Jordan Burroughs raised his eyebrows, then leered and grinned as sweat dribbled down his tattooed chest, minutes after capturing his fourth straight U.S. Open freestyle wrestling title last April 19.
The Olympic gold medalist paused. He delivered the kicker line of a 70-word answer to a question about his growing legend.
“I’m just hoping to get a couple more titles before Aaron Pico gets on the scene,” Burroughs said in Las Vegas. The two interviewers chuckled.
One year later, Burroughs, the 26-year-old face of USA Wrestling, and Pico, the 18-year-old who aims to succeed Burroughs in that role, are together on a U.S. team for the first time at this weekend’s freestyle World Cup at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra, Sunday, 9 p.m. ET).
Burroughs occupies the 74-kilogram weight class. Pico is one Olympic division lighter at 65 kilograms. They aren’t in direct competition for a 2016 Olympic berth, but they know each other well from word of mouth and, more recently, training together.
“I’ve seen very few kids his age that can do the things he does as well as he does,” Burroughs said in a phone interview Thursday. “He’s perfected the basics. As he continues to gain more offense, gain more defense, he’s going to be very, very hard to beat.”
Burroughs takes a 98-2 senior international record into the World Cup and will very likely reach triple-digit victories this weekend.
Pico is 17-3, plus owns a 2014 World Junior Championships silver medal. He’s nicknamed “cheeks,” started wrestling at age 4 and signed a Bellator MMA contract following his one and only (and undefeated) high school wrestling season.
Pico is avoiding the mixed martial arts cage until after the Rio 2016 Olympics, should he make it there. His goal is to become the first U.S. teen to win an Olympic wrestling gold medal, and then dominate MMA (and possibly boxing, too, as he was a junior Golden Gloves champion).
Burroughs will be The Star at The Forum, a favorite in all of his matches given Russian rival Denis Tsargush is not in the field.
Pico, from nearby Whittier and the descendant of the last Mexican Governor of California, estimated he will have at least 25 friends and family members in the crowd. But Pico does not expect to compete because he is the second-ranked American in his division, behind Brent Metcalf. Coaches can choose either Pico or Metcalf to wrestle each match. Last year, Metcalf was chosen for every match in the 65-kilogram division, and won them all.
So, Burroughs and Pico are in vastly different places 16 months before the Rio Olympics. But this they share — they are both known criers.
Burroughs bawled after losses as a child, hiding under the bleachers heartbroken as if the family dog had just died.
Pico shed tears around dawn on Feb. 12, 2013, when he woke at 4:30 for his usual morning workout and was lifting when his father informed him that the International Olympic Committee moved to cut wrestling from the Olympic program. Even though wrestling’s axing would have started with the 2020 Olympics, not 2016, Pico was ready to shift focus.
“I better get myself to the boxing club if that’s the case, start boxing again and try to make the Olympic team for boxing,” Pico said, before reconsidering as the save wrestling movement gathered steam.
The IOC voted seven months later to keep wrestling in the Olympics, three weeks before Pico’s 17th birthday. So Pico continued training. He notched a statement victory on Nov. 28, over 2013 World champion David Safaryan of Armenia in Nice, France.
Last Friday, Pico measured himself against Metcalf in what may have been a preview of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. Metcalf and Pico are the only Americans in the United World Wrestling rankings of the top 20 men in the world in the 65-kilogram division. Metcalf is No. 8; Pico is No. 17.
Metcalf won a heated match 4-1, during which Pico mouthed words to his opponent. Right after, Metcalf grabbed a microphone and addressed Pico and the crowd (video at 11-minute mark).
“You want me to wrestle?” Metcalf said. “Let’s do the shot count. You for real? Don’t run your mouth!”
One minute later, a more calm Metcalf said into the microphone that he respected Pico.
After the competition, Metcalf recapped what happened to the Des Moines Register:
“[Pico] says, ‘Hey, why don’t you wrestle me next time?'” Metcalf said. “Is that a real question? Was I blocking and defending the whole match? I don’t think so. I think I was pretty active and trying to get to my offense against a guy who’s very capable. … I don’t know what you want. Do you want me to fall over for you? I’m not going to.”
On Thursday, Pico said he didn’t really remember what he said to Metcalf and apologized for setting a bad example for younger wrestlers.
“When you wrestle in the heat of the moment, you say some things that you shouldn’t, but it is what it is,” said Pico, who is 10 years younger than Metcalf. “It was a great match for me. Even though I lost, I felt him in a live match. I know what he’s got. … Once I get my offense going, it’s going to be good for me. I know it’s going to be hard for him to stop me.
“Once I wrestle him again, it’s going to be a different story. I’m not stopping until I beat him. I know I will. My time will come.”
They could face off at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in May and the World Championships Team Trials in Madison, Wis., in June.
Outgoing Ohio State senior Logan Stieber could complicate matters in that division. In March, he became the fourth NCAA wrestler to win four national championships and hopes to make the 2016 Olympic team, too.
Pico said he has not decided if he will continue wrestling if he does not make the 2016 Olympic team. He said he may continue to train for wrestling while embarking on that MMA career.
“I’m not saying I’m the best right now, but in a year and a half I think I’m going to be up there,” Pico said.
Burroughs can relate to a rivalry. He and the Russian Tsargush combined to win every Olympic and World Championships 74-kilogram gold medal dating to 2009.
Burroughs beat Tsargush in the 2012 Olympic semifinals. Tsargush returned the favor at the 2014 World Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, handing Burroughs (who was wrestling on a sprained MCL) his first senior international defeat to a foreign wrestler.
On his phone, Burroughs has this image (or something close to it) of Tsargush celebrating that victory saved for viewing whenever he wants a little motivation.
“It’s burned into my memory,” said Burroughs, who likened their head-to-head history to Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in a 673-word blog post March 31.
Burroughs hopes for a rematch at the World Championships in Las Vegas in September. His son could be there to see it.
Beacon Burroughs, born last July and with an Instagram following of 5,000-plus, is in Los Angeles for the World Cup.
Burroughs — Jordan, not Beacon — said he has critics who see him as domesticated and washed up.
“My mindset has shifted to feeling like an underdog,” he said.
Burroughs believes Pico will have his day in the spotlight, but not soon. Asked if he thinks Pico will make the 2016 Olympic team, Burroughs hesitated.
“I don’t know. … Personally, no,” Burroughs said. “It’s really hard to do at 19, 20 years old [only one U.S. wrestler has made the Olympics as a teen since 1976, according to sports-reference]. He has the cards stacked against him.”