Lee Kemp

The Jordan Burroughs problem

Quick. Name the best wrestler on the Olympic and international scene the United States has ever produced. The name most people would name -- if, that is, they could name even one name -- would be Dan Gable, who won Olympic gold in Munich in 1972 while not giving up even a single point. The Gable legend was, over the years, further enhanced by his incredible coaching career at the University of Iowa.

There are, of course, others. Just to name a few, and the proud history of American wrestling means a list like this runs the risk of omitting many others: Lee Kemp, Dave Schultz, Steve Fraser, Bruce Baumgartner, John Smith, Cael Sanderson, Rulon Gardner, Henry Cejudo.

A few days ago, 25-year-old Jordan Burroughs won the 74-kilo/163-pound freestyle class at wrestling's world championships in Budapest, Hungary. The victory ran Burroughs' unbeaten streak to 65. The man has not lost at the senior level since he started competing internationally.

US Olympic Athlete Medalists Visit USA House

The sport of wrestling, as is widely known, got itself back into the Summer Games in 2020 and 2024 via a vote earlier this month by the International Olympic Committee's full membership in Buenos Aires. That's a big win. But, to be blunt, there's still has a long way to go. Wrestling, to sum up, has a Jordan Burroughs problem.

It's not that Jordan Burroughs himself is a problem.

Far from it.

The problem is the other way around. Who knows about Jordan Burroughs?

Now that wrestling is back in, the same energy, enthusiasm and passion that got it there has to go toward building the brand. Right now, wrestling has a window of opportunity. Burroughs is without doubt its biggest current star, particularly in the United States.

So why isn't he on SportsCenter? Leno? Letterman? Conan? The Daily Show? The Colbert Report? Making the rounds of the early-morning TV shows as well? Being offered up for bit roles in movies? For that matter, why aren't people scrambling to make documentaries about him -- or making him the centerpiece of films such as The Great Wrestling Comeback of 2013?

Wrestling is huge in Russia. Wouldn't it score political points to bring Burroughs to Sochi to have him mingle with the IOC bigwigs and maybe even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself this coming February?

Attention, Billy Baldwin. You were front and center in the months up to the IOC vote. By all accounts, you played a significant role in rallying Hollywood and even Wall Street in fund-raising drives that helped lift wrestling's profile.

Now comes Phase Two.

"The Miami Heat," Burroughs said in a phone interview, "had a 27-game winning streak. It was all on SportsCenter. It got huge press. Here I am at 65 and no one even knows.

"This is important to help the sport," he emphasized. "It is not important to me personally. It is something I wish we could do more of. It is not, let me repeat, something to me to be a self-fulfilling guy."

Burroughs is the 2012 Olympic gold medalist; the 2011 world champ; and, now, the 2013 world champion, too. He is a two-time NCAA champion, in 2009 at 157 pounds and in 2011 at 165. In 2011, he won the Hodge Trophy, wrestling's equivalent of football's Heisman.

In the final in Budapest, Burroughs defeated Iran's Ezzatollah Akbarizarinkolaei, 4-0. The victory made him the first U.S. men's freestyle wrestler to win back-to-back world titles since Smith, in 1990 and 1991. Burroughs also became only the second U.S. men's freestyle wrestler to win three straight world or Olympic titles; Smith won six straight world or Olympic titles from 1987-92.

The victory in Budapest is all the more remarkable because, as Burroughs disclosed afterward, he suffered a broken ankle training Aug. 22 in Colorado Springs, Colo.; he had surgery the next day and at the worlds still had five screws in his left ankle for stability. He guessed he was perhaps at 75 to 80 percent when he arrived in Hungary.

Burroughs is thoughtful, well-spoken, an incredible role model. He is just about to get married. He is everything USA Wrestling -- indeed, the U.S. Olympic Committee -- would want.

Even so, Jordan Burroughs could walk down most streets in the United States of America and no one would know who he is.

On most blocks they know who LeBron James is. And Peyton Manning. Switching to Olympic sports -- Michael Phelps and Apolo Ohno, too.

But not Burroughs.

That is a big problem for a sport that is -- and make no mistake about it -- still going to be fighting for its Olympic life.

As Serbia's Nenad Lalovic, the new president of FILA, the sport's international governing body, said in an interview in Buenos Aires, a couple days after the IOC vote, "This job is not finished. We are just starting."

Burroughs is a bigger star in Iran than he is in either New Jersey, where he grew up, or even Nebraska, where he went to college. This fall, Taylor Martinez, the Cornhuskers' starting quarterback, is a way bigger deal in Lincoln.

In Teheran? This past February, the U.S. team took part in a World Cup there. The just-released book "Saving Wrestling," by James V. Moffatt and Craig Sesker, is filled with inside nuggets on wrestling's path back to 2020. As the book recounts, in Teheran, after he won, Burroughs had to be pushed through the crowd by U.S. assistant coach Bill Zadick to get to the team bus.

Mind you, this was a crowd of bearded Iranian men seeking photos or an autograph from an American wrestler. The two countries' political leaders -- until President Obama's telephone call last week to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani -- have had no high-level contact since 1979.

Burroughs says in the book, "I received more attention there than I receive on my home soil. It was kind of like being Justin Bieber with all the attention that I was getting. It was nuts."

The competition in Iran took place just days after the IOC's policy-making executive board move to boot wrestling out of the Games.

As the saying goes, sometimes a crisis presents unexpected opportunity.

