by Jim Litke
LONDON (AP)—You wouldn’t know by watching Jordan Burroughs that Americans can’t fight anymore.
Not the men, anyway. And not at these Olympics.
Just three days after the U.S. men’s boxing team exited the games empty-handed for the first time, the best and cockiest middleweight freestyler in the world guaranteed the men’s wrestling team wouldn’t do the same. With a partisan crowd at the ExCel trading chants like punches and the clock running down in each of the first two rounds, Burroughs coolly executed a double-leg takedown of Iran’s Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi to lock up the gold medal match.
|WORLD CHAMPION—United States’ Jordan Ernest Burroughs kisses his gold medal after men’s 74-kg freestyle wrestling competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 10, in London. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Then he waltzed into a room packed with reporters and turned on the charm. Even with a bright red welt throbbing over his left eye, his joy was unmistakable.
“Did it make any difference that you were wrestling an Iranian?” a reporter asked, mining the geopolitical angle.
“If the Queen of England stepped out onto the mat,” Burroughs replied mischievously, “I’d probably double-leg her.”
With each answer, he looked and sounded like the star his sport desperately needs. A smart, funny bundle of energy who dreamed up the Twitter handle (at)alliseeisgold a year ago, Burroughs turned out to be just as comfortable behind a microphone as he is at his keyboard.
“How will you resist the money MMA (mixed martial arts) is going to throw at you?”
“I got another at least five years of wrestling in me, so I’m definitely going to Rio. That’s the goal right now,” Burroughs said. “Plus, I’m not as tough off the mat as I am on it. I’ve never been in a fight before in my life and I’m pretty scared to get punched in the face.”
“You said you wanted to be an American hero. Are you?”
“I guess we’ll see in the morning,” Burroughs said, his widening grin revealing a wrestler’s cauliflower ears, puffy and misshapen after years of scar tissue growing over cut after cut.
“How much is this win likely to do for wrestling?”
“Poker is on ESPN more than wrestling,” he said, somehow smiling even wider, “and I just drew a royal flush.”
A half-hour was barely enough. Burroughs could go on this way forever, but you get the point. The problem is that the U.S. wrestling and boxing teams used to be full of guys like him, world champions who were as talented as they were dedicated and entertaining. No more.
Some are siphoned off by the better paydays in mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting.
Burroughs isn’t going there, at least not right away. But U.S. coach Zeke Jones knows every day he has him around, the program will be an easier sell.
“He hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. He’s already a much better freestyler today than he was a year ago, because he’s learning the game, learning the tactics,” Jones said. “He loves being the ambassador. He’s only going to get a lot better.”
It used to be that USA Wrestling needed little help to keep its best in the system. But fewer and fewer prospects these days are willing to endure the low-budget living for long. The lack of depth and the continued strength of traditional rivals Russia and Iran eventually caught up with the U.S. men’s team.
They won only a single gold medal in the three previous games and Burroughs —the reigning world champion, who came in with 38 straight wins before adding four in a row Friday—was considered the only lock.
Things are more hopeful on the freestyle side. Though the team is light on international experience, it qualified wrestlers in all but one of the 14 weight classes and the sport remains popular at the high school level, though funding at colleges is shakier every year. In a bid to add some buzz, USA Wrestling staged a wrestle-off for the last spot on the men’s team in Times Square and a new booster program called “Living the Dream Medal Fund’ will pay Burroughs $250,000 for his Olympic gold.
Only a year ago, he was still “a poor college kid” at Nebraska, occasionally forced to choose between a midnight snack or a gallon of gas for his old beater of a car.
“Are you going to get that Audi you’ve been talking about?” Burroughs was asked at one point.
“My mom,” he said, “might want me to take her shopping first.”