Former OSU wrestler Nick Piccininni goes inside his legendary 2019 pin

Former OSU wrestler Nick Piccininni goes inside his legendary 2019 pin

For the first time since Nick Piccininni pinned No. 2 Spencer Lee to ignite a victory against Iowa in 2019, the Hawkeyes are returning to wrestle in Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

| Feb 24, 2024, 8:00am CST

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

Feb 24, 2024, 8:00am CST

Nick Piccininni couldn’t resist peeking at the stage as he walked through Gallagher-Iba Arena. 

It was late Saturday night, Feb. 23, 2019, and the stage, an elevated platform presenting a wrestling mat, was in the middle of the arena. Reserved for only the biggest duals, the stage was constructed for the Iowa-Oklahoma State dual the next day. Iowa was No. 3, the Cowboys were No. 2. Oklahoma State. Both teams had a perfect record on the line. 

Piccininni walked toward the stage. He didn’t normally venture out of his way the night before duals on his way to the wrestling room to finish his weight cut, but this time, he said he felt called to do it. 

“I knew I had to do that. It felt right, it was just what my body wanted me to do.”

Piccininni had a daunting task to meditate on.

Spencer Lee, the No. 2 wrestler at 125 pounds and the defending national champion, awaited. Lee held a 2-0 record against Piccininni, beating him 10-5 the previous regular season and pinning him in the quarterfinals of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

The only two people in Gallagher-Iba were Piccininni and his roommate, Boo Lewallen. Piccininni stood on the center of the orange mat, right on the chest of the Pistol Pete mascot at the middle of it. He outstretched his arms and spun around, visualizing what the next day would hold. 

“I’m going to be the main event or I’m going to pin this guy,” Piccininni told Lewallen.

The pin

With five seconds left in the second period, referee Ryan Hagan pounded his right fist into the mat twice, signaling a pin. 

It was the first time Lee had been pinned since he was 9.

Hardcore wrestling fans recognized the cradle Piccininni used to cut the match short. Piccininni glued Lee’s left leg to the side of Lee’s head and rolled the hawkeye on his back. The move took about four seconds. 

For most matches in college, Piccininni didn’t watch film. When preparing for Lee, though, Piccininni went to the tape. He had watched Lee get a little careless leaving his leg close to his head. The move Piccininni used to get the pin was one he’d visualized standing on the mat the night before.

“I spoke it into existence and it happened,” Piccininni said.

Even those who didn’t know the intricacies of wrestling still recognized Piccininni take control of the match and drew a collective breath as they waited to see if it would end with a pin.

When Piccininni put the exclamation point on the match, the fans erupted.

“Oh god, that’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole entire life, hands down,” said OSU 149-pounder Kaden Gfeller.

Piccininni had wrestled in front of 19,000 fans in the NCAA Championships but said it’s a more intense roar when every fan supports the same team and goes bonkers simultaneously. 

“I don’t think that building could have taken more noise without falling apart,” said OSU 141-pounder Kaid Brock.

Piccininni, for his part, doesn’t really remember a lot of what happened immediately after the pin. The video shows him scrambling to his feet, flexing to the crowd and leading an O-S-U  chant with big arm motions even as Hagan lifted his right wrist to signify victory. 

“Your body kind of just takes over and you just do whatever you feel in the moment,” Piccininni said. “So all that was just a genuine reaction of me. Whatever was inside me came out.” 

The moment was so intense because of what it meant for the dual: In the first match of the day, OSU had stolen a victory from Iowa’s top-ranked wrestler. The Cowboys won the next two matches en route to a 27-12 win, the largest margin of victory against Iowa since 2005. 

Daton Fix, a senior who will wrestle against Iowa on Sunday, followed up Piccininni’s dual. Fix earned a 2-0 decision over No. 3 Austin Desanto. 

“Nick’s match fired me up,” Fix said. “The crowd was so loud after Nick defeated the defending national champion. It really got me fired up, and I was ready to go.”

Coach John Smith wrestled four seasons at Oklahoma State and has coached the past 33. He ranks Piccininni’s upset against Lee alongside coaching his son and his first Bedlam victory as his favorite moments in Gallagher-Iba Arena

“What made it great was just the eruption of the crowd and how loud it actually was,” Smith said. “Pretty exciting, I mean, wow, not what you expected. And that’s how you win dual meets you’re not favored in.”

Dusty Hone, the former OSU 149-pounder watched Piccininni’s pin from the bench. Every time the video pops up on his phone, he’ll watch it all the way through.

“I feel like if you ask most guys on the team and they get asked the same question, what’s one of your favorite memories and that’s what pops up because it was just one of those moments. It was that electrifying.” 

The rivalry returns

Brock, now working for Oklahoma’s Commissioners of the Land Office, hasn’t wrestled for OSU in two seasons, but he can tell you what this week has been like for the Cowboys. He remembers Iowa week well.

“That week of Iowa the intensity always spikes, we’re getting prepared, nerves start to set in because generally you have a tough opponent,” Brock said. “It’s something you look forward to every year.”

Sunday, for the first time since the 2019 dual, the Hawkeyes are wrestling in Gallagher-Iba. The dual sold out on Thursday.

“Any time you get Iowa in Gallagher-Iba or Penn State in Gallagher-Iba or any top team in Gallagher, it’s a big deal,” Piccininni said. “Love to see it. I want more of it, I want every big dual to be in Gallagher, just let those Cowboys fans take it all in. I want them to eat everything up.”

In 2020 and 2023 the Cowboys wrestled in Iowa City and in 2022 the teams took the rivalry to Arlington, Texas for the Bout at the Ballpark in Globe Life field. In 2015, an NCAA-record 42,287 fans watched as Iowa beat OSU 18-16 in an outdoor dual in Kinnick Stadium.

The Cowboys own a 29-25-2 advantage in the series that dates back to 1954, but the Hawkeyes have won seven of the past 10. 

This season, the No. 4 Hawkeyes have shown vulnerability, losing consecutive duals against No. 12 Michigan and No. 1 Penn State earlier in February. Just like in 2019, the Cowboys bring an undefeated record into the dual, the final before the Big 12 and National Championship tournaments. 

“I think it’s going to be a dogfight, Smith said. We’ve got to have a great match. This will be maybe the best team we’ve wrestled and we’ve wrestled a lot of good ones.”

Is there ever an Oklahoma State-Iowa wrestling match that isn’t a dogfight? No. 

“They’re going to want to take us out in the worst way possible,” said Patrick Kennedy, Iowa 174-pounder on Tuesday previewing the dual. 

It goes back to the programs’ success. Oklahoma State has the most team national titles, 34 and Iowa has the second-most with 24. Smith says the rivalry goes back to the ‘70s when OSU coach Tommy Chesboro and Iowa coach Dan Gable committed to get the nation’s best teams wrestling against each other.

“There’s been years when probably you’d prefer not to wrestle because your position for the national tournament, but it’s been one of those meets that people look forward to and want to watch,” Smith said. “It’s a longstanding rivalry that has sustained the time.”

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Ben Hutchens and his twin brother Sam cover Oklahoma State for the Sellout Crowd. After a decade of living in the state, Ben finally feels justified in calling himself an Oklahoman. You can reach him at [email protected] and continue the dialogue @Ben_ Hutchens_ on social media.

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