In wrestling's sake, the sport effected in seven months the sorts of changes -- political, governance, rules -- that would otherwise have taken 15 or 20 years. Or maybe longer.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to wrestling," said Jim Scherr, the former USOC chief executive who played a key role in presenting FILA's winning case to the IOC.

Among the changes were the development of women's and athletes' commissions. FILA didn't have such boards. So simple. One of the members of the new athletes' commission is American Jake Herbert, a 2012 Olympian. He called it a "step in the right direction," adding, "They are getting there."

This is the thing, though -- they are not there yet.

The sport essentially faces two big-picture challenges, all of which is clear from reading the IOC materials that led to the executive board action in the first instance:

One, it needs to do a much better job of promoting itself at the high end, meaning the creation and promotion of a brand and image for the sport and its athletes.

Two, at the grass-roots and club levels it needs to attract way more kids and young people -- boys and, in particular, girls -- and make the sport more friendly to them and their parents.

Bill Scherr is Jim's twin brother. Bill is chairman of what was called the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, and said, "All sports federations have their problems and issues. 2024 is 11 years away." Referring to FILA, he added immediately, "We face elimination again. I would think they would be motivated to make the changes necessary."

This all leads back to Jordan Burroughs.

It's not complicated. All sports thrive on stars.

When he gets back from his honeymoon, you'd like to think there would be some really smart people waiting to talk to him. With real money for a PR campaign, or two, for the sport, built around this All-American guy.

"What wrestling has done," Burroughs said, "is put itself back in the spotlight." In Rio de Janeiro, at the 2016 Games, "We are going to be one of the 'it' sports -- people are going to be watching, asking, 'Let's see why this sport deserves to be in the Olympic Games.' People are going to be paying attention.

"I think," he said, "we have all the tools."

Jake Herbert: confidence guy

Northwestern plays Nebraska Saturday in college football, the Wildcats' first foray to Lincoln since the Cornhuskers were admitted to the Big Ten. The oddsmakers in Vegas have made Northwestern a decided underdog. "Northwestern by 50. Feeling confident," said Jake Herbert, who graduated from Northwestern two years ago after winning two NCAA wrestling championships and the 2009 Hodge Trophy, given to the nation's outstanding collegiate wrestler. In the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens travel Sunday to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. Herbert grew up in North Allegheny, Pa. "You ask me how bad the Steelers are going to beat the Ravens? By 110."

"I ooze confidence," Herbert said, and this a couple days after winning gold in the 84 kilogram, or 185-pound, freestyle weight class at the Pan American Games.

All athletes have to be confident. Jake has to be super-confident. He is, without being ugly about it.

"Anything less than Olympic gold in my mind is failure," he said. "I'm not training for bronze. I'm not training just to be in the Olympics. I'm not training for anything less.

"If there's a little bit of doubt in your mind, that can be exploited. I'm there 100 percent to be getting the gold medal. I'm there to take it."

Here's why Jake has to have unshakeable belief in himself and what he's doing:

Among others, Cael Sanderson is in his weight class.

Sanderson is the 2004 Olympic gold medalist. He is now coach at Penn State. He is the only undefeated four-time NCAA champion, compiling a record of 159-0 at Iowa State, so good he made the cover of a Wheaties box. He won the Hodge Trophy not just once but three times.

There are all kinds of hints that Sanderson is making a 2012 comeback.

It can't be certain that Sanderson is, in fact, coming back.

But Herbert, like everyone, has to gear up as it if that's the case. "I'm preparing like he's going to be there," Jake said.

American Olympic wrestling history is marked by a succession of dramatic episodes in which challengers have had to beat the best to be the best.

Going all the way back to the 1984 U.S. Trials, Dave Schultz had to beat three-time world champion Lee Kemp just to make the American team. He did, and went on to win Olympic gold.

In 1988, the tables were turned: Kenny Monday had to beat Schultz to make the U.S. team. Monday won, and then won Olympic gold in Seoul.

Also in 1988, John Smith had to beat 1984 Olympic champ Randy Lewis to make the team. Smith did, and won Olympic gold.

More recently, at the 2008 Trials, Henry Cejudo had to defeat Stephen Abas, the 2004 silver medalist, to make the team. Cejudo did, and won Olympic gold.

Jake knows all these stories, rattling them off in a phone call. "Why should it be any different for me?" he asked rhetorically, adding, "If I can beat Sanderson, I can beat anybody in the world, and I can win the Olympics."

Since graduating from Northwestern, Jake has bulked up to about 200 pounds. He makes weight pretty easily -- wrestlers drop a lot of water weight in a remarkably quick amount of time without losing strength -- and said, "I'm a 200-pound man wrestling 185. That strength showed off in the Pan Ams. It's great to feel stronger, tougher, better than your opponents."

Perhaps just as important, "Mentally, I'm right there."

Jake has recent wins over, among others, Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan and Mihail Ganev of Bulgaria.

Sharifov won the 2011 world gold medal. At those 2011 worlds, Sharifov defeated Sanderson.

Ganev is the 2010 world champ.

With his coach, Sean Bormet, Jake is now training in Ann Arbor. "This is the real stuff," he said. "It's physical chess. Position is always going to beat strength."

There's only one downside, for a Northwestern guy, to being in Ann Arbor: "It's not just the college kids. It's 60-year-old men and 3-year-old kids. They're all wearing maize-and-blue."

There's only one antidote, he said: "I wear my Wildcat gear."

Jake added, "My job now is -- I have to put together the two best tournaments of my life. The Trials -- go out there and make the team. Then -- go out there and make the Olympics."