Illini wrestler Isaiah Martinez lost his lunch, not his confidence

By Kevin McCarthy

Tweet: “Look out Big Ten, Isaiah Martinez is hungry,” says #Illini columnist @KevOMcCarthy

A wise man once told me that there’s a first time for everything.

Those words rang true at Huff Hall two Saturdays ago. In front of a raucous crowd of 1,407 fans, Penn State’s Jason Nolf did what no wrestler had done in 54 straight matches: beat Isaiah Martinez.JT

Martinez’s dream of becoming the second wrestler in NCAA Division I history to go undefeated for four straight years was over.

Ready for the ironic part?

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The wrestler whose undefeated legacy Martinez was chasing — Cael Sanderson — was there to see him lose.

Sanderson coaches the Nittany Lions. He stood next to the mat, coaching Nolf to victory and preserving his own record along the way.

Not only did Martinez lose the match — he immediately lost his lunch into a nearby garbage can following his defeat.

For the first time since he’s arrived on campus, Isaiah Martinez was human.

The previously unbeaten warrior was keeled over the trash can and pondering the same question that had over 1,400 observers dumbfounded: What just happened?

“That match was an anomaly. I don’t know what happened,” Martinez explained. “My body just stopped working — there’s no excuse for losing. It’s always my fault, but this was something different. I was a little bit off. I won’t be off next time.”

Becoming a Champion

I covered Martinez’s quest to becoming a national champion last year. I had covered many athletes before, but there was something different about this guy.

He possesses a tremendous amount of self-confidence. This self-belief pumps through his veins and it radiates off him when he speaks. Some think of it as arrogant. Not me.

His confidence is more than justified. His work ethic, and more than that, his track record, warrant this sense of confidence.

My favorite story about Martinez comes from the beginning of his redshirt freshman season. I was doing my first story on the wrestling team. They had a road meet in Lemoore, California, — Martinez’s hometown.JT I figured that it was only fitting to ask this freshman if he was looking forward to the homecoming.

Once I got that question out of the way, I had no idea what to ask him.

I had never heard of this kid and I didn’t know the first thing about wrestling, either. I went with a boring, mundane question expecting him to answer with a similarly dull response. “What are your goals for the upcoming season?”

His response almost made me laugh out loud.

“I want to go undefeated and win a national title,” Martinez said without hesitation.

I couldn’t believe it. Who did this kid think he was?

He knew exactly who he was. And in just a couple of weeks, so did I. In due time, the entire nation did. He captured the attention and the imaginations of the entire wrestling community. Fans flocked to watch him out on the mat as his undefeated campaign rolled along. Little kids swarmed him to try and get his John Hancock as he quickly became the hottest name in NCAA wrestling.

He was walloping opponents, one after another. Between sending Big Ten opponents crying for their mamas, he just kept working. Non-stop. He was a machine.

I had never seen an athlete like this. He believed, full-heartedly, that no one could beat him.

I stopped in and talked with him every week. I got the same answers every time. His eyes were on the prize. He never lost focus for a single second. His mind was set on becoming a national champion and nobody was going to stop him.

The best part? Nobody did.

What now?

“The sun came up on Sunday and he was back in the weight room,” head Coach Jim HeffernanJT said. “On Monday, he was back in the classroom and then back to the practice room.”

It was time to move forward. He lost a match. So? Sew buttons on your underwear.

If anything, the loss just motivates Martinez even more. When I sat down with him this past week, it was no different. He wasn’t rattled, he wasn’t phased — he was just ready to get back to work.

Don’t think that Isaiah Martinez doesn’t know how to deal with a loss. He lost his best friend, mentor, coach and father to cancer just a few months ago. That didn’t slow him down one bit. It only fueled his fire even further.

I asked Martinez what his “pops” would have said if he was here to see him finally lose.

“He would have known something was off with me that day. He would just say to take the time to figure it out,” Martinez said. “I know you’re going to figure it out. I believe in you.”

I asked Martinez what’s going to happen if he sees Jason Nolf in March with a national title on the line.

“I’m going to win,” he replied quickly.

“No doubt?” I asked.

“No doubt,” he said confidently.

Good thing they take the trash out once a week in this great country. Although he may have lost his lunch into that poor garbage can, he most definitely didn’t lose his confidence.

Look out, Big Ten. Isaiah Martinez is hungry.

Kevin is a sophomore in Media.

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