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Jordan Burroughs chases U.S. Wrestling history, and one more Olympic gold

Published September 25th, 2018 by JB

The mumbly raps and crisp beat of Travis Scott's "Goosebumps" dissolve into an outro as Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs — two hours into a workout at the Palestra — catches his breath in his distinctive squat, his weight perfectly balanced on his toes.

Next up on Burroughs' workout playlist: Hailee Steinfeld's gushy pop hit "Starving."

Wait, what?

"If you look at my iPod, I've got so much different music," he says. "I think that it kind of describes me as a person, just being a chameleon to whatever particular environment that I'm in."

That chameleon nature comes not from nature but from nurture, the product of a decade and a half in which Burroughs, who just turned 30, has gone from a public school kid in Sicklerville, N.J., to a two-time national champion wrestler at the University of Nebraska, to the brink of making U.S. history.

If he wins another 74-kilogram (approximately 163 pounds) title at the world championships in October, Burroughs will tie John Smith for the most combined Olympic and world titles — six — ever won by an American.

His eyes light up when thinking about it, not just out of pride and anticipation but also because he has  maintained such humility that achieving something so monumental remains a little hard for him to believe. Like Travis Scott, he still gets goosebumps every time.

"The Most Titles In American History," he says, as if every word is capitalized. "That's crazy, bro."

He entered Brazil with a gold medal already in his trophy case — from London 2012 — and only two international losses in his career. He left without a second gold (or any other medal for that matter) and with four international losses.

"In preparation for Rio, I was thinking, 'OK, I'm already good enough to beat these guys, I've already beaten them all,' " he said.

Only once previously since graduating from Nebraska and going pro in 2011 had he not won the world title, and that was only when competing with a torn MCL in the 2014 championships.  (In 2013, he competed with five screws in his ankle and won anyway.) He won't say specifically that he was taking the Olympic gold for granted, but that's implied.

"Those were physical adversities. In Rio, that was mental," said Brandon Slay, executive director of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center and one of Burroughs' coaches since 2011. "He needed some mental surgery, so to speak, to decide whether to keep wrestling and decide what his goals would be if he did. That was a mental and spiritual mountain to overcome."

It was a mountain, no doubt: Burroughs said he reconsidered everything from his training methods to his place of residence (he still lives and trains in Nebraska, seven years removed from college) to his diet.

Yet he ultimately changed nothing but his mind-set, realizing that bad referees, bad conditions, and bad luck can sometimes usurp talent and also that, on a more existential level, nothing is as certain as he once believed. And in that, he has found a backward-yet-calming kind of certainty.

"I think that I'm the best in the world, and I feel that concretely and I think I am capable of doing it, so I think I will [win the title]," he says. "I don't know if it's going to happen for me … but I'm going to work every day like it's going to."

"I have a newfound perspective from the fact that there's nothing that could ever happen to me in sport that could be more devastating than that day in Rio. There's always an opportunity to be your best until I hang up my shoes. And fortunately for me, my shoes still aren't finished.

 

Bound for Budapest

If introspection and rededication have aided Burroughs' recovery from his Olympic collapse, the turning of the calendar has arguably helped just as much.

This month marked the halfway point between Rio and Tokyo 2020, he pointed out, and although Burroughs will be older than any other prior U.S. wrestling gold medalist by the time the sport's spotlight focuses on Japan in two years, he's not too worried about that getting in the way.

"I only have to wrestle six minutes at a time [for] five matches, so essentially 30 minutes of discipline, but [there's] thousands of hours of training," he says. "I don't want to waste that."

After all, Burroughs' recent results have been nothing but overwhelmingly convincing. He came back from a 4-0 deficit to beat Italian wrestler Frank Chamizo in New York in April, then cruised through his Final X match in June in front of a very friendly Nebraska crowd, securing his spot for  a trip to Hungary for the world championships this autumn.

Those world championships might be the most important moment, in terms of guaranteeing his legacy as the best ever, of Burroughs' career.

