In two attempts, Pennsylvania’s Spencer Lee has won two NCAA titles at 125 pounds. In high school, Lee won three straight state titles, losing in a huge upset to Austin DeSanto in the finals as a senior.
Although Lee likely wasn’t at 100%, as suggested by a massive knee brace on his right leg, it was still a dramatic match and a massive shock to the wrestling community. After all, they had seen Lee battle through adversity just months earlier at the 2016 Junior World Championships in France.
In his previous Cadet and Junior gold medal performances, Lee finished off every one of his opponents by technical fall or pin before the final whistle. In 2016, it appeared to be business as usual. He won by 11-0 tech, first period pin, 12-0 tech, and 10-0 tech.
Pure domination. You would never know that he was sleep deprived and still hurting from a brutal weight cut to 50 kg (110 pounds).
In his interview with PA-Wrestling, Lee detailed some of the adversity he faced before the match.
“Spencer’s trip had been rough from the start. After three weeks in Rio at the 2016 Olympics training Daniel Dennis, Spencer returned to Murrysville, PA where he prepared for his second Junior World Tournament. He did not travel to Colorado Springs with the rest of Team USA due to being in Rio and having a condensed time schedule.
Leaving from Pittsburgh, Spencer and his father had two flights cancelled en route to Macon, France – a city accessible only by car or train.
Then there was his weight. “Making weight was hard” Lee stated after his finals bout at 50 kg. Even more pressure was placed on the star as France is his mother’s home Nation.
Spencer had a rough night of sleep on Friday unable to clear his mind and get the much needed rest after a difficult cut. “I think I slept maybe two hours last night” an exhausted Lee stated.”
Those two hours did him little good, Lee claimed he was exhausted before he even walked out on the mat.
FINAL: Spencer LEE (USA) vs. Khurshid PARPIEV (KGZ)
After earning a bye in the qualification round, Kyrgyzstan’s Parpiev made his way to the gold medal match via 12-2 tech, 4-2 decision, and a second period pin in the semifinals.
Typically, Spencer Lee uses level fakes and short offense from ties to snap down his opponents and quickly transition to par terre attacks. Both his leg lace and gut wrench are powerful and sharp enough to end a match in seconds. Off snaps, Lee will either pass the arms for a go-behind, or switch to deep underhooks or half-nelsons in transition to get an angle on their back to finish in rear-standing.
With this style, Lee can avoid having to cover space with leg attacks and doesn’t risk wasting energy by fighting up from underneath his opponents. This is also the best way to leverage the strength and physicality edge he holds even up at 57 kg.
Perhaps partially due to his depleted state, Lee struggled immensely to get this game going against the lanky Parpiev.
Eager to score early and put him away, Lee fought through the hands and drove for a head-inside single, eventually building up to his base to shelf the leg for a finish.
However, he gave Parpiev plenty of time to stabilize in the quad pod position, and he was able to use his length to hit a nasty cross-pick counter on Lee’s right foot. Pariev reached back and between his own legs to snatch up the foot, then used that new lever to posture up and turn in to Lee to break him down.
Lee had to fight hard in order to avoid giving up any points. This was exactly the kind of match he didn’t want.
Even when Lee was able to get his short offense going and punch through underhooks, Parpiev gave him fits. Off of Parpiev’s underhook. Lee changed levels for a high-crotch entry, but was stifled by the finger-fight of Parpiev on his attacking hand. On the rise, Lee was able to free his hand and dig under the reaching arm of Parpiev for an underhook, running his feet toward the back.
Catching a bodylock from that new angle, Lee stepped in front of Parpiev and attempted to drag him forward. However, Parpiev based out and stepped toward the edge of the mat, forcing Lee to follow him. With that newfound space, Parpiev turned in, changed levels and scooped inside the far knee of Spencer Lee.
Mid-transition, Parpiev released his whizzer and used his free hand to post and break his descent, giving him the base necessary to fling Lee feet-to-back with that grip inside the knee.
