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No ACLs required: How Spencer Lee cruised to his third NCAA wrestling title

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Spencer Lee is now three-for-three in NCAA Championship finals appearances, and he did it with 0 healthy ACLs.

NCAA Wrestling: NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships
Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Spencer Lee wrestles Arizona State Sun Devils wrestler Brandon Courtney in the championship match of the 125 weight class against Arizona State Sun Devils wrestler Brandon Courtney during the finals of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Enterprise Center.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Pennsylvania native Spencer Lee was a heavy favorite to win his third NCAA Division 1 title this season at 125 pounds. His reign of terror began way back in 2014 when he won his first Cadet World Championship, followed by two Junior World gold medals in 2015 and 2016. I broke down his gutsy performance at 2016 Worlds. Along the way he picked up three straight Pennsylvania state titles in high school, decimating everyone in his path.

Before wrestling for his fourth state title, Lee suffered a serious knee injury, tearing his right ACL. He still dominated his way to the finals, albeit with a massive brace on. In the previous season he defeated Austin DeSanto via technical fall in the finals, but with everything on the line it was DeSanto who took revenge against Lee with a last-second takedown for the win. It was a devastating upset, one that had wrestling fans wondering if Lee would be able to hold up physically in his highly-anticipated college career for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

He did more than hold up. As a true freshman, Lee suffered two close prospect losses before shredding through the competition in the post-season. Lee won by pin or technical fall in all but his finals bout at the NCAA championships, announcing his presence as a pound-for-pound elite. In his second season, Lee once again took two tough losses in the regular season before turning it on in March - cruising through the bracket to win his second title.

The 2020 season seemed to be the year Spencer Lee would break the cycle. He was perfect in 18 matches, with an 89% bonus rate. Unfortunately, Covid-19 struck and cancelled the NCAA championships, seemingly taking away Lee’s chance to join the rare ranks of four-time NCAA champions at the Division 1 level. The NCAA ruled that the cancelled 2020 season did count as a year of eligibility used, much to the dismay of the entire community. Bizarrely, the 2021 season was offered as a “free” year of eligibility in its place.

All the while through his collegiate run, Lee continued to wear that massive knee brace, few knew what the condition of his right leg truly was. Never taking a redshirt season, Lee had wrestled straight through every season since the initial injury took place. Unbeknownst to the wrestling world, at the 2021 Big Ten Championships this March, Lee tore the ACL on his other knee.

Lee revealed that he had re-injured his previously damaged right knee when he tore his ACL in the 2019 NCAA finals against Jack Mueller, and now again in his remaining healthy knee. In Lee’s words, he was wrestling with “no ACLs”.

Some may doubt the legitimacy of that claim, it sounds physically impossible. However, a doctor recently weighed in and broke down how Lee was able to navigate his condition. I highly recommend watching this video.

I’m not a medical professional, I just break down wrestling, so let’s jump into his title-winning performance.

125-lbs Final: Spencer Lee (Iowa) vs. Brandon Courtney (Arizona State)

Many elite wrestlers have fallen to Spencer Lee in the first period. He typically gets collar and wrist control, shoots his swing single with the head inside and pulls your far elbow while driving you across your base. These types of finishes allow Spencer Lee to establish control even off of shallow single legs, he doesn’t need a great entry. On top of that, Lee is excellent in upper body positions, he has attacks from almost every tie-up. Once he’s on top, it’s typically his deadly armbar-tilt that puts his opponents away.

ASU’s Brandon Courtney had the advantage in speed, and a deep knowledge of Lee’s game. It’s easier said than done, but when wrestlers escape the first period intact against Spencer Lee, they can usually start to get to their offense. To that point, Courtney played almost entirely off the backfoot, working hard to deny Lee a strong lock on any limb.

Courtney did a great job playing the edge, using lateral footwork and quick directional changes to keep Lee from tracking him down. Of course, playing hard defense will get you a stalling warning fairly quickly in folkstyle. To account for this, Courtney mixed in some safe, committed counters to Lee’s heated pressuring. Feeling Lee coming forward, hard, Courtney hit a monster snap-down to faceplant the pound-for-pound #1 wrestler in the NCAA. He used that moment to circle away, attempting to attack a go-behind would leave him tangled up on the mat with Lee, someone who can often score even when flattened out.

On several other occasions, Courtney looked to arm drag or pass-by with wrist control to try and take advantage of how committed Lee was to forward motion. These attempts did not dissuade Lee, as he was willing to get into any sort of scramble, as long as it meant a chance to score without shooting. Having no knees was clearly bothering him, his outside shots were far less explosive and it was becoming difficult to track down a wrestler as mobile as Courtney.

Without the ability to shoot hard head-inside and build up from underneath Courtney, Lee really had to lean on his swing single. Of course, pivoting outside with a hard level change is also very difficult when your knees are unstable. Lee wasn’t able to cover a lot of distance on his shots, and the angle wasn’t deep enough to get a strong bite on the leg.

Courtney began to realize that Lee’s only chance of finishing that single was with the elbow or tricep pull, and he intelligently circled his hips back toward the center of the mat, squaring up. If Lee couldn’t drive him straight across that post, Courtney was safe. Not only did Courtney get a good read on defending that shot, he saw it as an opportunity for his own offense.

Lee was slow to rise back into his stance off his shot attempts, so after a quick sprawl and downblock, Courtney shot a straight-on double on a vulnerable Spencer Lee, knocking him onto his hip. In an absurd display of savvy, balance, and upper body strength, Lee kept at bay with his near-side underhook, dragging the tricep on the other side to steer Courtney off to an angle, away from Lee’s hips.

Spencer Lee Brandon Courtney defense
Spencer Lee used an underhook and tricep pull to escape a clean double leg.