He could — and expects to — accomplish something there that won't even require Olympic revenge, especially if he can win a seventh title next year and have that all-time American record pursuit wrapped up even before Tokyo.

This past week, Burroughs finally broke from his intense weekly workout routine — two multi-hour training sessions four days a week, plus single-session Wednesdays, conditioning Saturdays, and Sundays off — to head to the U.S. Wrestling training camp in California. He'll attend two more two-week camps before he and the entire worlds contingent departs for Europe on Oct. 10, 10 days before the tournament officially starts.

First, though, Burroughs returned home to the Philadelphia area earlier in August for two friends' weddings and, as he found out later, a surprise 30th birthday party. Even on semi-vacation, he carved out time for training sessions on Penn's campus with Slay and Richard Perry, a close friend and fellow international wrestler in the 86-kilogram weight class.

"I'm a left-leg lead, he's a right-leg lead, so that dynamic allows me to give him a different look than most of the guys that he may wrestle,"  Perry said. "It's about being technical and savvy and trying to balance him in positions I'm good at [so] I can contribute to his development."

The workouts, to the casual observer, seem ridiculously intense for supposed vacation time. But also to the casual observer, Burroughs doesn't have anything to possibly improve. Neither is actually the case.

"Within a match, there's so many things that happen that could ultimately determine the outcome: You reach too much with your right hand, you step forward with your left leg, you get your head out of position," Burroughs says. "Just little stupid stuff that, to the average eye, are concealed, but to us are gaping holes within someone's technique. You need to see that, feel it, and get after it."

 

Great wrestler, better person

No matter what happens in Budapest, or in Tokyo, or at any point throughout the rest of his career, there's no doubt that Burroughs will remain the most recognizable Olympic wrestler of his generation.

He ensures that not only through his athletic domination but also through his personality, which is uncommonly outgoing and welcoming by all standards, to say nothing of professional athlete standards.

Perry, throughout his time wrestling at Bloomsburg University, followed Burroughs — "a legend," he calls him — admiringly on Instagram.  (He was one of many, as Burroughs has nearly half a million followers.) Then he finally had a chance to meet Burroughs as a senior in 2014. Now, the two are close friends.

"Everyone in the wrestling community knows who Jordan is, but regardless of that … he introduces himself like he's anybody else,"  Perry said. "He's a great, great athlete; he works really hard on and off the mat as a man, as a husband, as a wrestler, as a father.  But the thing that puts him above everyone else is his big heart."

Burroughs recently opened up his personal life — he was married in late 2013 and now has two young children — in a short documentary, "Still JB," released in July. It's the latest milestone in a career that has made Burroughs' reputation as a good person almost as widespread as his reputation as a good wrestler.

He said he lives a relatively public life not to receive attention but to inspire others, both in wrestling (Burroughs has become a prominent spokesman for wrestling overall after once helping restore its Olympic inclusion) and in life in general.

"People need to feel like their heroes are human, not on the mat, but in the world," he says. "The more people can see that, the more they can understand that they're capable of doing great things as well. I think that no person in particular is special, but there are just obstacles that each person decides to overcome differently."

So yes, Burroughs fans, your hero listens to "Brave" by Sara Bareilles. He also listens to "Life in the Fast Lane" by the Eagles and "Wesside" by WHATUPRG. He listens to hip-hop, pop, classic rock, and everything in between.

All of it is on his workout playlist, and all of it, he believes, exemplifies his path through numerous contrasting cultures to the precipice of tying a record that will transcend all of them.

"Being from New Jersey and living in Nebraska, going from a predominantly African American neighborhood … [to] a predominantly white sport, being among a working-class wrestling community to fund-raising with billionaires — I've been in so many different circles," he says. "You take a piece of every culture, every economic and social status, every race and ethnicity, and you just grab what you like and discard what you don't and move forward.

"I think music is one of those things that I learned to grab."

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