NEW YORK — In the most famous arena in the world, former Lemoore High standout Isaiah Martinez (32-1) won a match for the ages, a constant battle, that resulted in the Illinois redshirt sophomore winning his second straight NCAA wrestling championship.
With the match tied 4-4 and fewer than 20 seconds left in regulation, Martinez drove into No. 2 Jason Nolf (33-2), for a takedown with 12 seconds left to repeat as champion at Madison Square Garden.
"Wow," exhaled Martinez, who was a three-time California state champion and Sentinel Wrestler of the Year in his high school career at Lemoore. "I'm extremely pleased just with the win, especially against a competitor like that. He's definitely special. And he gave me a hell of a fight. I just knew if it came down to the end, I was going to get it done. And looked up at the clock with, maybe 20 seconds to go. Coach is screaming, go get one. And I said I need to do this right now to seal up the match. And thank God I got my head through the hold, got enough to get the takedown."
After splitting their previous two meetings, the style of Saturday's rubber match proved to resemble that of the first meeting, a match that was wrestled at a fast pace with both grapplers taking shots at one another. However, tonight it was Martinez who was the aggressor over the course of the seven-minute bout.
Martinez set the tone early in the bout with a quick single-leg takedown to put Nolf on his heels. However, the Penn State freshman regained his composure and used an escape and a takedown to forge ahead, 3-2. As the first period came to a close, Martinez escaped the grasps of Nolf to tie the score at 3-3 after three minutes of action.
"I was just trusting in my athleticism," said Martinez. "The hip-over position, that barrel roll on my hand like side car wheel, it's something I've been doing since I was real young. So I have a lot of confidence in that position. Even if it looks like I'm going to my back, I feel like I have really good core strength, so I'm able to pull myself over so that's how I got out. I missed the first one. He almost put me on my back when the game got away with ten seconds to go. We've been doing that since I was young."
After a Martinez escape to start the second period, Martinez and Nolf settled in, each wrestle staging attacks, but failing to land anything. The same remained true for most of the third period, save for an opening escape by Nolf, to send the grapplers headed for overtime like they did at Big Ten Championships two weeks ago.
With both grapplers having their endurance tested, Martinez maintained his aggressiveness as the period neared its close. With 20 seconds left, his coaches gave him the green light to take one last shot at Nolf. Sensing Nolf was wearing down, Martinez attempted to duck under Nolf and drive through, a move that hadn't worked previously in the match.
"That duck, it works better when guys are chasing me and they're tired," explained Martinez. "So he was really coming after me, elbows open. I pulled on one side and went to that side I pulled on, he fell right down on his face and I just covered him. So it's kind of harder to get at the beginning of the match. It's more of a duck step and lift. But as the match progresses the guy gets a little more worn out. It's a duck, guy falls on his face, I just cover."
Martinez's move proved victorious as he drove through Nolf and took him to the mat for the takedown with just 12 ticks left on the clock. Martinez then rode out the Nittany Lion for the remaining 10 seconds to seal his title.
"The way he was driving into me, I just felt it," said Martinez. "I think my coaches saw this: When it got to about 30 seconds to go I was towards 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. And I just felt it right away, pulled it and ducked. I was confident that if we went to overtime I was ready. I was prepared. My lungs felt good. My body felt good."
This season's title comes on the heels of his undefeated (35-0) season last year, the first by a freshman since, now Penn State Head Coach, Cael Sanderson completed the feat in 1999 at Iowa State. In the time since, Martinez has had to overcome multiple obstacles on his way to defending his title. First, Martinez dealt with the loss of his stepfather right as the season was about to begin. Later into the season, the Illini grappler was riding a 54-match winning streak when he got pinned by Jason Nolf at Huff Hall on Jan. 23. In the time between that match and Big Ten Championships, Martinez and coaches admitted he was caught up in the loss and let him get away from what got him there.
"It feels good," said Martinez. "Just dealing with all the adversity, I mean, Mark talked about this a lot and my coaches talk about it a lot, they know just kind of what I had to go through. It wasn't just the loss of my father. There were 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. But it was tough this year. It was hard dealing with a lot of adversity. But I'm glad I stuck with it and got the job done this year."
As arguably the most successful Illinois wrestler through their first two seasons, Martinez (67-1) has already won back-to-back Big Ten and NCAA Championships. Last season, Martinez was named Big Ten, Intermat and Amateur Wrestling Freshman of the Year.