Since 2011, Jordan Burroughs dispatched every single countryman in the 74kg division to make Team USA nine years running, winning four world titles and an Olympic gold medal.
Burroughs’ greatest test yet may come on Saturday, when he tries to make a third consecutive Olympic team and his 10th national team in a row overall.
That’s because Kyle Dake, an NCAA wrestling legend a decade ago, is his likely opponent in the Olympic Trials finals in Fort Worth, Texas. Burroughs is 7-1 in his career against Dake, but they haven’t faced off since 2017. Since then, Dake won his first two world titles (in a different weight class).
“[Dake] is Larry Bird to Magic Johnson,” said Burroughs, who previously compared his early pro career rivalry with Russian Denis Tsargush to the 1980s NBA icons. “He is the individual that presents and poses the biggest challenge for me.”
The Burroughs-Dake rivalry dates to 2013. Burroughs, coming off an Olympic title, and Dake, who had just become the first man to win NCAA titles in four different weight classes, met in the 74kg finals in the world championships trials that year.
Burroughs swept Dake. He did so again in 2015. In 2016, Dake moved up one weight division for the Olympic Trials, in part to avoid Burroughs, who had a bye into the Olympic Trials finals. Dake lost in the 86kg Trials finals to J’den Cox, who took bronze in Rio and, like Dake, won his first world titles in 2018 and 2019.
In 2017, Dake returned to 74kg and handed Burroughs his first loss on U.S. soil in eight years, taking the opening match of a three-match series in the world championships trials finals.
Burroughs came back to win the next two matches, then, as in 2013 and 2015, followed his defeat of Dake to win the world title months later. Dake, after being runner-up at Olympic or world championships trials four times in five years, considered retiring.
“That was a long time ago. I’ve become a much different wrestler,” Dake said.
He hammered that point in a 25-minute back-and-forth with Burroughs on Flowrestling last April.
“I want you to leave your shoes on the mat after I beat you,” Dake said, referring to the symbolic sign of retirement in the sport.
“You have tremendous results,” Burroughs said, “against everyone but me.”
They went at it again in a Twitter exchange in December.
“There was a lot of pent-up emotion going into the Olympic Team Trials, and things were said, water under the bridge in my book,” said Dake, who planned to challenge Burroughs at 74kg in 2019 before an MCL tear and surgery kept him out of competition for eight months. “I try not to take anything too personally because this is what we do, this is our business. We’re trying to play those mind games. We’re trying to play the battle within the battle.”
For Dake, a 30-year-old father of two, beating Burroughs and reaching his first Olympics would be two major breakthroughs. In 2018, he debuted at worlds at the non-Olympic 79kg weight class. He became the first U.S. man to win an Olympic or world title without surrendering a point in at least 30 years. He repeated as world champion in 2019, again at 79kg.
Burroughs, a 32-year-old father of three, carries memories of what happened at the last Olympics in Rio. He had the worst day of his life on Aug. 19, 2016, losing twice and failing to earn a medal for the only time in his nine Olympics or world championships.
He broke down in tears repeatedly in the media mixed zone for interview after interview. Burroughs has rewatched most of his 200-plus freestyle matches several times, but he refused replays of the Rio defeats for years after.
“The only thing that can make up for [Rio] is win another gold in 2020,” Burroughs said in 2018.
His biggest obstacle may not come in Tokyo, but in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday.
“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 years ago. “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.”
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!