At last weekend’s Olympic Trials, fans in Ft. Worth, Texas, expected the best-of-three series between 5x World/Olympic champion, Jordan Burroughs, and two-time World Champion, Kyle Dake, to go down to the wire. Both are in their early-30s. Both have won multiple World Championship medals. But only one has been called “the greatest of his generation.”
For the past decade, Jordan Burroughs has served as the face of USA Wrestling and one of the sport’s most important ambassadors. Burroughs’ fluid, explosive style helped define the United States’ reemergence in Freestyle Wrestling. At the same time, the rest of the world struggled to answer the riddle of how to beat Jordan Burroughs. But when Kyle Dake stood tall, having defeated the man who led the US back to prominence, a realization settled over the crowd. For the first time in over a decade, Jordan Burroughs would not represent the US in a World/Olympic team.
The United States has long enjoyed a comfortable position as the second-best Freestyle team in the world behind the USSR/EUN/Russia program. However, at the turn of the century, the US noted a slight decline in performance. In 2000, the US failed to win a Gold Medal, though Brandon Slay would later be awarded the Gold after German Alexander Leopold failed a PED test. The US would place three wrestlers in the medal round that year. In 2004, Cael Sanderson would win an upset Gold after defeating Cuban favorite Yoel Romero in the semis. The US would place two other wrestlers in medal matches. In 2008, only Henry Cejudo, who took Gold, would medal. Under the direction of US Head Coach Zeke Jones (now with Arizona State), the program would change.
However, in 2010, the United States would fail to produce any Freestyle or Greco-Roman medalists; it was the most disappointing American performance in history.
The following year, the wrestling world turned its attention back to the US. Cael Sanderson, now the Head Coach at Penn State University, came out of retirement to lead the American contingent. By the end of the tournament, a new star burst on the scene.
Jordan Burroughs won a state title in his senior year, wrestling for Winslow Township High School in New Jersey. Burroughs never competed at the Cadet or Junior Freestyle National Championships in high school, opting to focus on folkstyle. As a true freshman at the University of Nebraska in 2007, Burroughs finished the season with a mediocre record of 16–13 but managed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. As a sophomore, with a priority realignment, Burroughs finished 34–6 and placed third at 157 lbs. Burroughs would win NCAA titles as a junior in 2009 and a senior in 2011, after taking a medical redshirt in 2010. While in college, Burroughs started transitioning to Freestyle, winning a position on the Junior World Team in 2008 and finishing tenth in the World.
During Burroughs senior season, many speculated that he would find a home in MMA. Instead, the two-time NCAA Champion made his first statement on the Senior-level, winning the US Open. That June, Burroughs defeated US University Champion Andrew Howe to secure his first World Team spot.
At the 2011 World Championships in Istanbul, Burroughs, as a fresh face to the International stage, came into the tournament unseeded. In round 16, he was matched against Denis Tsragush, the defending World Champion, at 74 kg. In the old best-of-three-period scoring system, Burroughs dropped the first period to Tsargush 3–0 but won the second 1–0 and completed the upset victory with a 2–1 decision in the third. Burroughs defeated Ricardo Roberty of Venezuela in the quarterfinals and Ashraf Aliyev of Azerbaijan in the semis. During the Aliyez match, Burroughs’ cauliflower ear exploded, covering both competitors and the mat in blood. With his head battle-wrapped, the Turkish crowd cheered the valiant American, admiring his spirit. Burroughs defeated returning World Silver medalist Sadegh Goudarzi from Iran in the finals, winning the US’s first Gold medal since Cejudo in 2008. US Freestyle found a new superstar in the 22-year-old Burroughs.
The Russians immediately recognized the problem Burroughs presented: His speed and precision were unmatched. Unlike the stereotypical American, who employed the Dan Gable/Iowa grind mentality in their matches, Burroughs’ explosive double-leg was unstoppable early in his career. His matches were sprints where he would dare the completion to keep pace. In par terre (on the mat), Burroughs didn’t score many points, but developed good enough defense to prevent himself from being turned.
The 2012 Olympics was a repeat of the 2011 Worlds, with Burroughs defeating Trasgush in the semis and Goudarzi in the finals, winning his second Gold. He was joined by Jake Varner, giving the US their first multiple Gold Medal performance since 1996. Coleman Scott and Tervel Dlagnev took the Bronze, giving the US four medalists, tying them with Russia in the medal count.
