Sports Legends: Highly Touted

After a stellar collegiate wresting career, Isaiah Martinez returns to his Alma Mater to coach

Isaiah Martinez wrestling in a stadium setting. Isaiah Martinez took the 2016 NCAA tile, with a 32-1 record. His lone regular season loss came to Penn State’s Jason Nolf, which he avenged with a 6-5 decision over Nolf during the NCAA championship match. (Image courtesy of UI Athletics)
After a stellar collegiate wresting career, Isaiah Martinez returns to his Alma Mater to coach

Isaiah Martinez, LAS ’18, started wrestling at age 4 in Corcoran, Calif. Turned out to be an excellent choice.

It was a family thing. His older brother, Steven, was a wrestler. So was his sister, Alyssa.

After winning three California state titles for Lemoore High School (with a 205-7 record), Martinez was a highly touted recruit. Experts thought he would be a standout at the next level. He was so much more than that.

In five seasons at Illinois, including a redshirt his first year, Martinez wrestled in four NCAA finals, winning two. He won four Big Ten titles, too, joining a small group that has matched that feat.

“To say I was projected to have the college career I did have would be a stretch,” Martinez says. “There were a lot of hurdles.”

As a redshirt freshman at Illinois in 2015, wrestling at 157 pounds, Martinez went 35-0, beating Cornell’s Brian Realbuto 9-2 in the championship match in St. Louis.

Martinez finished 32-1 in winning the NCAA title in 2016. His lone loss came to Penn State’s Jason Nolf during the regular season. Martinez avenged the loss with a 6-5 decision in the NCAA championship match.

He competed that season with a heavy heart. In Oct-ober, his dad, Alfred, died.

Martinez was devastated by the loss of his biggest supporter. How did he go on?

Portrait of Isaiah Martinez

“I love wrestling, and I’ve dedicated my life to the sport,” Martinez says. (Image by Mark Jones)

“It was something that drove me to succeed,” Martinez says. “He would have wanted me to move forward. It was incredibly difficult. My coaches were awesome. My teammates were awesome.”

His Dad attended his first NCAA title match in 2015.

“It was probably one of the greatest moments of my life,” Martinez says. “He never saw me lose a wrestling match during my college career.”

Going into his junior season at Illinois, Martinez moved up to 165 pounds. There, he ran into Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph in both NCAA finals in 2017 and ’18, losing both matches.

“You want to win every match,” he says. “The amount of work and sacrifice I put into my craft was immense. My work ethic willed me there.

“Even though I lost two matches in the finals, I was still there. As consistent as consistent could be. That’s what I look back on and am proud of.”

Today, 29-year-old Martinez is back at his Alma Mater, serving as an assistant coach to Head Coach Mike Poeta, ’09 AHS.

Martinez, who earned a degree in sociology, is married to Anisa. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Isabel. “She’s a firecracker and I think she’ll want to wrestle.”