USA Wrestling Illinois junior Isai...

Illinois junior Isaiah Martinez eyes World Team spot and return to dominance at new weight

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | Nov. 09, 2016, 12:52 p.m. (ET)

 Martinez defeated Nolf for his second NCAA title.
Photo: Tony Rotundo,
Isaiah Martinez has solidified himself as one of the top dogs going into the 2016-17 NCAA wrestling season.

A junior at Illinois, Martinez seeks his third NCAA individual title. Since he broke onto the college scene, he has been a force to be reckoned with.

As a redshirt freshman in 2014-15, he ran the table at 157 pounds and became the first undefeated freshman to win an NCAA title since Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson in 1999.

His sophomore year was as equally stacked with accolades, although he did suffer one loss during the regular season to Penn State’s Jason Nolf, a pin.

“A few things didn’t go my way in that match and all of a sudden, it was like a gut check,” Martinez said. “What I did wrong, I believe, was I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to go out there and thrash him instead of being focused on what I wanted to accomplish in the match.”

He avenged the loss at the Big Ten Championships finals with an overtime victory and the NCAA Championships finals with a takedown in the final 11 seconds.

Despite a solid season that earned him his second NCAA title, Martinez struggled through his sophomore campaign, sifting through weight issues and the tragic loss of a family member.

On October 29, 2015, Isaiah’s father, Alfred, lost a battle with liver cancer.

“My dad was a big source of motivation for me my whole life, so him being gone made it hard to find that fire,” Martinez said.

Just days away from the start of the college season, Martinez remembered words of advice his dad often gave him: The worst thing you could do was feel bad for yourself. It doesn’t do anything for you.

“That was hard to deal with, especially when it was my dad passing,” Martinez said. “The words that he spoke to me stayed with me. It really got me out of that rut enough to get the job done and keep my head above water with school. It was a rough year, but I learned a lot, having to balance school and the pressure of being ‘the guy’ in college wrestling. It taught me so much and I’ve grown up a lot in the past year.”

Even the coaches took notice of the way Martinez handled himself and grinded through the season.

“There were a lot of things that he had to deal with, but the most surprising thing for us was that no matter how much adversity he had to go through, his ability to battle himself and will himself to get it done when it mattered is a pretty special quality,” Associate Head Coach Mark Perry said.

As the season began to wind down, it was flooded with tight matches and close calls, including his NCAA semifinals match, where Martinez edged out No. 4-seed Ian Miller of Kent State in sudden victory.

It wasn’t the Isaiah Martinez that the wrestling world was used to.

Martinez said he feels he has to redeem what he describes as an underwhelming sophomore season, and this year, he feels better than ever and ready to take on a new weight class at 165 pounds.

“I want to prove something,” he said. “I was very, very upset with my performance as a whole last year. It was not to the standards I’ve built or the reputation I have. I’m feeling really good about going into the college season this year. The goal is not just to win but to be the most dominant and win the Hodge Trophy at the end of the year. I’m really looking forward to it because I’m going to have some great competition this year.”

His approach to the season has been unlike any other as he has been training to compete in the Non-Olympic Weight World Team Trials on Nov. 11 in New York City.

A series of events after closing out the 2015-16 NCAA season led to Martinez’s desire to wrestle on the World stage at the Non-Olympic Weights World Championships.

The two-time NCAA champion was afforded the opportunity to wrestle in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in April after winning an NCAA title but decided to sit out and rest his body.

Not long after, he won the University World Team Trials at 74 kg/163 pounds and was expected to represent Team USA at the World University Championship in October in Turkey. However, due to the political conditions overseas, Team USA decided not to go.

As a result, Martinez, eager to compete on the World level in freestyle, decided to begin training for the Non-Olympic Weight World Championships, even though it heavily overlapped with the NCAA wrestling season.

“I made the decision to go to the Non-Olympic Weight World Team Trials as soon as the announcement came out. This is something that I had to go for,” Martinez said. “My training is going better than it ever has before. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this prepared for a tournament in my entire life. It’s been 12 or 13 grueling weeks, and my coaches have been putting me through the ringer, but I feel really good now.”

Should Martinez come out of the talented 70 kg/154-pound field on top, he will likely not see Folkstyle competition until January as the World Championships will be held Dec. 10-11 in Budapest, Hungary.

The key to Martinez winning the trials is to do what he does best, which is preparing well, scoring points and exposing his competitors’ weaknesses.

“There are not many people on the planet or in the history of the sport that can match [Martinez’s] power and athleticism,” Perry said. “The ones that can, don’t have half the desire, will or work ethic that he does. He works as hard as anyone I’ve been around. I have absolutely no worries that not only will he perform at a higher level but he’ll shock the world. He’s prepared, and no matter who the competition is, with 100 percent certainty, Isaiah Martinez will be bringing the match to those guys.”

While he pursues his dreams of being a World champion, collegiate wrestling fans will be patiently awaiting his return to what will be an exciting NCAA season across the board.

“I don’t know the last time we’ve had this many good guys on the college scene in one year with Kyle Snyder, Zain Retherford, J’Den Cox, Gabe Dean and so many others,” Martinez said. “It’s going to be a crazy year and these guys are all really talented and special athletes. Where I fit in with those guys, I don’t really know yet, but I’m hoping to be first place, the most dominant and walking away with the Hodge Trophy. That’s really what I want to prove this year.

“I’ll be in a league of my own this year. That’s the best way to put it.”