopefully now it’s my turn. I’m going to go out there and do my best and score points. This is an entertainment business. That’s what I’m going to go out there to do.”
The 125-pound class is fantastic nationally. Lee met that with a shrug.
“I don’t see why that matters,” he said. “You have to believe you could beat anyone, anywhere, any time. Or else you’re in the wrong sport.”
That’s Iowa wrestling swagger. That’s Gable, Brands, the Steiner brothers and Lincoln McIlravy. That’s Lee.
“He has a reason to be confident,” Kemerer said. “He’s won at the international level, he’s won at every level. He’s ready to step in.
“He knows how good he is.”