A four-point deficit in freestyle is huge. Not only are you now potentially down by multiple scores, even if you were to score two takedowns to tie the match, criteria would go to the wrestler with the scores of highest value. Lee was in a hole.
As Parpiev started to slow, Lee was able to snap him down more and more often, but his troubles weren’t over. On his go-behind attempts, Parpiev was clamping onto the far-side hand of Lee and building up height on that side to prevent a complete go-behind. With Lee’s weight completely loaded behind him and the trapped hand preventing a post, Parpiev attempted to bump back and back-step over the hips of Lee to create exposures.
These attempts were aided by knee-pulls with the other hand to create a barrier for Lee to fall over.
Deep into the second period and still down by multiple scores, Lee had to turn up the heat.
Parpiev could not continue to absorb the snaps of Lee and look for counters, the constant fight for posture was wearing him down. Feeling Lee getting heavy from underhook and wrist control, he attempted to capitalize on Lee’s planted feet with an overhook shuck. For more detail on the intricacies of this technique, check out my breakdown on Sadulaev’s use of the shuck. As noted in the breakdown, it’s extremely important to let the grip slide on the shuck, down to the elbow. Otherwise, your opponent is still more or less in front of you after throwing it by.
Lee held steady capitalized.
With Parpiev turned slightly away and his left arm out of the picture, Lee was able to step off to an angle and reach across Parpiev’s back, getting a grip on the lat. Catching a grip inside the bicep on Parpiev’s recoiling left arm, Lee convered the grip to a half nelson and began to bear down. One important note is that while applying these grips, Lee hooked his near leg inside of Parpiev’s, kicking it back to force him to lean forward for a post.
Parpiev’s right arm was still in play to base up with, so Lee applied the rare full nelson, hooking behind both arms and pressuring on the back of the head to keep Parpiev’s face smushed into the mat. Lee continued to torque the full nelson while extending the hook, in order to force Parpiev over his own right shoulder, but he settled for the takedown.
Physical domination, this was a Spencer Lee match.
There were 30 seconds remaining, Lee needed a takedown - one point would still favor Parpiev on criteria.
Parpiev pressured in with underhooks, looking to score his own pushout to widen the gap.
Feeling the outer boundary approaching quickly, Lee countered - with an overhook shuck of his own.
Unlike Parpiev, Lee put his whole body into the shuck. Bearing down on Parpiev’s left underhook with his elbow, Lee added to the motion when he stepped back and threw by Parpiev’s right underhook. Instead of a quick release, Lee made sure he had completed the full motion of the drag before releasing the grip to cover.
Desperate to hang on for the win, Parpiev turned in and attacked the legs of Lee, but Lee was already upon him. Covering in front headlock, Lee dug his own right side underhook and passed by the right arm of Parpiev to go behind. As usual, Parpiev clung to the underhooking arm, but Lee bullied him out of the grip by brutally shoving his head to the left and knocking him off his base.
As Parpiev scrambled to recover and stand back up, Lee changed levels and attacked the legs with a low single. Lee used the single to turn the corner, then released his grip and looked to cover in rear-standing. Parpiev attempted to reach back and pull Lee off to the right for one last counter exposure, but he had little control and Lee was able to retain height. Parpiev’s grip slipped and he collapsed, belly down.
With 20 seconds to spare, Lee had gained the lead.
Demonstrating a deeper skill-set and incredible conditioning, Lee held on for his third freestyle World title.
Listen to his emotional interview.
Lee would go on to suffer the loss to DeSanto, his future teammate, in the Pennsylvania state finals, but Lee’s collegiate career has matched the expectations set by his freestyle run.
Lee’s undefeated junior season of college at the University of Iowa was cut short by CoVid-19, his chances of becoming a four-time NCAA champion are looking slim. But Lee has larger goals in sight - he’s currently one of the top three wrestlers favored to make the Olympic team at 57 kg. His biggest challenges will be former World team members Thomas Gilman and Daton Fix, look out for other US contenders at Senior Nationals in October.