Take a bow: Martinez's home curtain call with Illini is here

Take a bow: Martinez's home curtain call with Illini is here

CHAMPAIGN— In March 2023, Isaiah Martinez will be eligible for the Illinois athletic Hall of Fame. Wrestling coach Jim Heffernan has a suggestion: Get the letter ready now.

"They should have a pre-stamped envelope arrive at his home, waiting for him," Heffernan said. "He's already one of the most successful athletes ever to be on this campus. In any sport. That's a fact."

Martinez, the most dominant wrestler in the history of the program, completes his Illinois home career today at Huff Hall. The Illini host Wisconsin on Senior Day, with undefeated Martinez scheduled to face 18-2 Evan Wick in the 165-pound match. There is no extra pressure for Martinez.

"It's important for me to wrestle my best every time I go out there," Martinez said.

A few weeks ago, Martinez reminded Heffernan that his career was winding down.

"He kind of jokingly said, 'I'm going to make you cry on Senior Day,'" Heffernan recalled.

"I thought about it for a second and said, 'I can't believe we're here already,'" said Heffernan, who added he will shed a tear, just like he does every Senior Day.

"You get attached to these guys and you build relationships with them," Heffernan said.

Will Martinez cry?

"I'm a pretty emotional guy," he said. "The goal of an elite-level athlete is to control your emotions and perform the same every single time. I think I'll look back and have a good feeling when I leave Huff."

Martinez, a two-time NCAA champion, has more matches after today. On March 3-4 in East Lansing, Mich., he will try to become the first four-time Big Ten champion in school history.

On March 15-17 in Cleveland, he aims at his third NCAA title, which will be another school best.

Heffernan remembers the first time he met Martinez at his home in California.

"You go to all these kids' houses and they tell you their goals and tell you what they want to do in college," Heffernan said. "Isaiah looked me in the eye and told me he wanted to be a four-time national champ, he wanted to be an Olympian, he wanted to be a world champ."

Heffernan called longtime assistant coach Jeremy Hunter and told him "All these guys say the same thing.' But I said "This is the maybe the first time I really believed them.' I believed him.

"This guy is different and it hit me."

Martinez planned for success from the start.

"The goal of any high-level athlete is you have to have vision," he said. "Not necessarily a grandiose sense of self, but a belief that you are capable and deserving of accomplishment. Of course, you've got to put the hard work in and you've got to have a lot of things go right."


Early success

Martinez arrived at Illinois in the summer of 2013. There was work to do before he became the wrestler he is today.

"He was a little bit reckless in terms of his style, just wide open," Heffernan said. "His whole thing was 'If a guy's going to beat me, it might be 40-39, but I'm going to keep going.' He got more stingy. A couple months in, it was apparent he was going to be a difference-maker."

Martinez redshirted his freshman year, but went 13-2 competing in open tournaments. His second year was perfect: 35-0 and the NCAA title.

He repeated his title in 2016 — although he did lose a match.

Before his junior season, Martinez moved from 157 to a more natural 165.

"It's not as difficult as everyone makes it out to be," Heffernan said. "It's not challenging, especially for him. There has been no downside to it."

Martinez finished last season 31-1. The 1 is the difficult part, an NCAA title match loss to Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph.

"I saw the pain in his face," Heffernan said. "I saw the pain when he came back to campus and the way he worked out in the summer and the way he came in this fall. It stuck with him. Every successful guy I've been around that pain stays with them. That's what has kept him motivated and made this year even more important."


Future coach?

No matter what happens in Cleveland, Martinez will be moving on. And maybe sticking around.

"He wants to be a world champion and he wants to be an Olympic champ and those are things he's going to focus on," Heffernan said.

Heffernan hopes Martinez stays in C-U to train.

"I think he's comfortable here," Heffernan said. "I think he trusts us.

"This place is home for me," Martinez said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

The long-term goal for Martinez?

"He jokes all the time when he's done competing and is ready to move on in coaching, he wants to take my job," Heffernan said. "That's great. He cares about the place."