Jordan Burroughs began his wrestling career as a five year old and by 24 he has won an NJSIAA state title, two NCAA championships, a world championship and a gold medal at the London Olympics. Burroughs spoke with The Star-Ledger this week to talk about, the International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop wrestling from the Games, beginning in 2020, his recent experience in Iran at the wrestling World Cup and a March weekend, in 2006, when he won his state title.
The Star-Ledger: Some have said the reason for the IOC’s decision to cut wrestling is that is too elemental a sport and it doesn’t appeal to the general public for that reason. As a participant and a fan of wrestling, what is it that you appreciate about the sport?
Jordan Burroughs: I definitely appreciate the individual aspect of it. It is one of the few sports that is hand-to-hand combat. Everything you do is based upon your own training. If you have weakness, it is exposed, and your strength is evident. Unlike, say, football or basketball, it’s you on your own. When you compete, the commitment you’ve made to sport will show.
It’s one of the few sports where you can impose your will on someone else. Some see it as barbaric, but it’s about timing, reaction, what your response is to your opponent and the ability to manipulate the body and movement of your opponent. Some see UFC as awesome but sports like that are a spinoff of wrestling, one of the origin sports ever created.
SL: When did you start wrestling?
JB: I started at five. I brought home a flyer one day from elementary school. No one in my family had ever wrestled. My teammates became friends and I got more into it. I was super tiny growing up, a late bloomer in terms of physical development, but I didn’t have to be big to excel.
SL: Was being tinier growing up an advantage for you as you grew bigger?
JB: One of the other aspects I enjoy about the sport is weight classes. Everyone is the same size in your specific class. In hoops, guys are 6-1 and some are 7-1. In wrestling, the winner is the guy that trains the hardest, is more mentally tough, has the better skill set. There are no advantages in wrestling — the playing field is even as possible.
SL: To what extent did your goal of an Olympics gold motivate you during training?
JB: It was huge. Every day I practiced and I was sore, or didn’t feel like it, or didn’t feel as committed, the days I had to make weight, I was envisioning myself on top of the podium, with my family watching, with the gold medal on my neck, carrying that flag. This is the life I chose, the sport I chose, the occupation I chose. When things were tough, I thought about those goals.
SL: What kind of weight does an Olympic medal carry, compared to, say, a world title or NCAA title?
JB: I wrestled two of the same guys at worlds as at the Olympics. but when I won in 2011 people said, ‘Oh cool.’ When I won at the Olympics, people said ‘Oh my God, you’re the Olympic champion!’ It was the biggest event of my lifetime. I think it’s definitely the most thing important thing an amateur wrestler can accomplish.
SL: Do you plan on wrestling in 2016 in Rio?
JB: I do plan on being in Brazil, and continuing to compete. I’m feeling good. I’m still hungry. I love this sport and I’ll continue wrestling until I’m not having fun anymore. It’s something I’m passionate about.
SL: What happens to the sport if it’s dropped by the Olympics?
JB: I don’t know what direction the sport will go. On a youth level, wrestling will still be big. Collegiately, guys can still get scholarships and win titles. Worldwide there will be a lot of downsizing. Guys won’t want to compete. It is the pinnacle of a wrestler’s career. It will take some of glamor, the spotlight from the sport. Everyone who wrestles dreams of wrestling in the Olympics. Unfortunately, it will create bitterness towards the Olympics for a lot of wrestlers.
SL: When did you first realize you wanted to wrestle in the Olympics?
JB: The biggest thing for me was the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta. I remember watching it in its entirety. I was eight, but I knew I wanted to be an Olympian. I ran track at the time and Michael Johnson was my favorite athlete. I didn’t know if I wanted to become a wrestler or track athlete and it was the first Games I remember thinking I want to be there someday. And it came true.
SL: I remember, your Twitter account, heading into the Games. It was the first way a lot of people heard about you and came across as a bit audacious, perhaps, but, it also set the tone for your run in London.
JB: It was huge for me. It was a mind game. I manifested being the best in the world. I had a world title at that point in my career and I knew there would be competitors as well trained or with more technique than me but no one could match my motivation and mental toughness. I continued to tell myself I could win. I spoke it into existence.
