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Illini wrestler Isaiah Martinez: 'I'm trying to be the best ever'

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner chats with still-undefeated Illini sophomore wrestler Isaiah Martinez about staying perfect after an emotional offseason

If you want to watch the most dominant. student-athlete on the University of Illinois campus, drive past the State Farm Center (apologies to Kendrick NunnMalcolm Hill and Chatrice White).

Bypass the football facilities (no offense to Mikey DudekKe'Shawn VaughnDawuane Smoot and Wes Lunt), the baseball field, Mike Turk's burgeoning track program, Justin Spring's always-strong gymnastics program and even Mike Small's brand new outdoor golf practice facilty (the product of Big Ten dominance).

Head to Huff Hall. No, not to watch Kevin Hambly's almost-always ranked volleyball program.

Get to an Illini wrestling match this year and witness a sophomore who has the chance to become the most dominant athletes ever at Illinois -- and possibly one of the most dominant athletes in his sport.

Sophomore Isaiah Martinez has a lot left to accomplish to earn those qualifiers. But he's off to one heck of a start.

Martinez body-slammed the 157-pound field last season, going 35-0 on his way to winning the NCAA Championship -- the first freshman to do so since Iowa State legend Cael Sanderson, now the coach at No. 1-ranked Penn State, did it in 1999.

The sophomore slump isn't happening either. Martinez is 17-0 with 12 technical falls (a "slaughter rule" in wrestling when an opponent takes a 15-point lead), topping last year's total of 11 technical falls.

I caught up with the No. 1-ranked wrestling in 157 pounds -- and the star of the No. 11-ranked Illini -- to talk about continuing perfection following an emotional offseason.

You were the Big Ten champion and the undefeated NCAA champion, the first freshman to do that since Iowa State legend and current Penn State coach Cael Sanderson did it in 1999. Have you talked with him since that happened?

Martinez: "You know what? I've never actually talked to him. Not one time. I didn't even know who Cael Sanderson was before I got here. ...I wasn't very knowledgable about the sport when I was young. We were just doing freestyle. I didn't wrestle a collegiate style match until I was already 12 or 13 years old."

How much pressure was there last year behind knowing you're unbeaten going into the NCAA championships?

Martinez: "A lot of people ask questions like, 'How was the pressure?' I say this every time, going into the tournament, I was more relaxed then I've been my entire life. I was just so prepared for anything. It didn't matter what a guy threw at me. I was prepared if I broke my leg. I was so motivated..."

Wait, what do you do if you break your leg?

Martinez: "You fight through it. It's the last tournament of the year. All the chips are on the table. Everyone knows in college wrestling, it doesn't matter what you do after nationals. Nationals is where it counts."

You're not wearing your medal right now. If I won the NCAA championship, I'd wear my medal everywhere. Do you do that?

Martinez: "No. Actually, this is kind of funny. For a long time, my plaque I wouldnt put it out. I wouldn't put it out on my dresser or out for me to see because I would get so stoked that it was there, that I won a national title. I didn't want to feel complacent. So I put it away in my closet for a couple months. Then when the season came around I took it out, and now it's on my dresser. For a long time, I was trying not to become complacent and keep working. There's a lot of things I still want done and a lot of things in the future. There are a lot of guys that I think are still better than me."

You've talked about this before, so I feel like you're comfortable talking about it now. Your dad, Alfred, was going through cancer during last season and was in attendance when you won the title. You gave him a big hug after the match. He has since passed away. Now that you can look back, what did it mean that he was able to see you accomplish that goal?

Martinez: "Umm, you know, it was special. It was almost like fate, you know. There was a mission. I said I was going to do it. He supported me all the way through. It was great. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and I'm sure it was one of the greatest moments of his life. It was just special. It meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to him."

How often do you reflect on what he'd do or say? It's got to be all the time, especially when you're wrestling, and is there motivation now because of that?