The underhook gave Lee leverage to retain height, and the tricep pull opened up a window for Lee to get his hips back and out to the side. Of course if you are not immensely strong, this will probably not work.

At this point Lee likely realized he couldn’t take lazy shots on Courtney anymore. Luckily, he had been the far more offensive wrestler thus far, and there was pressure on Courtney to take attacks of his own. Finally it was Spencer Lee’s turn to counter. As Lee walked Courtney down to the edge of the mat and reached for an arm, Courtney disappeared in a flash - level changing underneath the reaching arm for a swing single of his own. Lee had difficulty reacting to leg attacks the entire tournament, it was clearly painful for him to kick his feet back and make quick cuts.

Somehow, with everything on the line, Lee reacted like a person with two healthy knees.

Lee turned his knee in and kicked his right leg across his body to evade Courtney’s grasp, sliding it across the mat to pivot before turning his hips back down. This is not necessarily advanced defense, but the speed and effortlessness, with consideration to Lee’s health, was absolutely ridiculous. Courtney barely had time to recover and get to his base - Lee immediately pressured downward with his chest and ran his feet to the right, chasing the go-behind.

As Courtney stood, Lee dropped his right knee behind Courtney’s near-leg and reached across the back to grip the far-lat. His positioning was perfect. Lee scored his first takedown of the match with killer efficiency on the reattack. Later on, Lee would finally get a clean bite on his swing single, hitting a beautiful direction-change to sit Courtney’s butt on the mat so he could cover for two.

In the beginning of this match, it seemed that Spencer Lee was wrestling a compromised style, that he didn’t physically have access to the same techniques that he prefers. By the third period, he looked very much himself. The human body, and mind, are fascinating.

Neutral wrestling aside, everyone came here to read about the bar-tilt. Sure enough, Spencer Lee’s signature move came into play against Brandon Courtney. After that go-behind takedown, they reset in the center with under 20 seconds on the clock. In folkstyle wrestling, most would agree that you need a good chunk of time to set up your turns on top. As usual, Spencer Lee is an outlier.

To establish a wrestling armbar, the goal is to get your opponent’s near-side wrist pinned to their back. From there, you can hook your arm underneath their elbow and use your chest to pin the arm in place. Using a tight-waist grip with your other hand, you can hop to the other side and kick through, then elevate their legs with foot hooks and angle their back to the mat. The pressure on your opponent’s shoulder will force them to go toward the the tilt, and you can control their hips with the tight-waist.

Typically the issue is not finishing the tilt, it’s establishing the grip. Collegiate wrestlers are not going to simply let you pin their wrists to their backs. Let’s take a look at how Spencer Lee accomplishes this. Remember - not only does Spencer Lee need to work on getting his turn, he also needs to break down his opponent to prevent him from standing up and escaping.

Spencer Lee sets up armbar Brandon Courtney
Spencer Lee’s use of head pressure behind the shoulder is extremely important.

From referee’s position, your opponent will post with both hands in front of them in order to build up. You can often attack the post on your side by pushing it forward (to break tension) or chopping it back to knock them forward onto that side. Spencer Lee opts to push the elbow forward, which will set up his next step.

With Courtney partially broken down and his arm straightened out, Lee sticks his head into the back of Courtney’s shoulder and drive it forward and down toward the mat. This is quite painful, as well as difficult and dangerous to resist. At the same time, Lee switches his grip to the wrist or hand, curling it inward so he can scoop it straight back and create an angle with the elbow. This is probably the most tricky step, but it can be helpful to move the wrist toward your opponent’s body to get the room to bend the wrist.

Once that bend with the elbow has been established and the wrist is behind the shoulder, Lee continues to drive his head into the shoulder and pull the wrist back further. This is an extremely strong position, even when Courtney attempted to build up on his free side, Lee could simply apply more pressure with his head and pull the wrist more to drive him back down to the mat.

Spencer Lee uses his armbar tilt against Brandon Courtney
The momentum of your tilt can also affect how well you’re able to expose the shoulderblades.

With Courtney flat, Lee has an opportunity to switch his grip from the wrist to hooking under the elbow. You can see once that new grip has been established, Lee flattens himself out to press his chest against the back and get that armbar settled as tightly as possible.

Hopping over to the other side of the hips, Lee is already creating pressure on the shoulder by pulling the elbow toward the center of Courtney’s back. To cement the technique and reinforce the tight-waist, Lee reached his other hand all the way through and grabs’ Courtney’s hand or wrist on the armbar side. Crunching Courtney’s ribs and wrenching the shoulder, Lee kicks his bottom leg through underneath Courtney while he pulls him back with the armbar.

Later on in the match, we saw a variation on the armbar setup when Spencer Lee used his head as a lever inside the elbow instead of the shoulder. This was a much faster and more effective way to create the bend in the arm he needed. However, because he was not breaking down Courtney’s base as effectively, Courtney was able to post with his free arm and get height to avoid the tilt working fully.

Eventually, Spencer Lee settled for just using the armbar as a riding position and closed out the match with a dominant 7-0 victory to win his third NCAA title.

In just one week, Spencer Lee was scheduled to wrestle at the Olympic Team Trials to secure a spot at 57 kg. He is the returning Senior Nationals champion in freestyle, and he holds wins over almost everyone in the field. He would have been contending with the likes of returning World team member Daton Fix, former teammate and World silver medalist Thomas Gilman, the solid and rising Nick Suriano, super talent Vito Arujao, and NCAA champion Roman Bravo-Young, among others.

Unfortunately, Spencer Lee announced today on Twitter that he will not be participating in the trials.

Spencer Lee withdraws Olympic Trials
Spencer Lee has withdrawn from the Olympic Team Trials.