Jordan Burroughs’ path to Rio Olympics missing closest U.S. rivals

Jordan Burroughs
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It’s a situation USA Wrestling believes is unprecedented heading into an Olympic trials, and it involves Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs.

Burroughs, the reigning World freestyle champion at 74kg, is a heavy favorite to book a place on the Rio Olympic team in the trials finals in Iowa City on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra).

It would be shocking for Burroughs to lose, not only because he’s 122-2, but also because he won’t have to face either the second- or third-ranked U.S. 74kg grapplers from last year.

“It’s almost scary when things like this happen,” Burroughs said. “It’s yours to lose.”

After Burroughs won his third World title in September, both Kyle Dake and David Taylor announced they were moving out of Burroughs’ division and up to the 86kg class.

USA Wrestling couldn’t come up with another instance where Nos. 2 and 3 both left a division this deep into an Olympic cycle.

Only one wrestler per nation per division can compete in the Olympics, and Burroughs is the most dominant American in the sport in some time.

Dake and Taylor are two of the most accomplished U.S. wrestlers, but they’re winless against Burroughs.

Taylor, the 2012 and 2014 NCAA Wrestler of the Year who lost to Burroughs in the 2014 World Championships trials finals, moved up before Dake. He said he made the decision in June or July.

Did Taylor switch because he had never beaten Burroughs or Dake?

“That’s the question that I think everyone wants to know,” Taylor said in a FloWrestling interview in September. “It’s like, man, someone’s got to move up or down a weight class. Ultimately, that has nothing to do with it. But at the same time, I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”

The former Penn State standout pointed to cutting weight to get down to 74kg taking a toll on his body.

“That competitive side wants to stay at 74 to try and beat those guys, but after that World [Championships] Team Trials a year ago, I was pretty banged up,” Taylor said. “A lot of it I attribute to a lot of weight cutting, trying to manage my weight.”

Dake, the only man to win four NCAA titles in four different weight classes or without a redshirt year (2010-13), announced days after Taylor that he, too, was moving up to 86kg.

“Jordan had just won the World Championships again,” Dake said of the timing of his decision in an interview while cheering his school, Cornell, at the NCAA Championships in New York in March. “He gets to sit out until the [Olympic trials] finals. That’s a big advantage. I’ve done really well against 86-kilo guys in the past. I felt like I’d be fine wrestling with them moving forward.”

Dake, who lost to Burroughs in the World Championships trials finals in 2013 and 2015, said that if Burroughs did not have a bye into the Olympic trials finals, he might have stayed in the 74kg division.

MORE: John Smith joins NBC broadcast team for trials, Olympics

Reigning World Championships medalists earn byes into trials finals. At the 2015 Worlds, the American in the 86kg division, Jake Herbert, lost in the round of 32, meaning no bye and an even playing field for everyone in that class on Sunday.

With the bye, Burroughs can rest in Iowa City until Sunday night, while the other wrestlers in his division battle through a bracket for the right to face him in a best-of-three finals.

Burroughs said he previously suggested a possible division switch to Taylor.

“But I never wanted for him to feel disrespected by me as a competitor,” said Burroughs, who cherishes rivalry, having read a few books on the Lakers-Celtics 1980s battles. “I want to be teammates with him.

“Obviously it’s difficult wrestling me, I’m one of the best wrestlers in the world, but I think that [Taylor] can be a World champion. I think he can be an Olympic champion. For a long time, I bet he was kind of embarrassed to make this move, because he didn’t want to be deemed a quitter, unsuccessful. All right, you moved up because you couldn’t beat Burroughs anymore. But really, I don’t think there’s any truth to that. You want to make a team. It’s simple. … You do what you’ve got to do to put yourself in the best position to win. So I respect him for his decision, and we’ll be best friends.”

Who’s left to challenge Burroughs?

The biggest threat left is probably Andrew Howe, who was Burroughs’ finals opponent at the 2012 trials, withdrawing with a knee injury after losing the first match four years ago.

“Everything comes full circle,” Burroughs said.

Perhaps the most intriguing man is Nick Marable, the only American to beat Burroughs in 124 senior matches since 2011. But that win, 4-4 on a tiebreaker, came two years ago, and Marable failed to make the 2015 World Championships team in another division.

Then there are three more two-time NCAA champions, including reigning NCAA Wrestler of the Year Alex DieringerIsaiah Martinez and Chris Perry, who could all enter the 74kg bracket.

Don’t expect the absences of Burroughs’ two biggest rivals to faze him Sunday.

“I saw a quote by Larry Bird, and he said, the best part about winning the championship was knowing that Magic Johnson was in the other locker room crying,” Burroughs said. “I’m a nice guy off the mat. When I step on the mat, it’s kill or be killed. And someone’s got to die, and I’m not dying.”

MORE: Olympic wrestling medalist tests positive for meldonium

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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