Martinez: "I think about him every single day. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him several times a day. It wasn't that long ago. He passed in mid-October. It's only been a few months, so it was hard. But definitely, it's motivation. Everything that happens, everything in my life, it's the way you look at it. it's all about perspective. Anything good or bad at the end of the day is motivation for me. That was very hard to deal with at the time. I'm still dealing with it now. I'm going to deal with it the rest of my life. It does drive me. It drives me."

We hear coaches and players often speak about teams being a "family." What did it mean for you to get around that Illini family after that?

Martinez: "It was big. It was not just that though. It was not just my coaches and teammates. When the news broke, I had a documentary out at the time. We had a two-part series basically on my first season. No one knew really what was going on. I really didn't talk about it. He didn't talk about it, my father. When it kind of came out what was really going on, they said we wanted to make a documentary. Unfortunately, the day that the documentary came out, he passed away. So, when people started hearing about that, the outpouring of support was crazy, and the number of people who were not only touched by what happened but that presented their support, it was thousands and thousands of people. It was overwhelming that kind of support. Wrestling may not be the biggest sport, but it's a very close-knit community. We may hate each other sometimes, but it really was something special."

Your dad also got you in to wrestling. So there's real life, and dealing with the real-life stuff is much more important., but how does your wrestling go forward without him? I know your coaches are there, but your dad was kind of your other guy to talk to.

Martinez: "Yeah, that was something that I'm still dealing with. I don't have another voice in my ear. How's my wrestling go forward? It just does. Just relentless, being relentless in every aspect of my life and pursuing excellence in every aspect. That's something that I've picked up once I got into college. It took a little while. I took some lumps, but it's just about being a highly motivated, driven individual and just always being relentless. That's how I'm going to be relentless."

Appreciate you talking about that because I don't think a lot of people know what you've dealt with and his influence on your life. Well, you're still undefeated (17-0 with 12 technical falls through last weekend), so things are going OK so far this season. How have you improved and if you had to pick yourself apart, how would you do that?

Martinez: "People think I joke around when I say I always could be doing more. I can always get more out of myself. That's what kind of drives me is I'm very, very critical of myself. I'm trying to pursue excellence in everything. I'm not just trying to be unbeaten. I don't talk about this much, but as far as college wrestling goes, I'm trying to be the best ever. That's the end goal. I'm not trying to just win national titles. I'm trying to do it in a fashion that when it's all said and done, they say, 'Wow. That guy was the best to ever step on the mat.' That's what drives me. That's my goal."

I want to ask 'What's your strength?' but everything's your strength. Is there a go-to move? What do you try to do on the mat?

Martinez: "If I could put one thing that I do better than anything else, I try to put pressure on the opponent. In boxing, there's pressure boxing. There's this idea of pressure. In wrestling, there's no difference. I try to put pressure on my opponent. It causes them to make mistakes and leave themselves open. Even if we're technically open and I can't get anything going, I'm putting so much forward pressure on my opponent, putting so much heat on him that he cracks eventually. It doesn't matter how good he is. Unless he's up by 15 points and the match is over, I'm going to get him eventually."

You said this before, and I love thism that you want to entertain people. You said that to me last year. You want people to come to a wrestling match and watch you. If people pick you apart, it's because you're not the most "technical" wrestler. You like to throw people around and use your brute strength. That's kind of your thing, isn't it?

Martinez: "Yeah. Again, I've learned not to focus on what I can't do and only focus on what I can do. I can do that. I can put some points on the board. I can try to sling guys around. Obviously, I can always get better technically. But when it comes back to my main goal to be the best ever in college, that also goes hand in hand with trying to redefine what college wrestling is. That's something that's going to be big for my wrestling."

So you're the Golden State Warriors of wrestling, basically. Score as many points as possible.

Martinez: "(Laughs) Yeah."

You got some big matches coming up. What's ahead for you?

Martinez: "The national landscape in wrestling this year is a lot of parity. I think anyone in the top-10 can beat anyone else in the top-10. That's awesome. It's great. It comes down to the team that's more motivated, who wants to fight more and who's going to go out there and perform."

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