Jordan Burroughs will wrestle for his fourth straight global title at the World Championships on Tuesday in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where, for the first time at an Olympics or Worlds, he will compete with a blemish on his international record.
Burroughs, the Olympic champion in the 163-pound freestyle division, suffered the first senior international defeat of his decorated career in a strange setting on Feb. 15.
A 4-4 loss via tiebreaker to countryman Nick Marable (video here) snapped an American record 69-match winning streak dating to 2011. Add in NCAA competition, and Burroughs had won 105 straight. His last defeat came in December 2009, in overtime, after he tore two ligaments in his left knee early in the match.
“I think it was God’s way of telling me I’m not perfect,” Burroughs told the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News in the spring. “Basically, there will be times in your career that if you don’t wrestle hungry, there is someone out there that is more hungry or as hungry as you.”
Burroughs agreed that the tournament where he lost, his first meet since winning the 2013 World Championship four weeks after breaking an ankle, had the atmosphere of a high school JV basketball game.
It happened in the quarterfinals of the Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul.
“It really wasn’t much in terms of the amount of people at the tournament,” Burroughs said in a phone interview while training in Rome last week. “I think in the wrestling community, it wasn’t too significant. … The atmosphere, it wasn’t really significant cheering. Everyone was whispering, ‘Oh, Burroughs lost.’ Other than that, it was a normal day.”
Burroughs figured his phone would explode with messages and notifications after the defeat, so he put it away to focus on securing a place on the podium. For the first time, he stood in the bronze-medal place when all was said and done.
“A lot of people only found out through social media, and weeks later,” said Burroughs, who also passed 100,000 Twitter followers in February.
Many still hadn’t known when Burroughs returned to the U.S. When they’d praise his undefeated record, he had to correct them.
“Actually, I lost,” he has said. Burroughs acknowledged the obvious, that this will be mentioned in many stories about him leading to Rio 2016. “It’s something that I’m prepared to talk about for a long time.”
Lauren Burroughs was pregnant with their baby boy at the time. Don’t you dare hang your head or be upset over the defeat, she told her husband. You’ve accomplished a lot, and you still have a great career ahead of you.
“It will always remain with me,” said Burroughs, known to flip over Monopoly boards growing up and with such a memory that he has said only two journalists picked him to win Worlds in 2011, out of a panel of about 25. “I hope I never lose again.”
So Burroughs, 26, started a new win streak in the most competitive division in U.S. wrestling, where he must stave off the likes of David Taylor and Kyle Dake, who combined to win the last three NCAA Wrestler of the Year awards.
(Marable, who said he felt really bad immediately after his landmark victory for putting a “roadblock” on Burroughs’ legacy, has dropped down to the non-Olympic 154-pound division and made the U.S. team for the World Championships.)
“I think the streak I’m on at three is a little bit more important [than the previous one],” Burroughs said in an interview while attending the NCAA Championships.
Burroughs feels harder to beat now than ever before, even though he needed a late rally to edge Taylor 7-6 at the U.S. Open in April. Burroughs then defeated Taylor by a more comfortable margin at the World Team Trials in June.
“Unfortunately, in order for me to fulfill my dreams, I have to kill his,” Burroughs said after beating Taylor for the only World Championships team spot in their weight class.
Burroughs’ new streak is now at 19. His international record is 88-1. He had hoped to reach 100-0 before that loss. He’s still aiming at 100 victories, which will come some time next year.
“If you consider just one loss in the last four years detrimental to my legacy, then you’re crazy,” Burroughs said.
But the bigger carrot has always been Olympic and World Championships.
“I want to win as many as possible,” he said. “When I hang up my shoes, I want to be recognized as one of the greatest to ever do it.”
Burroughs, a student of his sport, has always put the two-time Olympic freestyle champion John Smith on a pedestal.
“No matter what I do, John Smith is always going to be the greatest, not only in a number of people’s eyes, but my eyes as well,” Burroughs said.
He moved closer Smith by joining a handful of U.S. wrestlers to win three global titles with his World Championship last year. He and Smith are the only ones to do so in back-to-back-to-back succession. Smith won all six Olympic and World titles from 1987 through 1992, so Burroughs has plenty of work ahead.
“It doesn’t get easier,” said Smith, now a coach at Oklahoma State. “As you get stronger and better, the field chasing you gets stronger and better. You’re setting the pace for everyone else.”
Burroughs recently read a Michael Jordan biography, which got him thinking about the way he wants to retire.
“There’s nothing sadder than seeing somebody who was once great at their respective sport compete past their prime,” Burroughs said. “When you think of guys like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, guys who were complete animals in their primes, get knocked out later in their careers, and got older and less powerful and less fearful. They became human. I want to leave with that level of invincibility.
“When [Jordan] finished with the Bulls in 1998, he was perfect, almost invincible. Then he came back with the Wizards and tarnished his legacy. I don’t want people to ever say that Burroughs can’t wrestle.
“In terms of emptying the tank, I don’t want to finish off my career by not making a team or a step off the top of the podium into retirement.”
Burroughs’ plan for after the World Championships? Spend time with his son. They’ve bonded a little so far since his birth in July. Burroughs has carried him in a Moby Wrap, performed 5 a.m. diaper changes and joked that he spilled mustard from a roast beef sandwich on the boy’s head.
“I want to get a tattoo of my baby,” he said, a lighthouse on his left calf with the boy’s name, Beacon, on it. “It’s symbolic of a beacon of light, hope.”