With echoes of the Pokemon theme song thundering through PPG Paints Arena back in March, defending NCAA champion Spencer Lee ran onto the mat for this finals match against Virginia star Jack Mueller, adjusting his classic black Iowa singlet as he prepared for battle. Lee was easily the pre-season favorite at 125 pounds, but after three season losses, anticipation hung in the air as he shook hands with Mueller.
DID YOU SEE THAT? Some of the best moves from the 2019 NCAA wrestling championships
The match was one-sided but hard-fought, and we rewatched the entire seven-minute dual to understand exactly how Lee stopped Mueller and brought a second consecutive individual title back to the Hawkeye wrestling room.
Three things we noticed right away:
- Lee wrestles with more control (see :34 in the video below to watch him find Mueller's leg and methodically work him to the ground). His early takedown afforded him the comfort of confidence, and that confidence allowed him to stay patient and hit the second takedown in the third and finish the match.
- Mueller’s advantage is his ability to ride and work the legs (watch the Virginia video to see glimpses of him riding opponents like Ronnie Bresser and Sebastian Rivera), but Lee countered those attacks. Lee’s strength proved too difficult for Mueller to control.
- Lee wrestled with more versatility than Mueller, and he wrestled offensively the entire match. Mueller, even during his second period ride-out, could not commit to a shot.
Here's a look back at that match and the key moments that led to Lee's win:
The opponent: Jack Mueller
Undefeated heading into the championships, Mueller had put together an impressive NCAA run, knocking off top-ranked Sebastian Rivera on his way to earning a match against the defending champ. It all came down to one match. Seven minutes in front of 17,000 fans on college wrestling’s biggest stage would determine a champion. Lee vs. Mueller. The men shook hands. It was go time.
NCAA TOURNAMENT INFO: How the NCAA wrestling tournament works
Lightweights move fast, the Lee and Mueller were no exception. Virginia’s finalist attempted to make the first move, taking a shot at Lee’s right leg, but then pulled back. Mueller shot with just his one arm, using the other to block, but the move was too conservative. Lee shifted his weight, stayed on his feet and stepped back, wrestling defensively before making his own shot attempt. Mueller pushed him away. Lee stayed patient.
Spencer Lee's first takedown
Seconds later, Lee dove in for the leg. This was the shot he had been seeking for the first 30 seconds, but he knew how to wait. Mueller twisted around, but he couldn’t defend himself, and Lee moved Mueller's leg over his shoulder, working his opponent onto the floor. Lee continued moving Mueller down to the mat and adjusted his feet positioning to maintain control over his opponent. The sophomore defending champion then nearly put Mueller on his back, and after a short scramble, Lee swiveled around and picked up the first two points of the dual with his takedown at 2:08 in the first. For a brief moment, Mueller was able to short sit and get his hips out, but Lee quickly turned him for the takedown. The move represented pure exertion. Patience and exertion.
Lee had positioned himself to work on pinning Mueller by moving over to the other side of his opponent, but he didn’t have enough time. Mueller instead went to his base, giving up the two-point takedown to avoid a more severe point deficit. Accumulating riding time, Lee worked to turn Mueller again, keeping his hips high and showcasing his dominance. Mueller struggled to fight against his opponent but, with less than a minute left in the first, Mueller was able to finally pull his knees up and worked to flip his head around to scramble out. Lee, however, held firm and pushed him back to the ground. With wrist control over Mueller, Lee worked the arm bar throughout the period to wear down the Cavalier. The two athletes battled their way outside the circle with 48 seconds left in the period, but after resetting in the center of the mat, Lee went back to work with 1:20 of riding time.
The sophomore Hawkeye continued to rack up his riding time, generating a stall warning against Mueller. Working for a turn to end the period, Lee wrapped his arms around Mueller’s back and pushed but couldn’t finish the move before time expired. With a 2-0 lead and over two minutes of riding time, Lee headed into the second period with a small score advantage and a big momentum advantage over the Cavalier finalist.
Scoring first allowed Lee a key advantage in that dual in that he was able to wrestle with more confidence. Had Mueller had scored first, like he did against Rivera in the semifinals, he could have worked for more takedowns with a higher degree of aggressiveness. Instead, he wrestled defensively, trying to avoid giving up points rather than chasing them.
Jack Mueller’s chance
Choosing bottom to start the second period, Lee found himself under Mueller’s hold while the Cavalier junior moved in for the cradle attempt. He locked up Lee but struggled to commit. In order to finish his move, Mueller would need to have moved to Lee’s opposite side, move around the front and free Lee’s hips, but the move posed too much of a risk for Mueller, so he held firm. Mueller worked on top to run down Lee’s riding time, but he couldn’t execute anything and score.
Lee, a top rider just like Mueller, posed a style clash for the Cavalier. Wrestling defensively, Mueller could not work the legs against Lee in the same way that he did against Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera in the semifinals. He did not score as the period wound down. With six seconds left in the second period and just 13 seconds of riding time still on the clock for Lee, Mueller dropped down below his hips, hand still on Lee’s leg, and held on. He attempted to stop Lee from escaping, but his lack of mat awareness in that particular moment led the ref to immediately start counting. One, two, three, four, five. The ref waved his hand, signaling the penalty, and a second stall call was confirmed against Mueller. The Cavalier needed to finish his move, rather than just hold Lee’s leg without making another attempt on a shot. Lee picked up a point, just as he would have if he escaped, and took a 3-0 lead with one period to go.
The final move
Mueller chose neutral to start the third as a way to avoid allowing Lee to work on top, but the Hawkeye was still too much to handle. The 3-0 lead and neutral start gave Lee the privilege of patience, and he took advantage of that. Mueller, just like he did to start the first period, took a quick shot, but Lee backed away before leaping in for his own shot. The Cavalier junior snuck away from the hold.
Lee had time to kill on the clock and though he made another shot attempt midway through the period, he wrestled calm and in control as time ticked down. The men moved quickly on their feet, with Mueller looking for a chance to put points on the board. With less than 30 seconds left, the Virginia wrestler found a shot and snuck his hand around Lee’s knee, but his strength wasn’t enough and would go on to cost him two final points.
PODIUM FINISHERS: Meet the 80 All-Americans at the 2019 NCAA wrestling tournament
Lee, steady and secure, worked his arm out from under Mueller and spun around his opponent, finding Mueller’s left leg along the way. With his right hand on Mueller’s right ankle and his left hand around Mueller’s right leg, Lee lifted Mueller’s right leg to finish the takedown and control his opponent down to the mat. The high ankle pick to single leg move was the same move Lee used to score in the first period, and once again, it worked to put the Cavalier on the mat. The moment represented his final act of a match he controlled from start to finish. His ride out in the first period broke Mueller, his second period defense held off Mueller and his third period decisions finished him. The final thirteen seconds ticked down, and Lee, relieved and exhausted, held down Mueller before standing up and flashing a thumbs-up to his friends and family matside.
He was a national champion. Again.