David Taylor wins wrestling world title, at long last

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David Taylor, the formerly dominant NCAA wrestler known as the Magic Man, was stuck for five years.

Stuck finishing second or third in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 World Championships team trials in the U.S.’ toughest weight class owned by Jordan Burroughs. When Taylor moved up a division, he suffered the same fate in 2016 (Olympic Trials) and 2017.

At last, at 27 years old, Taylor made his first world team this summer. It helped that United World Wrestling expanded the number of weight classes from eight to 10 (still six at the Olympics), meaning Taylor didn’t have to go through Burroughs, Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox or four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake at trials. But Taylor earned his place, going undefeated internationally this year.

Then in Budapest on Sunday, Taylor completed a breakthrough run through the 86kg bracket, becoming a world champion.

Taylor is the oldest first-time Olympic or world champion for USA Wrestling since 2006, when now-freestyle head coach Bill Zadick did so at 33. Taylor reached the top four years after ending an NCAA career at Penn State that included two Hodge Trophies, given to the college wrestler of the year.

“I don’t know if I ever really believed if I was best in the world, for a long time,” Taylor said.

Taylor had to work from start to finish in Budapest, upsetting Iran’s Olympic and world champion Hassan Yazdani in his first match Saturday. He suffered a knee injury in his second match and said he was kicked in the face in the semifinals. He then dumped Turkey’s top-seeded Fatih Erdin in the final, scoring a two-point takedown in the first 10 seconds and getting a 12-2 tech fall.

Upon weighing in Saturday, Taylor looked at his phone screen protector and saw what he had written days before, “2018 World champion 86 kilos.” He knew the great Yazdani was first up in his bracket. It’s time, he thought.

“This flag on my shoulders, looking up, just the chills that I get when I think of that moment [of winning],” Taylor said. “To be able to earn it the way that I earned it, there’s no easy way. … I wrestled every single best guy every single round.”

The U.S. earned medals in all four weight classes with finals Sunday.

The 2012 Olympic champ Burroughs rallied for bronze, beating Cuban-born Italian nemesis Frank Chamizo via tiebreaker by scoring the last point with 26 seconds left. It’s the seventh Olympic or world medal for Burroughs in eight global tournaments, coming one day after he suffered just his seventh defeat in seven-plus years on the senior stage.

“All I thought about [after Saturday’s loss] was Rio, Rio, Rio, Rio,” Burroughs said, referencing failing to earn a medal at the 2016 Olympics. “I was thinking, well, damn, there were a lot of people who thought I quit after I lost to [Russian Aniuar] Geduev [in the Rio quarterfinals]. I’m not a quitter. I’m not a quitter. You can call me what you want, but you can never call me a quitter.”

Nick Gwiazdowski earned his second straight heavyweight bronze, winning both of his repechage matches after a Saturday loss to eventual silver medalist Deng Zhiwei of China.

In the 61kg bracket, worlds rookie Joe Colon earned a bronze medal, two weeks after replacing U.S. champion Nahshon Garrett on the team. Garrett, who beat Colon in the world team trials final in June, is out with a torn pectoral.

Cox and Dake advanced to Monday’s gold-medal matches in the 92kg and 79kg divisions, respectively.

“If it wasn’t for those guys, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Taylor said of Burroughs, Cox and Dake. “When I went up in weight class, it was for the future of my career. It wasn’t just for short-term.”

Logan Stieber, a 2016 World champion, lost his opening match at 65kg. Thomas Gilman, the 2017 World silver medalist at 57kg, lost his semifinal match and will go for bronze Monday.

Olympic champions Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis begin their world title defenses on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

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Jake Varner, Kyle Dake reach U.S. Olympic Trials finals

Jake Varner
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Olympic champion Jake Varner is one step from returning to the Games. Four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake is close to his first Olympics.

Varner and Dake each won their three U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying matches to move into Sunday night’s best-of-three finals in Iowa City (7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra).

Varner will face Kyle Snyder in the freestyle 97kg finals in the first matchup of reigning Olympic and World champions at a U.S. Olympic Trials since 1988.

Snyder, an Ohio State sophomore, upset Varner at last year’s World Championships Team Trials before becoming the youngest American to win a World title in September.

Dake will face University of Missouri rising senior J’Den Cox in the freestyle 86kg finals. The winner of that match must qualify for the Olympics at an international tournament later this spring.

“J’Den’s a good competitor, you know what I mean, he’s strong, he’s big,” Dake, with a bloody cut near his left eye, told media Sunday afternoon. “We’ll just see how good his freestyle savviness is.”

Other Sunday night finals include Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs against Andrew Howe in 74kg, a rematch of the 2012 Olympic Trials finals.

Howe advanced through three qualifying matches Sunday to face Burroughs, who had a bye into the finals as a reigning World medalist.

World champions Helen Maroulis and Adeline Gray are in the women’s 53kg and 75kg finals.

The biggest upset on Sunday morning came in Dake’s division, with top seed Jake Herbert falling in his first match to Cox.

Later, Dake defeated two-time NCAA Wrestler of the Year David Taylor to reach the finals. Dake and Taylor were the top two challengers to Burroughs before leaving Burroughs’ division in the last year.

MORE WRESTLING: Three 2012 U.S. Olympians earn Rio berths Saturday

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.

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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.”

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