Star Jordan Burroughs key to wrestling's popularity push

AP News
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Posted: Jul 21, 2016 2:05 AM
Star Jordan Burroughs key to wrestling's popularity push

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Jordan Burroughs used his gold-medal moment at the 2012 Olympics in London to emerge as one of wrestling's biggest stars.

A year later, the world's oldest sport turned to Burroughs to help save its future.

"They needed someone who was consistent, who was marketable, who was eloquent enough in their speech and articulate enough to engage with the media, and who was interested in engaging with the fans via social media," Burroughs said. "It was amazing timing for me."

Burroughs' charismatic personality, electric wrestling style and savvy use of social media has made him the face of the sport and one of the biggest stars the U.S. will send to next month's Rio Games.

In fact, he's become the rare wrestler to transcend a sport that in the past often closed itself off to outsiders.

Burroughs has even garnered media attention and endorsements typically reserved for gymnasts, swimmers and track stars — just three years after wrestling briefly was booted from future Olympic games by the IOC in part because it was seen as unappealing to modern viewers.

Burroughs is indeed a whiz online, with over 230,000 followers on Instagram, 170,000 on Facebook and over 140,000 on Twitter attracted in part to his family-friendly persona. The fact that Burroughs always seems to be smiling in a sport where intimidating stares are ubiquitous has only added to his appeal.

He's especially popular in wrestling-mad Iran, which sent him a traditional Persian blanket after the recent birth of his second child — even though Iranian Hassan Yazdani is one of Burroughs' biggest rivals.

It's a gift that Burroughs keeps on the mantle of his fireplace in his home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"We respect his personality, and that's just as important as his athletic skills," United World Wrestling president Nenad Lalovic said. "He became a superstar. He's a great fighter, and he deserves all the plaudits that he gets."

While Burroughs' persona made him a hit outside of wrestling, those within the sport have long been drawn to his perseverance and grit.

Burroughs was a classic underdog, a scrawny high schooler from New Jersey who signed with Nebraska after being overlooked by bigger-name programs.

It took a few years for Burroughs to grow into his body and refine a style highlighted by his "double-leg" takedown, akin to a sack in football.

As a junior, Burroughs hit his stride and cruised to his first NCAA title. He returned two years later, following a serious knee injury, as the best wrestler in the country, going 36-0 while earning universal respect from a wrestling community with a soft spot for kids who emerge from less traditional powers.

Burroughs earned the world's respect just six months later by winning a world championship in his first try.

In 2012, the Olympic spotlight allowed Burroughs' personality to emerge.

He adopted the Twitter handle @alliseeisgold, a cocky moniker more suited for a boxer. But Burroughs backed it up, later joking that he'd "double-leg the Queen" after winning gold in London.

Burroughs' budding popularity proved crucial during the sport's biggest crisis.

Burroughs learned that the IOC had dropped wrestling from the Olympic program starting in 2020 while in an airport in Germany. He took to Facebook that day to share his thoughts in a post that soon helped crystallize the hastily-assembled "Save Olympic Wrestling" movement.

"If wrestling is axed, it will be tough to look kids in the eye for the rest of my life and tell them that they can't follow their dreams anymore, they're no longer Olympic hopefuls. They've lost to an opponent that they've never had a shot against," Burroughs wrote.

The movement brought the international wrestling community together like never before. It worked: The IOC reinstated wrestling seven months later.

Still, the near-Olympic death sentence forced the sport to confront some problems that weren't easy to solve, chief among them a lack of marketable athletes.

Burroughs, who's as popular on Instagram in Tehran and Moscow as he is in New York City, was clearly the guy who could change all that.

But the newly-married star knew he had to keep winning, even though having two kids between London and Rio forced him to cut down his travel schedule and re-work his training routines.

Burroughs only got better. He won world championships in 2013 and 2015 and earned his spot on the U.S. team with a brilliant two-match performance at the Olympic Team Trials in April.

"Whenever you do something special with a burden on your shoulders, there's never an excuse again," Burroughs said.

For both Burroughs and his sport, losing doesn't seem like much of an acceptable excuse in Rio.

Anything short of a gold medal would be a disappointment for a sport looking to expand its reach. For Burroughs, another gold would define his legacy as not only the most popular wrestler in U.S. history, but one of its best.

The pressure doesn't seem to faze Burroughs. He plans to bring his gold from London to Rio so he can wear both to his news conference after the Olympic tournament.

"These people are watching. They want to see something incredible. How do you want to be remembered?" Burroughs said.