Illinois wrestling's Martinez won round three in budding rivalry


Yangwentao (Ryan) Fang

Portrait of Isaiah Martinez.

By Alex Wallner

Isaiah Martinez ran out of the New York’s Madison Square Garden tunnel on Saturday evening looking to capture his second-straight NCAA championship.

The only man standing between him and his prize was Penn State redshirt freshman Jason Nolf, who Martinez faced for the third time this season.

Nolf – who ended Martinez’s 54-match winning streak in January – lost in double overtime to the Illini sophomore at the Big Ten Championships just two weeks earlier, which was also his first loss of the season.

Martinez and Nolf had memorable matches in their previous two meetings and the third one was no different.

The bout went a full seven minutes and ended with Martinez pointing to the sky and smiling from ear-to-ear, knowing he had reached the “mountain top” yet again.

“I’m extremely pleased just with the win, especially (against a) competitor like that,” Martinez said in a press conference after the match. “He’s definitely special and he gave me a (heck) of a fight. I just knew if it came down to the end that I was going to get it done.”

As time ticked down to the end of regulation and the score was tied at four, Martinez shot for Nolf’s legs to secure the takedown, and the win, with no time remaining for Nolf to counter.

The way the end of the match was going, a second-straight overtime was bound to happen between the two 157 pound grapplers, but Martinez thought differently.

“The way he was driving into me, I just felt it,” Martinez said in regards to Nolf’s attacks. “I think my coaches saw this: When it got to about 30 seconds to go, I was toward the out-of-bounds line and I really started picking my hand up, digging inside, pulling, pulling and digging, and as the clock started ticking down, he was reaching because I was slapping his hands down real hard.”

From there, Martinez said that he felt an opening where he could attack Nolf and capitalize on his opening.

Martinez’s 2015-2016 campaign was filled with both happy and sad memories — he lost his father to cancer before the season started and said that it felt good to win the national championship.

“Just dealing with all the adversity, I mean, Mark (Perry) talked about this a lot and my coaches talk about it a lot,” Martinez said. “They know just kind of what I had to go through. It wasn’t just the loss of my father. There was a lot of things that happened this year that were bumps in the road. I try not to disclose those things too much because I don’t like making excuses for myself.”

Martinez is now 67-1 in two seasons at Illinois and has earned All-American honors for the second-straight season.

The three matches with Nolf all had one thing or another on the line and the NCAA final was no different as Martinez, again, had another battle on his hands.

Until the waning seconds of the third period, the match was pretty even.

Martinez started off the scoring with an early first period takedown, but Nolf quickly answered with a takedown of his own to take the lead, 3-2, at the end of the session.

Both Martinez and Nolf failed to execute their respective attacks in the second period and for the most part of the third, before the eventual blow that ended, what seemed to be, an exhausted Nolf.

Martinez, on the other hand, didn’t feel exhausted and said that he was ready to go for however long it would take him to win.

“The mind is ready to go as far as it needs to to get the job done,” Martinez said. “That’s my mentality going in. The kind of competitor he is – he’s a hard-nosed guy and he’s got a great gas tank – and I just believed in my heart and my will.”

At the end of the 2014-2015 season, comparisons between Martinez and Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson started to escalate.

Sanderson, who was undefeated in his collegiate career, is considered on of the greatest college wrestler of all-time and is what Martinez wanted to do coming into Illinois.

The loss to Nolf ended Martinez’s dream of being undefeated, but the second part of his dream is still intact and that is to win four Big Ten and NCAA titles.

For Martinez, the bar is set high at the beginning of every season and he, along with his coaching staff, expect nothing more out of him and his drive.

“The thing that I feel most is my internal drive and that’s kind of what pushed me and drives me,” Martinez said in regards to the Nolf loss. “The outside stuff doesn’t really bother me. It’s always about my internal drive and that’s what kind of drives me crazy sometimes, but it motivates me to hold a standard that I don’t want to win by one or two points.”

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