Burroughs lives up to Twitter handle, wins Olympic gold medal
LONDON -- Jordan Burroughs did a double-leg takedown on Olympic protocol on Friday, bolting from the floor of the wrestling hall in ExCeL Centre and into section 410 where he found his mother, Janice, wrapped her in a bear hug and told her whatever a 24-year-old from south Jersey tells his mother after his dream comes true.
But the tale of the fabulous Jordan Burroughs, the 74-kilogram Olympic freestyle wrestling champion who oozes cockiness and charisma, is not one of about the emotional power that makes the Olympics the greatest prime time reality show on American TV, but about hard numbers.
These numbers, in no particular order, are: 140, 250,000, six and 2016.
Burroughs is the perfect athlete for his era. Through the genius of personality and the rigors of hard work, he stood Friday at the forefront of American sport. He is genuinely brilliant, at least in most of the things that seem to matter. The 163-pound wrestler has navigated his life to the confluence of all streams that resonate in the modern world: success good looks, social media, celebrity and money. He is an Olympian for his time, bent on leveraging his gifts to become an American hero.
So let's start with the familiar 140, the maximum number of characters in a Tweet. The man is a Twittering fool. Burroughs' Twitter handle since his senior year at Nebraska has been @alliseeisgold. In the 20th century, Muhammad Ali would name his round in doggerel. In our less literary age, Burroughs does his soothsaying on @alliseeisgold, which is poetic only in an e.e. cummings-to-hell-with-capital-letters way. On the eve of his competition, Burroughs tweeted, "My next tweet will be a picture of me holding that Gold medal!!!"
Now it's not bragging if you can back it up, which obviously Burroughs did. He scored double-leg takedowns with 10 seconds remaining in each period against Iran's Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi, whom he also beat in the world championship final last year. Even if that provocative tweet had been translated into Persian and used as bulletin board fodder, it would have made no difference. Burroughs was too quick and clever, executing his takedowns late in each round to deny the Iranian a chance to come back.
After his semifinals win over Denis Tsargush of Russia, the 2009 and 2010 world champion, Burroughs was supposed to be resting and listening to music. In a press conference after the gold medal match, he admitted he actually had been on Twitter and Facebook. When he started tweeting in his final year at Nebraska, the two-time NCAA champion had 2,000 followers. He said he was up to 35,000, a total that surely will explode once he is fully NBC-ed.
The number of his followers seemed to matter to him, although not quite as much as 250,000, the number in dollars he won as a bonus from USA Wrestling's Living the Dream medal fund. The gold-medal match was the equivalent of a golfer at the PGA Championship facing a $210,000 putt. If Burroughs had lost, his reward from the fund and the USOC would have been $65,000 instead of $275,000. This is not the kind of pressure most Olympians are asked about in those post-event TV breeze-bys. For someone who a little more than a year ago sometimes had to decide between buying food or gas -- he said he was receiving $800 monthly from his scholarship at Nebraska -- the windfall from a four-minute final was astounding.
So that brings us to six and 2016. Burroughs says he wants to set a record for major championships by an American wrestler. John Smith won four worlds and two Olympics in a career that flourished in the late 1980s and early 90s. Burroughs now has two, and he would have to win out to get to six if he wrestled through the 2016 Games in Rio. If he then won the worlds the following year, he would have the record. Of course, in chasing a record he would also beggar the opportunity of not signing with MMA, which has been sniffing around the most marketable American athlete in combat sports.
Burroughs insisted he would keep wrestling at least through Rio because, "I'm not as tough off the mat as I am on it. I'm also pretty scared about getting hit in the face."
Yes, he is a gold-medal talker, as evidenced by the following gems from his press conference Friday:
• On the lack of visibility of wrestling in the U.S: "Poker's on ESPN more than wrestling." Pause. "I think I just got a royal flush."
• On whether it mattered that he faced an Iranian in the final: "If the Queen of England came on the mat, I'd probably double-leg her."
• On his gold medal: "I read that they were 92 percent silver. Mine is all gold."
• On his fondness for sweets: "I brought cotton candy [with me]. When I get back to the room, I'm going to celebrate with the fluffy stuff."
The media was eating this -- the quotes, not the cotton candy -- out of his hand.
Of the 10,500 Olympians who have graced London 2012, few have come farther and faster than Burroughs. He was a mediocre wrestler as a freshman at Nebraska, compiling a 16-12 record and landing on academic probation. Mike Greenfield, an assistant coach, helped straighten him out. As Burroughs told SI.com at the Olympic trials last April, "He told me how good I could be if I went to work. I had the rest of my life to party. I was lazy, not organized, a procrastinator. I was tired of being just a guy on the team. I wanted to be relevant. I didn't want to be a dumb jock."
Within five years, he metamorphosed into the next big thing, the first wrestler since Greco-Roman heavyweight Rulon Gardner to move the needle. Burroughs has a diploma -- he ended up a B-student in sociology -- but he also has the recipe. Take a handsome man, sprinkle lightly with braggadocio, add a signature move like the double-leg takedown ("You can have your legs back when I'm done with them") and combine with an unimpeachable athletic résumé (Burroughs has not lost since 2009). Voila. You have someone who not merely wrestles but who trends.
"This is a two-hour competition," Mark Manning, his Olympic coach who also coached him with the Cornhuskers, said after the semifinal. "You change your life in two hours. He's kinda on the cusp of being a superstar, [and] you got to live up to the expectations. You got to wear big boy shoes, big boy pants. He wouldn't say [he intended to win] if he didn't believe it himself. He doesn't walk around with his chest pumped out in Nebraska. Most people don't know he's world champion. Not all 260,000 [in Lincoln]. Only about 200. But when it comes to his goal ... a lot of people wouldn't have the inner self-confidence to [go public with] it."
Zeke Jones, the national freestyle coach, says Burroughs has yet to plumb the depth of a mineshaft of natural talent. He expects Burroughs to improve in the quadrennial. Other than a case of wrestling nerves in early matches -- his mother says she could spot the anxiety from the stands -- Burroughs vastly improved as his fateful day went on. He beat another NCAA champion, Matt Gentry, who wrestled for Stanford and represents Canada, in the quarterfinals, a two-time world champion in the semis and finally the wrestler who has two straight silvers at worlds.
"I'm extremely humble," Burroughs said. "[But] the fans want someone who's confident in themselves... I don't want to be known as a great wrestler. I want to be known as a great athlete.
Tomorrow ... Oprah?