Winslow Township wrestler Jordan Burroughs blends skill, charisma in bid to become Olympic star
The U.S. wrestling program could certainly benefit from a fresh face for the London Olympics.
Maybe, just maybe, reigning world champion Jordan Burroughs - from Winslow Township in Camden County, N.J. - is up for it. He has the charm and the talent. He has confidence, too, and his Twitter handle, @alliseeisgold, suggests that the charismatic Burroughs believes Olympic stardom is more than just wishful thinking.
"It's always entertaining. Obviously it rubs some people the wrong way, and I don't want to offend anyone. I want to be someone that people like, that people enjoy. I want the people's stamp," Burroughs said. "I'm not going to be arrogant, but I'm going to continue to work hard and continue to win."
Burroughs, a former Nebraska standout who will turn 24 during the Olympics, has been a favorite to win freestyle gold at 74 kilograms ever since he completed a five-month run from NCAA champion to world champion in 2011. He's come a long, long way from his youth growing up in South Jersey.
Like many kids, he thought wrestling was about tightropes and characters such as "Macho Man" Randy Savage - whose doll he used to wrestle when he was 5 - and quickly signed on after bringing home a flyer to his dad, Leroy, a construction worker and mother Janice, a pension processor.
Burroughs was just 45 pounds when he started out. But wrestling has always had plenty of room for small and tough, and Burroughs felt drawn to the sport.
"I love the individual aspect of it, just two men, power and will against each other. It's awesome," said Burroughs, who will compete Thursday as part of an exhibition meet between the U.S. and Russian national freestyle teams in New York City.
In 2005, Burroughs, wrestling for Winslow Township High School in 200, lost the 125-pound state championship bout 2-1 in double overtime to Southern Regional's Frank Molinaro at Boardwalk Hall i•Atlantic City. One year later, he won the 135-pound state title in Atlantic City.
He was considered a top-10 recruit at his weight, but it wasn't as though many envisioned a future Olympian when they saw Burroughs wrestle.
Burroughs signed on with Nebraska, a competitive program halfway across the country. He qualified for the NCAA tournament as a freshman, finished third as a sophomore and broke through as a national champion in 2009.
By his own admission, Burroughs was complacent after winning a national title. It took a serious injury for him to realize that comfort is the last thing a wrestler can have.
Early in his senior season, Burroughs had two molars knocked out during a match. He finished the match, won the tournament and went straight to the hospital for a pair of root canals.
Two weeks later, Burroughs tore two ligaments in his left knee during a loss that snapped his 44-match winning streak. His season was done, and it would be seven months before he could even put his wrestling shoes back on.
"The biggest part of that transition was just being hungry again," Burroughs said. "I realized everything happens for a reason. It's kind of a blessing, a gift and a curse at the same time. It gave me the hunger back, made me realize how much I missed the sport and how quickly it could be taken away from me if I was complacent where I was in my career."
Burroughs hasn't lost since.
He roared back with a dominant senior season following a medical redshirt year, winning another NCAA title and taking home the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's best college wrestler in 2011.
The next step
Burroughs jumped right into the international scene that spring. Though many American wrestlers struggle initially with the switch from collegiate folkstyle to freestyle, which nearly everyone else in the world practices from the start of their careers, Burroughs was a surprisingly quick study.
Burroughs won the U.S. Open just three weeks after the NCAA meet and made the U.S. team for the world championships in Istanbul last September. Burroughs was the only U.S. wrestler to win gold at worlds, and he followed it up with another gold medal at the Pan-American Games.
That earned Burroughs a pass to the final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last month. What was expected to be a coronation of Burroughs and his meteoric rise turned out to be a bit of a downer.
Opponent Andrew Howe defaulted because of a knee injury, and Burroughs found out he had reached his dream of making the Olympic team from a coach in the tunnel as he was waiting to return to the mat.
"It was weird. It was anti-climactic. I wanted to go out there and dominate. But every match is not going to be a good one. At this level when you're wrestling world-class guys, these guys are good, too," Burroughs said.
The U.S. program certainly needs the like of Burroughs and others to medal in London, considering the Americans have scored just one gold medal in each of the past two Olympics after dominating the sport at the freestyle level for a century.
For his part, Burroughs says the high expectations placed on him are "awesome," and he has no trouble invoking the likes of Bruce Baumgartner and John Smith - both two-time Olympic gold medalists.
Burroughs's goals are to win gold in London and in Rio De Janeiro in 2016 and possibly transition to mixed martial arts after that.
Burroughs certainly isn't shy about expressing confidence in his ability. But he has put in more than a decade of hard work, after all.
"When you don't have something and then you all the sudden get it really quickly, you enjoy it. I talk about it a lot because I've enjoyed it," he said. "For me, it's something I've never had and I'm experiencing it now and I'm just loving every second of it."