Illini of the week March 11: Isaiah Martinez

Illinois wrestler wins Big Ten Championship for 157 pounds

By Ethan Swanson

When Isaiah Martinez signed with the Illinois wrestling program in November of 2012 as the No. 3 overall recruit in the nation, he told reporters one thing:

“I want to win an NCAA championship all four years.”

Enthusiasm and self-confidence is nothing unexpected from an 18-year-old signing with a Big Ten perennial wrestling powerhouse, but it’s safe to say that Martinez’s claim was a bit far-fetched for someone who was yet to step foot onto the mat with a collegiate opponent.

“As an incoming freshman, I was just talking,” Martinez said. “I didn’t really understand what it took to be at this kind of level, but I’m glad I’m here. It’s been a long time coming, and it feels awesome.”

Now just over two years after committing, the redshirt freshman is proving to the nation that betting on himself was the safest bet he could have made.

“Out of high school, he was one of the top recruits,” assistant head coach Mark Perry said. “I don’t think people could have predicted such success this early, if ever.”

“Successful” is an understatement for describing the type of season Martinez is having. He has won 34 consecutive matches dating back to his redshirt season. He boasts a record of 30-0 (9-0 Big Ten), his 1-0 victory over Nebraska’s then-No. 4 and 2014 NCAA third-place wrestler James Green is the only match this season with a margin of victory less than two points. Martinez is already in the top 30 in Illinois wrestling history for wins in a season and ranks fourth on WIN Magazine’s list of most dominant Division I wrestlers.

The freshman took the next crucial step in his journey to his first NCAA title by breezing through the 157-pound bracket of the Big Ten tournament as the No. 1 seed last weekend in Columbus, Ohio.

After a first-round bye, Martinez registered his NCAA-leading 10th win by technical fall in a 24-9 win against Penn State’s Luke Fey in his quarterfinal matchup. In the semifinal round, Martinez cruised to an 11-6 win over Purdue’s Doug Welch to claim his spot in the final against Minnesota’s No. 2-seed Dylan Ness, who did not wrestle Martinez during Minnesota’s home dual against the Illini due to flu-like symptoms.

The unfamiliarity seemed to have no effect on Martinez, however, as he ultimately defeated Ness 12-5 to be crowned a Big Ten Champion.  

“We’re always prepared for anything,” Perry said. “He’s very coachable, that’s the big thing. He followed the gameplan we put together and executed it. … I think we could have widened the gap even more.”

“I don’t get shell-shocked by the crowd,” Martinez added. “The crowd actually pumps me up. Just being in big tournaments and high-pressure situations all my life has prepared me to wrestle at this level.”

With the victory, Martinez earned himself an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where he will undoubtedly be the No. 1 overall seed at 157 pounds, and grabbed the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors as well.

All Illinois coaches credit Martinez’s success with the amount of work he puts in on and off the mat and rave about high motor and refusal to let up. Head coach Jim Heffernan went as far to say the freshman is ready to wrestle as soon as he gets off the bus.

“He can’t wait to get in the gym and wrestle people,” Heffernan said. “The things he does on the mat, he’s just a superstar.”

Martinez believes he gets his relentless work ethic from his upbringing. Growing up in a middle-class family, Martinez had to work for everything he’s ever had and his wrestling has always been a product of his lifestyle.

“My parents worked every single day, 8-10 hours,” Martinez said. “Just the way they raised me, I was never really given anything. Everything I did I’d have to work for. I translated that into wrestling, because it was my only outlet. As far as athletics, I wasn’t really any good at anything else.”

If Martinez does go on to win the national championship, like he predicted in 2012, he will be the third Illini wrestler behind Matt Lackey in 2003 and Eric Siebert in 1998 to finish an undefeated season. The last Illinois wrestler to win the NCAA tournament at 157 pounds was Ernest Benion in 1995, but both Martinez and his coaches believe the history books will be rewritten in St. Louis March 19-21.

“Right now, for him and our staff, its tunnel vision for the next 10 days,” Perry said.

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@EthanSwanson88