It’s rare that you see an athlete hit the consciousness of a fan base in one big moment, but over the span of eight minutes last Saturday night Virginia Tech wrestler Mekhi Lewis went from a curiosity to a star in Hokie athletics.
It’s March Madness, but in wrestling circles, they call it March Matness. Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, and in a year when 14 of the top 16 seeds advanced in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, there was no George Mason, Loyola (Chicago) or NC State (1983) to be found.
But at the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Pittsburgh, there was a Cinderella story that would have done Bill Murray’s Carl Spackler proud: Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, seeded 8th in the 165-pound weight class, stormed to the championship, the first ever for a Virginia Tech wrestler. Lewis was the lowest-seeded wrestler to win it all, and he didn’t sneak in the back door, either. Along the way, he beat the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 2 seeds.
The Start for Mekhi Lewis
After Thursday wins over No. 25 Cam Coy of Virginia and No. 24 Cael McCormick of Army, Lewis was matched up against No.1 seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa in Friday’s early wrestling session. End of the line, right? Not so fast.
Shortly after noon on Friday, Lewis and Marinelli battled to 1-1 tie deep into the third and final period, and as the clock wound down, there was a flurry of action. Lewis scored a two-point takedown of Marinelli with less than ten seconds to go to notch an improbable 3-1 win that was the biggest upset of the day.
🚨UPSET ALERT!! 🚨
— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) March 22, 2019
That win was huge, and it put Lewis into the Friday night national semifinals, where he would be pitted against No. 4 seed Evan Wick of Wisconsin.
Early Signs Something Big was Brewing
Off the mat, back in Blacksburg and all over Twitter and the TSL message boards, something special was starting to happen. In the break between Lewis’s Friday afternoon win over Marinelli at 12:40 PM and his Friday night bout with Wick, word started to get out that Lewis was making noise.
We tweeted about Lewis’s win over Marinelli, and the tweet got an unusual amount of traction:
Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, seeded No. 8 at 165 pounds, just upset No. 1 seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa at the NCAA Championships! Lewis advances to the national semifinals.
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 22, 2019
Tech Sideline has 15,300+ followers, but 64 retweets and 559 likes is still a lot of activity for us, especially for a relatively niche sport like wrestling, and especially when you consider that the Hokie basketball team was about to take the court that night in the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Lewis was set to wrestle Evan Wick shortly after 9 PM Friday night, with the Hokie basketball team scheduled to tip off at 10:20 PM.
Chris Coleman, who was downtown in Blacksburg for a night of watching NCAA basketball, texted me at 8:55 PM, shortly before the start of Lewis’s semifinal match: “They’ve got wrestling on TV at Champs.”
This is where a perfect confluence of social media and good old-fashioned television came together. Hokie fans were already gathering to watch Virginia Tech play basketball. The NCAA Wrestling Championships were on the ESPN mothership, so anyone who walked into a sports bar that night to catch the end of the early NCAA basketball games was within view of a TV showing wrestling.
Shortly after 9:30, it was time.
Tune into ESPN right now. IT'S MEKHI TIME. pic.twitter.com/RmT9vmEUIn
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 23, 2019
No. 8 Lewis and No. 4 Wick wrestled on a split screen on ESPN, with the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds wrestling at the same time on the other side of the screen. For the first time in the NCAA Championships, TV viewers got to see an entire Mekhi Lewis match.
Late in the match, it was nip and tuck at 3-1 then 3-2, but Lewis sealed it with another late takedown to win 5-2:
— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) March 23, 2019
We sent out the results with another tweet that got a lot of play on Twitter;
Mekhi Lewis with the 5-2 win! He will wrestle for a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP tomorrow night! https://t.co/VbHwWZm7MU
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 23, 2019
Chris later texted me and said, “Champs was going nuts over it.” Apparently, Chris himself was going a little nuts over it:
Watching VT wrestling and yelling "power bomb the son of a…" means I watched way too much WCW as a kid.
— Chris Coleman (@ChrisColemanTSL) March 23, 2019
On to the Finals
That set the table for Saturday night and Lewis’s matchup with No. 2 seed and heavy favorite Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State.
If you don’t follow college wrestling, you may not know that Penn State is the Alabama of college wrestling, combined with Clemson. Clemson and Bama have won seven of the last ten national championships in football, while Penn State has won eight of the last nine wrestling championships, including the 2019 championship (which they had already sewn up even before Saturday night’s national championship matchups).
Vincenzo Joseph, a junior, was a two-time defending national champion in the 165-pound weight class. He’d wrestled in three NCAA Championships to that point and was 14-0, just one match way from 15-0 and three straight national championships.
