On June 18th, blue-chip wrestling to MMA prospect Nick Piccininni made his pro debut, winning in the first round via rear-naked choke. The New York native and Oklahoma State alum made the logical choice and has been training at American Kickboxing Academy with another former Cowboy, Daniel Cormier.
A career 125-pounder, Piccininni shouldn’t have much of an issue cutting to flyweight on a less regular basis for his MMA career, but a move to 135 in the future would still make sense, given his frame.
Piccininni had an outstanding collegiate career, and “two-time All-American” doesn’t tell the full story with regard to his elite status as a folkstyle wrestler - especially if you consider his senior season was cut short before the NCAA tournament in 2020. After mixed results as a redshirt freshman, Piccininni came alive at nationals, fighting for a 4th place finish. While he was much more consistent as a sophomore, Piccininni had the unfortunate draw of Spencer Lee and Ethan Lizak at NCAAs, leading to a Round of 12 finish.
By his redshirt junior year, Piccininni was a certified elite. He roared out to a 27-0 start to his season, picking up wins over three top 10 opponents. This set up his next match with the returning NCAA champion Spencer Lee, who had dominated Piccininni twice thus far in their careers.
Piccininni shocks the wrestling world with pin over Spencer Lee
After his inaugural NCAA title victory as a true freshman, Spencer Lee had a target on his back. The age-group freestyle World champion was already one of the most anticipated recruits in years, and the possibility of another four-time NCAA champion had wrestling fans following Lee closely. As documented in my breakdown of Lee’s most recent NCAA title win, the Pennsylvanian has struggled with knee injuries and weight cuts for years.
A very physical wrestler with a typically strong motor, Lee did have a few head-scratching performances in college where he seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly and had to hang on for the win. Or, in the case of his state final vs. Austin DeSanto, or his December 2019 match with Sebastian Rivera, it cost him victory. Two months later, Lee was set to take on Piccininni for the third time.
When it come to gameplanning for Spencer Lee, Piccininni knew that surviving the first-period onslaught was an essential step. If Lee gets on top with a full gas tank, he can build a near-insurmountable lead. Piccininni did an excellent job being stingy in neutral, pressuring Lee carefully and taking his own attacks to ensure Lee couldn’t comfortably control the mat.
Lee really only had it in him to take one hard attack in the first period, and Piccininni had clearly drilled how to avoid danger from Lee’s signature fireman’s carry.
Even more important, however, was avoiding the dreaded bar-tilt when Lee got top position in the second period. I broke down this technique in-depth. While Piccininni wasn’t able to stop Lee from using that head-lever breakdown on his shoulder, he did have a trick up his sleeve to deal with the “unstoppable” technique.
As Lee looked to collapse the left elbow, flatten Piccininni out, and prepare to put in his armbar, Piccininni countered that momentum with a granby roll. By attacking the hand covering his hips, Piccininni was able to roll across his shoulder with little resistance, as Lee was still focused on getting his head-lever going and less on blocking any motion.
Lee was forced to circle to cover the hips, and Piccininni used that newfound space to sit out, thrusting his hips forward and freeing his legs. Lee was able to recover, but Piccininni repeatedly used this counter to give himself a restart on bottom and eventually worked his way back up to his feet and peeled off the hands to escape.
At this point, Lee was sluggish. He had clearly and quickly drained his energy, and had no big lead to sit on. Piccininni attacked a single on the edge, and Lee looked to whizzer and back out. Piccininni limp-armed out of the whizzer and circled to Lee’s back, the returning NCAA champion desperately reached for a single to stop him, sitting over his own hips in a split.
That was all Piccininni needed. With the head so close to the knee, Piccininni locked up a cradle and planted Lee on his back, almost instantly earning the fall. Gallagher-Iba arena went absolutely bananas.
Lee would take his revenge with two more wins against Piccininni, one at the NCAA tournament that year, but no one can ever take away that incredible moment.
Even without that signature win, Nick Piccininni was a top 5 wrestler in one of the most competitive weight classes for the majority of his college career. He was incredibly well rounded, physical, and showed the ability to adapt to a variety of opponents. I have high hopes for his MMA career, and can’t wait to see how he looks against high level competitors in the near future.