Jordan Burroughs, pride of South Jersey, now training out of West Philadelphia, already one of the great wrestlers this country has produced, flexed his muscles and wrapped himself in an American flag, bouncing around the mat he had just dominated Monday evening inside a sports hall in Oslo, Norway.
Burroughs had just won his fifth World Wrestling Championship title to go with his 2012 Olympic gold medal, tying John Smith’s American record for most combined titles on those biggest of stages, a mark that has stood since 1992.
“This is probably the most special 10-day stretch in my career,’’ Burroughs said later Monday in a telephone interview, noting how that stretch started with him being present for the early arrival of his fourth child.
This title is a whole tale of its own. Burroughs is 33 years old, when you’d expect he’d be winding down. After growing up in Sicklerville, he had spent his adult life training in Nebraska, after starring in college for the Cornhuskers, but had moved home in July, now training out of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center, which uses the gyms at Penn and Drexel.
“Our time in Philly has been very short,” Burroughs said. “But we started with a splash.”
» READ MORE: Burroughs returning home to train
In defeating Mohammad Nokhodilarimi of Iran, 5-1, Burroughs was able to stick to his own game plan, never offering his opponent a good straight-on attacking angle, gaining the respect of the younger man with his own fakes and quickness. That respect offered Burroughs confidence as the match played out.
It played out about the way he’d imagined it, Burroughs said. He hadn’t given up any takedowns in the entire tournament, so with his movement and “my hard hands,” keeping his body level low, he thought he could protect a lead.
The tale of this win will include how Burroughs had torn a calf muscle three weeks earlier in the American final and had limped away from that event on crutches. He was told he would need eight weeks to recover. Didn’t have that kind of time. Other than a brief injury timeout during his semifinal match, his world opponents probably never noticed. After that timeout, Burroughs attacked and scored a point.
His fourth child with his wife, Lauren, Banner Jordan Burroughs, had just been born nine days earlier, an arrival that was 10 days earlier than forecast. That meant Burroughs was present for the birth, then on a plane for Norway two days later.
“God’s timing is perfect,” Burroughs noted in announcing the birth.
For this tournament, Burroughs had moved up in weight class, to 79 kilograms (174 pounds) after missing the 2021 Olympic team at his usual 74 kg (163 pounds). The road to even making it to the world championships included beating two three-time NCAA champions.
Not bad for a guy who began wrestling at age 5, not mimicking Olympic heroes but loving the pro wrestlers he saw on TV, the likes of the Ultimate Warrior and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Burroughs had quickly become a star at the more traditional form of wrestling, winning district, regional crowns and a 2006 state title out of Winslow Township High, then tacking on a senior national title. He didn’t dominate college wrestling right away, losing 13 times as a freshman, but eventually became a two-time NCAA champion and national wrestler of the year.
“He’s just acted like such a professional,” said his PRTC coach, Brandon Slay, a Penn grad and himself a former Olympian. “That’s the word that keeps coming to mind. He’s a pro.”
That means, Slay explained in a phone interview from Oslo, that when you’re looking to find out his weight early in the morning, Burroughs has already texted it. “We get on the 5 o’clock bus, he’s already on the bus,” Slay said.
Of all these obstacles, they talk about that being the part that makes you a champion.
“That’s just understanding the resistance makes you stronger,” said Slay, who had first worked with Burroughs at the U.S. Olympic training center more than a decade ago. “It makes you a better man, a better husband, a better father, a better wrestler.”
Burroughs has overcome physical hardship before, most famously breaking an ankle four weeks before he won his second world title in 2013. But this calf injury was serious.
“It was so serious, to the point, on that Sunday night [when Burroughs won the American title] he couldn’t walk,” Slay said. “Most of the time, he would have stayed around, signed autographs. He didn’t want people to see how bad it was.”
One piece of good fortune was that the American championships were in Lincoln, Neb., which meant Burroughs had full access to the medical professionals he’d worked with for well over a decade. He stayed out there an extra week getting therapy before returning to Philadelphia.
“Burroughs attacks really well from the outside,” Penn wrestling coach Roger Reina, a co-founder of PRTC, said over the phone as he watched the match. “He likes to have space.”
As Burroughs took a 3-0 lead with 2½ minutes left, Reina called the point-scoring move “a classic Jordan Burroughs double leg from space.”
When it was over, an official first put the gold medal around his neck, then added a belt properly brimming with gold around his waist, the kind of belt the pro wrestlers Burroughs used to idolize would wear, except this one was not written out in advance on any script.
Especially with the calf injury as part of this journey, asked if he wondered if he could really get through it to another title, Burroughs noted there’s always going to be what he called “minimal grumbling in your mind when you’re resting, in the silence.”
This script as written by Burroughs pushed all that aside.
“I think it’s special for Philly,” said Slay, noting it was PRTC’s first world title. “For all the little kids in South Jersey and in Philly, to know there’s this guy working in University City, I think that’s huge for our sport around here.”