All day Saturday, I contemplated how rarely we see something special in sports, however you define “special.” We don’t have many man-walks-on-the-moon moments to witness. Mekhi Lewis had been a great story to that point, but was he taking us to the pinnacle, just to leave us there? Or was he going to finish the deal? I had my doubts, but I also knew that something extraordinary might be getting ready to happen.
With a day off from basketball, Hokie fans were tuned to ESPN to watch Mekhi Lewis. He did not disappoint.
The cradle at the beginning of the second period that resulted in a 4-point near fall was a pivotal moment. That’s a huge deficit to have to overcome, but that didn’t stop me and Hokie Nation from chewing our fingernails off for the next four minutes.
Mekhi creeped out to a 5-1 lead, and then … with one leg stuck in the air late in the third period, he pivoted and put Joseph on the mat for two points that sealed the deal with less than 30 seconds left to go.
At that point, things went from historical to legendary. I’ve watched a fair amount of wrestling this year, and I’ve never seen the look that went across Mekhi Lewis’s face in those last 25 seconds or so. Wrestlers don’t smile in the middle of a match. But for 25 seconds, the joy on Mekhi Lewis’s face was unmistakable.
That alone would have been enough to make it special, but watching his mother and father go nuts in the background took it up another level. Say what you want about ESPN, and I’ve been a critic of theirs, but they have a knack for nailing the big moments of athletic competition. The camera man who positioned himself for that shot and the director who went to that camera for the final moments of the match both deserve raises and Employee of the Month plaques, because they crushed it. They took a memorable moment and immortalized it with perfect framing.
I tweeted out the news on the TSL feed:
Mekhi Lewis dominates Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph 7-1 to become Virginia Tech's FIRST NATIONAL CHAMPION IN WRESTLING!!
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 24, 2019
I put together a video of those final moments of the match and tweeted it out:
IT'S MEKHI TIME! pic.twitter.com/seBeLOne0w
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 24, 2019
A few interesting notes about that video: first of all, it’s just me taking a video of my television playing a replay of the end of the match. So it’s not high quality.
Secondly, I originally recorded the takedown that occurred with about 30 seconds left, and I tried to tweet out that whole video, from the takedown to the final raising of the arm. That video was too long, though, and Twitter automatically shaved off the first 15 seconds or so, including the takedown.
The unintentional end result was better. It skipped over the mechanics of the match and captured those last few moments of joy on Mekhi’s face, as his parents went crazy in the background. Those are unforgettable, indelible moments. Over time, we won’t remember the specifics of the matches that got him to that point, but we’ll always remember those last few moments counting down to the championship.
The match ended at about 9:15 PM Saturday night, and for the next four hours, I hung out on Twitter and the message boards and observed the coronation of a new king of Hokie athletics. Proof positive: for several hours Friday night, Google Analytics told me that more people were on our Wrestling message board than on our Basketball or Subscriber boards.
Every bit of Mekhi Lewis-centered tweeting and posting was white hot for the rest of the night, into the next day and beyond.
Sunday night, after Hokie basketball finished off Liberty to make the Sweet 16, I tweeted out that news, as well:
Virginia Tech defeats Liberty 67-58 as Justin Robinson dribbles out the clock.
VIRGINIA TECH IS GOING TO THE SWEET 16.
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 25, 2019
Take a look at the numbers on that tweet for retweets (30) and likes (252). Compare it to the numbers for the announcement of Lewis’s victory: 151 retweets and 798 likes. Both tweets pale in comparison to the number of retweets (252) and likes (1,292) for the “IT’S MEKHI TIME” video.
Well into the basketball game Sunday night, the @techsideline Twitter feed notifications were still filling up with retweets and likes for what Mekhi Lewis had done 24 hours before. It is a remarkable thing.
We had Virginia Tech Wrestling coach Tony Robie on our podcast last October, before the wrestling season even started, and of course we talked about Mekhi Lewis, who had won the Junior World championships just a month before.
Robie said this on our podcast that day:
“I think the thing that sets Mekhi apart and what makes him special is how important wrestling is to him, the level of pride and commitment he has, and the toughness, all the intangibles that are required to be a winner, in wrestling and whatever it is you do. Mekhi possesses all of those things.
“This isn’t going to be a situation where you’re asking where Mekhi went in two years. This kid’s going to do special things for us at Virginia Tech.”
For some reason, I didn’t ask the following question on the podcast, but I asked Robie later, after we were done recording: “Can Mekhi win a national championship?”
Robie’s answer was immediate. “Yes. If he continues to train and improve, he can absolutely win a national championship.”
I’m not sure any of us saw it coming this early, but it’s done, and the way in which it was done turned Mekhi Lewis into an overnight star. Thousands watched him on ESPN, and thousands more celebrated his victory on Twitter and other social media for days afterwards.
What happens next is a question to be asked and answered later. For now, let the kid enjoy a special moment in his life and his new-found status. A star is born.