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

match.

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, 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

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 – 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

better.”

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

first.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at

Twitter.com/JimLitke.