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.
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 Dieringer, Isaiah 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.”