In 1984 there were nine Olympic gold medalists to carry it. By 1992 there were only three and after the 2000 Olympics Brandon Slay and Rulon Gardner handed the sport off to one man. Even Cael Sanderson, the only undefeated wrestler in NCAA history, could only hold the sport for one Olympic Games, and he turned to collegiate coaching after winning Olympic gold in 2004. Henry Cejudo, 21, surprised the world when he duplicated the feat in Beijing four years later, but Cejudo only weighs 121 pounds, and the sport is heavy. He hasn't wrestled internationally since (though Cejudo announced a comeback this summer).
Then this year, Nebraska's Jordan Burroughs did something extraordinary. After winning his second NCAA championship and the Dan Hodge trophy (given to the NCAA wrestler of the year), he threw USA Wrestling on his back and promised not to get tired -- almost before he took his first step.
"What I love to do is win. I want to stay in it and continue to win." Burroughs said. "We haven't had a guy who's been able to compete for a long time."
Burroughs was the only U.S. wrestler to win gold at the 2011 World Championships in September, and he did it with just five months of freestyle training. On Monday, he followed up by winning gold at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara. Burroughs defeated Cuba's Yunierki Blanco, a 2010 Pan American silver medalist, in the finals 3-2, 3-2. The United States won four of the six freestyle wrestling golds at the Pan American Games.
In addition to the NCAA, World and Pan Am titles, Burroughs won the U.S. Open and the World Team Trials. All that seems left is an Olympic title.
Burroughs has dreamed of being an Olympic champion since he was a kid. Now the man who followed his more successful high school teammate Vince Jones to Nebraska is being billed as the future of USA Wrestling.
"I wanted to be the best 'Husker of alltime, and now I want to be the best U.S. wrestler of alltime," said Burroughs.
But the journey hasn't been easy. Transitioning from the best collegiate wrestler in the country to the best freestyle wrestler in the world is a drastic jump because of the stylistic difference.
Collegiate wrestling's riding time and referee's position put more of an emphasis on conditioning and controlling the opponent, while freestyle wrestling's push-out points and individual period winners favor dominating takedowns.
Al Bevilacqua, a former NYU wrestler who works with USA Wrestling and is heavily involved in two wrestling non-profit organizations, explains it like this: Collegiate folkstyle wrestling is like riding a tricycle, and freestyle wrestling is like riding a bicycle. Obviously not everyone who can ride a trike is ready to have their training wheels removed.
"Now Burroughs, he can ride a unicycle." Bevilacqua said.
To Burroughs, being the best U.S. wrestler of alltime means winning more World Championships (4) and Olympic gold medals (2) than U.S. legend John Smith. That feat alone is difficult, but Burroughs said he wants to put wrestling in the national spotlight and be a role model like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
He's got the demeanor to do it. His confidence is huge (his twitter handle is @alliseeisgold, his location listed as "On top of the Podium"), but he stays humble. Burroughs talks more about being and an ambassador for wrestling than personal accomplishments.
"He could be acting like a superstar, and he doesn't," said Mark Manning, who coached Burroughs at Nebraska and is now helping him train for international competition.
Burroughs has come a long way since he started in Lincoln. If you thought Burroughs was going to be a world champion when he was a freshman, "You need a drug test," Manning said.
It might sound like a lot of pressure -- to be considered the future of an entire sport -- but Burroughs doesn't think so.
No one asked Burroughs to help carry U.S. wrestling in 2004; he hadn't even won his only New Jersey state title yet. No one asked him in 2006; he wasn't highly recruited and lost his first wrestle-off to a Nebraska teammate 13-6. Even after he'd won a 2009 NCAA championship, no one wanted to ask Burroughs to carry the sport in 2011. He had missed the previous season with a torn PCL and LCL, and some felt he might never have the same speed -- until he won all 36 of his matches, including a second national championship.
By the 2012 Olympics, Burroughs could be the 163-pound gold-medal favorite, but he'll remember his doubters.
"When everyone says you can't do something great, respond with 2 simple words 'Watch Me!'" Burroughs tweeted Sunday, one day before winning gold at the Pan American Games.