Column: Red welt over eye, Olympic gold in hand
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
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
”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, referring to the 2016 Summer Games site. ”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
”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 – the UFC circuit claims nearly 70
percent of its fighters wrestled in high school and college,
including stars Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
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
It used to that USA Wrestling needed little help to keep its
best in the system. Past greats like John Smith and Cael Sanderson
segued into coaching and 1996 gold medalist Kurt Angle turned to
the WWE to pay bills. 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 were even worse this time around for the
Greco-Roman wrestling team. Like the U.S. men’s boxing team, it
failed to advance even one competitor into the semifinal round,
meaning coach Steve Fraser’s job could be in jeopardy.
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
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at