At the same time, Zeke Jones’ idea of Regional Training Centers started to show up on college campuses across the country. With the support of USA Wrestling and through the fundraising efforts of the individual programs, universities began hiring coaches specifically for Freestyle. This immediately changed the county’s performance at the Junior, University, and Senior-level. Now athletes could focus on training for the World/Olympic Games while earning a salary. Athletes no longer had to transition to MMA to earn a living. Burroughs remained in Nebraska training with his coaches Mark Manning and Bryan Snyder.
Burroughs would repeat as World Champion in 2013 but lost to Tsargush in the semifinals of the 2014 World’s, finishing with a Bronze. This was Burroughs’ first loss to a non-American in over sixty matches. After this performance, Burroughs would change his game. Instead of relying on the double, Burroughs adjusted his offense, mastering a lighting re-attack finish off his opponent’s missed leg attack. Most importantly, Burroughs elevated his top par terre game, adding a leg lace. In defeat, Burroughs improved, winning his third World Title at 74 kg in 2015.
In 2016, Burroughs began openly discussing his legacy. Though easily qualifying for the Olympics, again defeating Andrew Howe the spot at 74 kg, the champion’s focus seemed off. In the quarterfinals, Burroughs dropped a decision to Aniuar Geduev 3–2. After five years, Russia had finally answered the Burroughs question. Emotional and unable to shake off the sting of failure, Burroughs lost to Bekzod Abdurakhmonov of Uzbekistan, an NCAA All-American at Clarion University—by 10–0 technical decision. For the first time in his career, Burroughs failed to medal.
“I left my wife at home with two kids in Nebraska for long periods of time to go to training camps and tournaments in foreign countries, but she did that joyfully, not begrudgingly, because she knew on days like these I always performed. Now I feel like I let her down, and I let my family down.”
Many thought that at 28, Jordan Burroughs was done. Most US wrestlers, even medalists, only do one-to-two Olympic cycles. After a fantastic career, it made sense for Burroughs to retire. But that isn’t what happened: Jordan Burroughs was no longer the wrestler that the rest of the world couldn’t answer. But after six years of elite-level competition, he’d evolved into one of the shrewdest tacticians in the game. After a lengthy layoff, Burroughs made a triumphant comeback in 2017, winning his fifth World/Olympic title in Paris.
However, over the past three seasons, time seems to have been slowly catching up to Burroughs. After entering back-and-forth rivalry with Italian-by-way-of-Cuba Frank Chamizo, Burroughs was defeated by Zaurbek Sidakov, another Russian, in both 2018 and 2019, taking Bronze each year.
Meanwhile, Kyle Dake, a four-time NCAA Champion from Cornell, who found himself unable to unseat Burroughs, moved up to 79 kg. In the same games where Burroughs finished with back-to-back Bronze medals, Dake took the Gold. However, 79 kg is not a weight sponsored by the International Olympic Committee. If Kyle Dake wanted to make the Olympic team, he’d have to drop to 74 kg and challenge Jordan Burroughs.
The match was expected to happen in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the eventual meeting back one year. While Burroughs is strong and precise with his attacks, Dake possesses nearly impenetrable defense and position. Dake is a master at forcing his opponents into tactical errors with his incredible counter offense. When the two met this past Saturday, Dake took the first match 3–2 and won the second 3–0. For only the second time in his ten-year International career, Jordan Burroughs had a bad day. The US is fortunate to replace one gold medalist with another. Still, the team will miss Burroughs’ leadership and his presence.
For only the second time in his ten-year International career, Jordan Burroughs had a bad day.
Again, many of the fans in Fort Worth expected Burroughs to leave his shoes in the center of the mat, a ceremonial tradition amongst elite-level wrestlers, signifying their retirement from the sport. Instead, Jordan Burroughs surprised the crowd. He told them he wasn’t finished.
“It’s a sad thing that a run is over for me, it’s one of the first summers in a decade that I didn’t have any direction,” Burroughs told NBC. “It’s hard. It will be hard for a while. There’s always more things to reflect on, but I’ll continue to move forward with confidence and hope the future is still bright for me, just not Tokyo.”
Does Jordan Burroughs have a third act in his storied International career? He will be 36 in 2024. While it isn’t unheard of for athletes to compete at that level that late in their career, it’s more than rare. The most well-known example being Chris Campbell, who won the Bronze in 1992 at 37.
“There’s a lot to think about moving forward,” said Burroughs. “It will take me a while to kind of settle, but that’s part of the sport.”