DALLAS — Oxygen-starved muscles. Torn knee ligaments. Mangled ears. Broken teeth he had to spit out mid-match, requiring an emergency root canal. Former Nebraska wrestler Jordan Burroughs rolled all of that hardship into two national titles and an ongoing pursuit of an Olympic gold medal.
And he's going to enjoy this pursuit. Give fans a grin, a good quote and a show full of double-leg takedowns. Even if critics see a Twitter handle and website called AllISeeIsGold, and ask if Burroughs is putting the medal stand before the mat.
“Everyone loves a humble champ,” Burroughs said at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit to a glut of reporters, whose tape recorders drank in the confidence. “But I just like to give the fans something to read about. Something to watch. Something entertaining.
“I don't want to be cocky. I don't want to be arrogant. I don't want to be that guy. But I try to do as much as I can.”
Like switching to international freestyle competition three weeks after his NU career ended. Or winning five matches in Azerbaijan — that's 34 in a row at the world senior level — and flying 17 hours just to appear in Dallas. Or staying aggressive in a sport where stalling is a polished tactic. Or declaring before the 2012 Olympics that he plans to wrestle in 2016, too.
That means spurning lucrative offers in the mixed-martial arts business, where the “ground game” of wrestlers translates well to a sport growing more popular by the hour. Why not MMA?
“I don't want to get punched in the face,” Burroughs joked.
His real answer is more frank.
“If you're taken away from the sport of wrestling, obviously you might not have been wrestling for the right reasons,” Burroughs said. “If someone can be so easily pulled away for financial reasons, then maybe you weren't as passionate about it as we want you to be. You want guys who would basically die for a gold medal. That's how important it is to me.”
And this: “I want to be one of the best wrestlers of all time.”
He's already the best pure athlete to compete at Nebraska in the past decade, and that includes Ndamukong Suh.
Doubt it? Don't.
Burroughs' height and weight never made him a great candidate for football. He competes internationally at 163 pounds. But pound for pound, he's the best American wrestler right now — a gold medalist at the 2011 World Championships — and he's in the conversation for the world's best wrestler.
The key: a double leg takedown, quick and violent, a basic move made brutish.
“I've perfected it,” Burroughs said. “It's kind of like Tiger Woods going to the driving range.”
Well, that, and he's just too athletic for most wrestlers to stop it. For the guys who can, they still have to score. And Burroughs' upper-body strength makes it hard for opponents to sustain holds.
That's why, since 2009, the 23-year-old has lost just one match. By one point. And that was when he tore his knee.
AllISeeIsGold? What else should he see?
“Nobody makes a Twitter handle to talk about other people,” Burroughs reasoned.
He has 12,000 followers so far. He's not Michael Phelps (177,000 followers) or Shawn Johnson (146,000), but it's a start. And a boost wrestling can always use.
Plus, a big medal haul could help in London, where pundits see wrestlers as one of the hidden keys to the U.S. winning the overall medal race.
“We're making noise,” said 185-pound Olympic qualifier Jake Herbert. “Russia's going to be afraid.”
During three days in Dallas, I heard a lot of confidence and boosterism like that. Hot air? Yep. But it's done with more purpose. Olympians not named Phelps — or playing in the NBA — know the score: There's a two-month window every four years to really sell your sport, win fans and prolong your career. A little chest-thumping and flag-toting helps.
Even in wrestling, where Burroughs admits that you can't celebrate a victory like a wide receiver celebrates a touchdown. But when there's just one gold medal every four years ...
“My level of confidence helps me,” Burroughs said. “And my fans love it.”
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