SL: Part of the pressure of the Olympics is that it is such a fleeting moment. So much can change from one cycle to the next.
JB: Four years is a long time. Some guys get tired of the sport. Some have families so they have to take other jobs. A lot of guys are retiring. There are a lot of variables so very few have made multiple teams. The timing of the past Olympics was amazing for me. In Rio it will be better, and I’ll be even more motivated. I’ll have a better foundation to compete.
SL: This time around you were the young guy on the team.
JB: in Rio I’ll be an old man. I’ll be 28, which is relatively old for the sport. In London I was the youngest guy on the team at 24. The average age for a wrestler is about 26.
SL: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an ‘older’ wrestler?
JB: Athletically, I will continue to get stronger. But speed is first thing to go. A big aspect for me is speed and quickness but in terms of positioning and technique I continue to improve. I’ve only been wrestling freestyle for three or four years. I will continue to improve. At 28, I’ll be in my athletic prime. Leading up to the Games I’m only going to be getting bigger, stronger, faster.
SL: For those folks who don’t know much about wrestling, can you describe freestyle?
JB: Freestyle is a different sport, almost. There are three two-minute periods, and the best two out of three wins. Each period, the score resets. Unlike how I grew up, there is no cumulative score. You get a point for a takedown, a point to push a guy out and two points for exposing your opponent’s back.
SL: You’ve been active in promoting the sport in America. Have you been actively trying to reverse the IOC’s decision?
The best thing I can do is to continue to wrestle, to gain notoriety and for my teammates to do that, as well. We need a variety of guys to continue to wrestle hard. This was a successful Olympics on our behalf. Americans want to know we can compete as a country against any other in the world.
SL:The NJSIAA state finals are this weekend. What are your memories of that weekend?
JB: That was awesome. It’s all relative. People are like, ‘You won Olympics!’ But when I won my state title I thought that was then the coolest thing I ever did. I was so excited. It broke barriers to college wrestling. That was in 2006, when I was a senior, and it was my only title. I finished second as a junior.
In 2006, I wrestled Dave Greenwald from St. Mary’s. I was ranked No. 1 going in but we had a wild match, 9-8 or something crazy. I’ve never seen, video of the match. It was the referee’s decision at the end but I came away with the title. Colleges began recruiting me and I had the opportunity to go to the highest level collegiately. It was a great day in my career.
SL: You’re now 43-0 wrestling internationally. What goes through your mind as you’re about to take the mat before a match?
JB: It is a difficult moment. I recognize the fact that I’ve done everything possible to be the best. I’ve trained as hard as I can. I’ve had to make sacrifices to live my lifestyle correctly. I’ve put way too much into the sport to go out and wrestle timidly. I try not to let my ego get involved in winning or losing. If I perform and be crisp and sharp then winning will take care of itself.
SL: You recently competed at the World Cup in Iran. What were you expecting off the mat as you headed over there?
JB: I was nervous. I had a lot of bad views in terms of what I was going into. The media portrays Iran in a different light. I didn’t know if it would be dangerous. I didn’t know if I would be accepted as an American athlete. Our visas were only confirmed at the last minute. Once I got there they were extremely hospitable. The hotel was beautiful and the fans were awesome. I loved it and could see myself competing there again.
One of coolest thing about wrestling is it transcends all politics. Despite our governments seeing things differently, talk of nuclear weapons, arguments about oil, we can unite as athletes and fight for the sport. The sportsmanship in Iran is something I’d never been a part of. In Iran, I was received with more excitement than ever in America. People were excited to meet an Olympic gold medalist. They appreciated the commitment it took to reach that level in athletics. In America, success is defined in a number of ways; it is difficult to put a finger on it. Success in Iran is being a good wrestler. It is their national sport. it’s their baseball.
SL: So, in Iran you’re a household name?
JB: Definitely. They escorted me to front of line for passport control at the airport. When I would go get breakfast at this breakfast place, they wanted to come from behind counter to take pictures with me. I had to be escorted out of the arena after matches by security. People wanted hugs and pictures. I was like a rockstar.
It didn’t matter I was American. I was an Olympic gold medalist.