Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi (IRI) and Jordan Burroughs (USA), in blue, compete in the men’s freestyle 74 kg gold medal match during the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL – North Arena 2. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)
By Steve Keating
LONDON, Aug 10 (Reuters) – For many Americans wrestling still conjures thoughts of Hulk Hogan but Jordan Burroughs, crowned Olympic champion on Friday, is out to be the new face of the sport and is willing to take on anyone to make it happen.
With a Twitter handle @allIseeisgold (All I See Is Gold), Burroughs does not lack confidence and tweeted on Thursday “Dreaming of Gold tonight. My next tweet will be a picture of me holding that Gold medal!”.
But tweets and dreams do come true as Burroughs overpowered Iran’s Sadegh Goudarzi in the final of the 74kg (162lb) freestyle division to claim his gold medal and a $250,000 bonus.
Burroughs makes no apologies for his swashbuckling cockiness and neither does USA Wrestling, who paid out the astonishing bonus betting the charismatic 24-year-old world and Olympic champion can become the face of a sport that is often overlooked or lumped in with the staged theatrics of professional wrestling.
“Jordan Burroughs can be the face for wrestling,” U.S. men’s coach Zeke Jones told reporters. “Jordan is coming to that place where he can be one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time.
“He’s putting himself in a position where he can make wrestling a mainstream sport.
“It will never be like basketball and football but he can certainly elevate the exposure and publicity of the sport.”
Certainly, Burroughs is the type of athlete any sport covets as a spokesperson.
Unbeaten in major competition since 2009 with a 38-0 match winning streak, Burroughs is an intriguing combination of skill and furry on the mat, glib and approachable in the interview room.
“I’m ready to wrestle anyone who steps across that line. If the Queen of England came out on the mat I probably would double-leg her,” laughed Burroughs, with a sly smile that hinted at an element of truth.
Fearless and menacing, Burroughs says he is ready to take on all challengers and challenges with none more daunting than being the savior of his sport.
It has not been a great Olympics for U.S. grapplers who were shut out of the medals in Greco-Roman and managed only a bronze from Clarrisa Chun in the women’s competition.
The results are the reflection of a sport in decline in the United States, increasingly marginalised by an old nemesis professional wrestling and the new threat mixed martial arts (MMA).
It is a good bet that most Americans’ introduction to the sport was provided by one of the other World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) stable of villains and heroes but the bigger danger comes from the MMA, which is turning college-wrestling programs into a talent pipeline.
The $250,000 payout to any gold medalist was USA Wrestling’s attempt at trying to keep their best from chasing fame and fortune in the octagon.
Even Burroughs has said his future is in the MMA but not until after the 2016 Rio Games.
“I want to be the face of wrestling. I want to be that star people can look up to,” said Burroughs. “When you describe wrestling I want everyone to know who Jordan Burroughs is.
“That’s the goal for me.
“We don’t get a lot of exposure as a sport and I’m trying to be that guy who can put us on ESPN. Poker is on ESPN more than wrestling is so I think I just got a royal flush.”
While wrestling is one of the Olympics charter sports, practiced in ancient times by Greek philosopher Plato, it is not one of the London Games hot tickets and is tucked away in one of the smaller venues.
Among the Olympics big players, the U.S., China and Britain, which between them have claimed one gold medal on the mats, there are no familiar names and few that roll easily off the English tongue.
Even at the Olympics, where some of the world’s more anonymous sports such as fencing and rhythmic gymnasts get their moment in the spotlight, wrestling has been left in the shadows.
Feeling neglected, International Wrestling Federation (FILA) chief Raphael Martinetti complained loudly about shabby treatment his sport has received from its British hosts.
Few, however, heard Martinetti’s grievances, his press briefing attended by only a half-dozen of the media and not a single television camera.
“I was most disappointed by the attitude of the British wrestling federation,” said Martinetti. “Three places were awarded to Great Britain but they decided to keep only one.”