DALLAS — If you’re looking for quiet and unassuming, Jordan Burroughs might not be your man.
Not that you would expect reticence from someone who spends his days grabbing people and throwing them to the ground.
This is a guy who does not hesitate to proclaim himself the new “face of USA wrestling.” A guy who will be tweeting from the 2012 London Olympics under the name “alliseeisgold.”
“Obviously, it rubs some people the wrong way,” he said. “A lot of people mistake my confidence for cockiness.”
That might include lots of opponents tired of losing to the reigning world champion.
“Beat him and make him shut his mouth,” U.S. teammate Justin Lester said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to do that.”
But maybe, if they got to know Burroughs, people might see a likable personality behind the bravado. They might discover a young man who has earned the right to talk.
“A lot of hard work,” he said. “A lot of dreaming.”
Pro wrestling captivated him when he was a little boy. The son of a New Jersey construction worker, he tumbled around the house, grappling with a large, stuffed doll that looked like “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
While still in elementary school, Burroughs wandered into a local gym and was surprised to see no big ring, no turnbuckles or ropes. “I thought all wrestling was like [the World Wrestling Federation],” he said.
The sport — in its genuine form — was more difficult than he had imagined. Burroughs was good but not great in high school; the same could be said for the start of his college career at Nebraska.
“He hadn’t lifted weights much in high school and he hadn’t wrestled in a lot of big national tournaments,” Nebraska Coach Mark Manning recalled. “Jordan kind of learned that he had to work harder.”
This lesson translated into more hours on the mat, a process of growing stronger and quicker that took hold late in his freshman year and throughout the following season.
As a junior in 2008-09, the effort paid off with a perfect record and an NCAA championship. During one match, a hard hit shattered two of his molars; he spit them onto the mat and continued, earning a victory despite the searing pain, then rushing for an emergency root canal.
There was a setback in 2009-10, when a serious knee injury caused him to lose a match and miss the rest of the season. But he returned as a redshirt senior in 2010-11 to win another NCAA title.
Next came the tricky move to Olympic wrestling, switching from the college folkstyle rules to freestyle events on the international scene.
Burroughs was lucky — his naturally explosive technique made the transition easier.
“Being good on your feet is imperative in international wrestling,” Manning said. “He’s relentless on his feet.”
Weeks after his college career ended, Burroughs won the 74-kilogram competition at the U.S. Open. Soon after, he won a world championship in Istanbul, Turkey, and a gold medal at the Pan American Games.
These victories now make him the gold-medal favorite heading into London. It could be the first step in what he hopes will be a historic career.
Mentioning the names of U.S. Olympic stars such as Bruce Baumgartner and John Smith, Burroughs said: “I want to be one of the best wrestlers of all time.”
That is good news for USA Wrestling, which in recent years has seen some of its best athletes lured away by the fame and fortune of mixed martial arts.
Burroughs sounds like a zealot when he says: “If someone can be so easily pulled away by financial opportunities, then maybe they aren’t as passionate about it as you’d want them to be. You want guys to basically die for a gold medal.”
A moment later, he concedes, “I mean, MMA is a great sport, but I don’t want to get punched in the face.”
So his plans call for an amateur career stretching through the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. By his reckoning, that would include plenty more victories.
“I want to be the guy everyone counts on to go out and win gold medals,” he says. “I’m just trying to embrace my role.”
Despite the bold talk and brash Twitter name, Burroughs stops short of guaranteeing victory. Instead, he promises to continue the hard work that got him this far.
Maybe that’s the difference between confidence and cockiness. Or, as teammate Spenser Mango put it, “That’s just Jordan.”