| Myles Martin became the 15th true freshman in NCAA history to win
an NCAA title.
Photo: Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Based on the history of the two competitors, all signs pointed to Nickal taking the crown at 174 pounds. Martin, a determined true freshman, didn’t worry about what people expected.
Myles Martin entered the 2015-16 NCAA season thinking he would take a redshirt year and develop into a 184-pounder, having just set foot on Ohio State’s campus.
Things were going according to plan until Martin began making big jumps in his wrestling, with strong lift sessions, resilient practices against 2015 World champion Kyle Snyder and two-time World Team member J.D. Bergman and convincing performances at open tournaments.
“I could feel that he was ready to compete when we were wrestling,” Snyder said. “He was lighter than me but he could still compete and fought extremely hard. He was in really good shape and really strong. He was a tough guy with all the qualities to compete and succeed at a high level. He was doing well and learning a lot. He kept a good attitude about everything and kept growing.”
While the coaching staff turned their efforts toward bringing Martin out of redshirt, the young Buckeye resisted.
“I didn’t understand it at first,” Martin said. “I wanted to win four national titles and do the best I can. For me, I thought the best thing for me was to redshirt and the coaches thought otherwise.”
Around New Years, Ohio State revealed that Olympic hopeful Snyder and true freshman Martin would burn their redshirts for the year and begin competing at varsity events for the Buckeyes.
It was fitting that they were announced together as Snyder had a lot of influence in bringing Martin to OSU. The two trained together in their prep days and had developed a strong bond.
“I got exposed to (OSU) mainly because of Kyle,” Martin said. “I was friends with Kyle when I was in Maryland. He would come up to the high school and work out with me and a few other guys on the team. He came to Ohio State and was telling me about the program. I came up on an unofficial visit and it just felt right, felt like the place I wanted to be. It was a place where I wanted to get better.”
He did get better.
Martin’s first dual was against Illinois, where he stormed out to a technical fall win over Isaac Reinemann in his debut.
He had made his mark and quickly gained respect, earning a No. 15 ranking the very next week.
In the following bout, he fell short against Michigan’s Davonte Mahomes in overtime, a tough pill to swallow.
“That was a hard one. That’s the match I had to reevaluate. At the moment I didn’t think that I could win a national title because I felt like I did everything right in the match. The guy got a takedown on me in overtime and that match just made my mind wander. I made some adjustments and came back,” Martin said.
He began to take out some notable Big Ten opponents, including Nate Jackson of Indiana and Micah Barnes of Nebraska, and had climbed up in the rankings. He was exactly where he wanted to be.
Entering the Big Ten Championships, Martin ranked was No. 9 in the country and seeded fourth in the toughest wrestling conference in the nation.
He wrestled confidently, passing by Michigan State’s Shane Shadaia and Indiana’s Jackson to earn his spot in the semifinals. There he was set to face the top-ranked wrestler in the country, Bo Nickal of Penn State.
Martin and Nickal had established a rivalry that dated back to their middle school days, when Martin tried to make the 2012 and 2013 Cadet World Teams.
Nickal was always in the way, and he had no intentions of stepping aside this time.
The proven Nittany Lion pinned Martin in the first period of the semifinals. It was his third win over Martin that season.
“My mind was wandering before and after the match. I didn’t approach it like I did every other match. I knew I had to make some adjustments mentally to move forward in the tournament and against him,” Martin said.
He pinned sixth-seeded Barnes in the consolation semifinals and was pitted against Jackson for the fourth time this season. Martin was once again victorious, claiming a 7-5 win and a third-place finish at the Big Ten conference tournament.
The performance placed him as the No. 11 seed for NCAAs.
“By NCAAs, I was focused and ready to go,” Martin said. “I felt like I could compete against anyone whether I was unseeded or the No. 2 seed. It didn’t really matter. I would had to beat five guys to win a title either way. Being an 11-seed gave me a good position in the bracket, and some of the guys I thought I would have to face went down early on.”
The Buckeye started his first NCAA tournament with a major decision over Nick Wanzek of Minnesota before taking out No. 6 Bryce Hammond of Bakersfield. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, he handed a pair of losses to Big 12 wrestlers Matt Reed of Oklahoma and Lelund Weatherspoon of Iowa State to cruise to the finals.
He was only one win away from a national championship.
Martin had only suffered six losses on the season. Three of those came at the hands of Nickal, and they were about to come together for one final bout of the 2015-16 season. The most important bout.
“All I wanted all season was to beat him. He was always in the back of my mind,” Martin said. “I just believed in myself and in my abilities. Before the match, I started reminiscing and thinking of when I was a kid watching nationals and wanted to be on that big stage in the finals one day. It was always cool to watch people like David Taylor and Ed Ruth win titles because the crowd goes wild. That’s all I was really thinking about. I was so close. I just had to go out and compete and it would happen for me.”
He got off to a quick start, taking down Nickal in the first 10 seconds and inciting the crowd to erupt in O-H-I-O chants. After tying the bout at the start of the second period, Nickal took the lead with a takedown, but it would not last long as Martin threw Nickal to his back on the edge of the mat looking for a pin and awarding the Buckeye six points. The move resulted in a booming roar from the crowd that filled every crevice of Madison Square Garden.
Despite furious efforts from Nickal, Martin held onto his momentum and the lead throughout the third period for an 11-9 win to become only the 15th true freshman in the history of the NCAA to win a Division I wrestling national title.
“After I won, all the interviews were like ‘so what do you think of Tom Ryan? Do you think he’s a genius?’ And of course I’m like, ‘yeah. I won. He knows what he’s doing,’” Martin said.
Martin admitted that he’s relieved to still be on track of achieving his dream of being a four-time national champion.
Not long after, a spark for a new dream was lit.
With his national championship performance, Martin qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic World Team Trials but decided to attend as a fan rather than compete.
What he saw was teammate and close friend Snyder wrestle his way onto the Olympic team.
As the summer went on, Martin was invited to the Olympic Training Center, where he worked out with several World Team members, including taking on Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs in an intense match during the Olympic simulation day.
In August, Martin also witnessed Snyder become the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling.
“It definitely got me thinking. One of my main goals is to make the Olympic team and wrestle at the Olympics and win gold. I want to take it one step at a time and make the team first,” Martin said.
A talk with Snyder after the Rio Olympics helped Martin realize that not only can he leave a legacy in college wrestling but he’s also equipped to do so on the World level.
“When I wrestle him and we’re practicing together, I feel like he really is one of the best wrestlers in the world at his weight class,” Snyder said. “If he wrestles to his full capability, he can beat world-class guys. I know he’s only a sophomore but I believe in him, the coaches believe in him and believes in himself. He just has to keep focus on being the best wrestler he can and that success will come.”
Until then, Martin enters new territory at 184 pounds. He’ll open the season on Nov. 5 at the All-Star Classic, where he seeks to dethrone two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean of Cornell.
“When I came in as a freshman, I thought I was inexperienced. I thought I wasn’t able to win a national title as a freshman. Now, I’m starting to think that I’ve been underestimating myself.”