Asmussen: Martinez up there among the greats

Asmussen: Martinez up there among the greats

Seedings were announced for the NCAA wrestling championships, scheduled next week in Cleveland.

Guess what? Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez is No. 1 at 165 pounds.

No surprise to the college wrestling community. Martinez is so dominant that he has made the incredible seem routine.

This past Sunday in East Lansing, Mich., Martinez became the first Illini in history to win four Big Ten titles. He is just the 16th to go 4 for 4 in conference history, joining his coach Jim Heffernan (a former Iowa star) on the elite list.

At Quicken Loans Arena, Martinez looks to become the first Illini to win three NCAA titles. And four was within his grasp, losing in the 2017 title match after winning as a freshman and sophomore.

No matter what happens in Cleveland (the guess here is he brings home another title), Martinez is already the best wrestler in program history.

It’s a great list, full of national champions. Two-time winners Joe Sapora, Bob Norman and Jesse Delgado. Title winners Jon Llewellyn, Steve Marianetti, Ernest Benion, Eric Siebert, Carl Perry, John Lockhart, Adam Tirapelle and Matt Lackey helped to set a standard.

They had plenty of help from head coaches Mark Johnson and Heffernan.

Add in a string of successful assistant coaches, including current mentors Jeremy Hunter and Mike Poeta, and it’s clear to see why Illinois wrestling has such a storied history.

The next step
Martinez is now the Illinois wrestling gold standard, the guy all others will be measured against.

When someone comes in and dominates as a freshman, like Martinez did during his undefeated first season, the questions will start: Is this the next Isaiah?

It’s a good thing. Especially when the standard bearer has Martinez’s personality.

Heffernan knew right away Martinez was special. A guy who had a chance to win every time he stepped on the mat.

But to his credit, Martinez has never taken his talents for granted. If anything, it has made him work harder. He wanted to be the best and put the time in.

A combination of God-given skill and work ethic creates a very dangerous person. The rest of the 165-pounders in Cleveland have been warned.

Actually, they already know. The legend of Martinez has grown during his time at Illinois.

Mount Rushmore
For Illinois athletics, the four faces must start with Red Grange and Dick Butkus.

They’re two of the best football players in history, iconic names in the nation’s most popular spectator sport.

After that, it turns a bit murky. Certainly, a basketball player or two is worthy of consideration.

And baseball’s Lou Boudreau.

There are stars in tennis, golf and track. And top coaches in a handful of sports, including Lou Henson, Bob Zuppke, Ray Eliot, Mike Small and Charlie Pond.

Martinez moves among the first four if he wins this week. He might already be on the list, and he is a lock to enter the school’s recently-created Athletics Hall of Fame.

Martinez is not done adding to his legacy, though.

While his college wrestling ends next weekend in Ohio, he will pursue amateur wrestling at the highest level.

Making the Olympics is a goal. Winning a gold medal is the dream.

Don’t bet against him.  

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.