If you’re feeling down on Illinois Fighting Illini athletics because football and men’s basketball have had difficult seasons, you need to be paying attention to one of the greatest athletes to ever put on an orange and blue uniform.
On Sunday, Isaiah Martinez won the Big Ten Wrestling Championship at the 165-pound weight class. It was the fourth Big Ten championship for the senior, who became one of only sixteen four-time B1G champions. He was already the only three-time champion in the history of Illinois; now, he’s the only Illini ever to win four league titles.
I can say without any hyperbole that we are bearing witness to a legend.
This has been known since he posted what is, in my opinion, the most impressive single season by an athlete in the history of the University of Illinois. His freshman campaign saw him win all 35 of his matches on his way to the 157-pound national title, making him the first undefeated freshman national champion since the undisputed greatest collegiate wrestler of all time, Cael Sanderson, did so in 1999.
In his four years of competition, he’s lost only twice in 114 matches.
Isaiah Martinez is 112-2 as a Fighting Illini.
He’s won 98.2% of his matches.
This figure gets even more impressive when you consider that he has avenged each defeat. In his sophomore campaign, Penn State’s Jason Nolf handed him his first career loss at a dual meet. Martinez defeated Nolf in their two rematches, which took place in the Big Ten Championship match and the NCAA national championship match. Last year, Martinez was undefeated until being pinned in the third period of the national title bout by Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph. On Sunday, he knocked off Joseph to claim this year’s Big Ten title.
This isn’t even just homer-vision speaking: this article from FloWrestling from before this season listed him as one of three active wrestlers with a shot to break into the all-time top 10 greatest NCAA tournament wrestlers. He’s incredibly exciting to watch with his aggressive style and his incredible quickness for someone with such lower body strength, and if he puts the underhook in on you, he’s going to find a way to make something spectacular happen in a hurry.
The NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships take place in Cleveland from March 15-17. Coverage will be available on ESPN.
You owe it to yourself to see Isaiah Martinez write the final chapter in the story of the greatest wrestler — and arguably, greatest athlete — in Fighting Illini history.