After the 2008 Olympic Games, USA Wrestling underwent a change in culture and leadership. The program sought to rebuild itself to best develop American talent and keep that talent in the sport after they reached their goals. In 2009 and 2010, the US senior men’s freestyle team had zero gold medalists. But in 2011, Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs won gold at 74 kg in his very first major international senior freestyle tournament.
Since then, Burroughs has collected one Olympic title, four World gold medals and two bronze in his eight appearances as the US representative at 74 kg. Beyond that, Burroughs grew into a crucial leadership role for the program, carrying the sport of wrestling not just with victories on the mat, but by dedicating himself to the craft of motivational prose and spoken word. For nearly a decade, Jordan Burroughs has been the face of that culture change set into motion after 2008.
Despite his tagline, “all I see is gold,” the trials and adversity faced by Jordan Burroughs are what make him a living legend. In 2013, he won a World championship with a broken ankle. In 2014, he suffered a severe injury in the first round but wrestled on to win bronze, only losing to the eventual champion Denis Tsargush. In 2016, Burroughs was upset by Russia’s Aniuar Geduev, then dropped his next match to Bekzod Abdurakhmonov. For the first time, Burroughs left without a medal.
USA Wrestling’s rock considered retirement. In that Olympic repechage match, it was clear Burroughs had little to no motivation to win. Burroughs had inspired a new generation of stars, and the team was now staffed by the fruits of his labor. He could leave his shoes on the mat with the satisfaction that he changed the sport of wrestling in the United States.
But in 2017, Burroughs returned. Waiting in the wings at 74 was four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake. Many assumed Jordan Burroughs’ best days were behind him, Dake was the uncrowned rep at 74. When they met in the finals of the World Team Trials, Dake took match one on criteria. But Burroughs did not back down after a loss like he did in Rio. The former Husker roared back to life, handing Dake consecutive 8-4 and 6-2 defeats. The king had returned. He went on to win World gold.
That year, the United States won the overall World Wrestling team championship over Russia, their first since 1995.
After years of dominating performances, last second comebacks, crushing defeats and inspirational resurgences, US fans now know better than to doubt the heart of Jordan Burroughs. At Final X: Lincoln, a 30-year-old Burroughs suffered his first domestic loss since Dake in 2017.
The Rise of IMAR
To make the 2019 World team, Burroughs was challenged by two-time NCAA champion and four-time finalist Isaiah Martinez in a best of three series, a repeat of last year’s final. In 2018, Illinois’ Martinez ran through the US Open and World Team Trials to get a crack at the king, only to be defeated 4-1 and 11-1 in two matches.
Martinez worked tirelessly on building his game and further adapting to freestyle, training with Burroughs himself at the Olympic Training Center on many occasions. At the 2019 US Open, “IMAR” met a stiff challenge in NC State’s Tommy Gantt, earning his place in the World Team Trials finals with a 6-4 victory. There he faced an old rival, an all-time folkstyle great and three-time NCAA champion, Penn State’s Jason Nolf. Nolf famously pinned Martinez in a 2016 dual meet before dropping two razor thin matches in the Big Ten Championships and NCAA finals respectively.
The conference rivals battled in a three-match series, with Martinez shutting the door on Nolf with a 12-2 technical fall in their final bout. While his list of scalps on the road to Final X was certainly more impressive than last year’s, Martinez would be dealing with an entirely different class of athlete in Jordan Burroughs.
Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska WTC) vs. Isaiah Martinez (Illinois RTC)
Not every wrestler has a “signature move,” but for years, Jordan Burroughs has been defined by his double leg. Explosivity, timing and versatility made the Burroughs blast double an immediate threat on the international stage.
Despite a dramatic evolution in his style, Burroughs is still often labeled as a wrestler with “just a double leg.” With the exception of throws from upper body positions, Burroughs can really do it all. We’ve seen him use his stance and motion to set up gorgeous head outside singles, he can transition into a leg lace, Burroughs even outscrambles the craftiest wrestlers in the world like superstar Frank Chamizo. Even if you are committed to scoring on Burroughs, his physicality and ferocious handfighting mean you are in for an absolute dogfight.
But Isaiah Martinez is certainly comfortable in a brawl. Even as a freshman in college, Martinez was shockingly powerful in collar ties and underhooks, clubbing seniors to the mat and throwing grown men over his head with singles. On top of that, Martinez is known for his unbelievable motor and fierce will to dominate. While he is sharp technically with short offense, shots off the underhook and high crotch shots, the physicality of Martinez is what separates him from the pack.
The death of his father and the departure of his closest coach Mark Perry may well have taken a toll on Martinez, who dropped two matches in his final two years in college, both in the NCAA finals. Perhaps all Martinez needed was time. Even with his mental state optimized, it was still a difficult adjustment for Martinez to reign in his bruising style to account for freestyle scoring situations.
It appears the terrifying powerhouse has found his stride.
Predictably, Martinez came out hard in the collar ties, pulling on the head of Burroughs and setting the tone of the match early. Anticipating the young challenger’s ferocity, Burroughs used momentary breaks from the ties to intercept Martinez’s momentum and drop to a leg, driving him out of bounds for one point.
Theoretically, Burroughs should have had a major edge from space, while it would benefit Martinez to work from the collar or an underhook.
However, Martinez shocked many, including Burroughs, by shooting an explosive double leg from the outside straight through the hands, propelling Burroughs past the edge. To win, Burroughs was going to have spend time in tight with Martinez, it would not be as simple as 2018.
Programming and Punishing
Last week, we talked about Bo Nickal’s preference from the over tie, shooting a high crotch to the trail leg. This approach prioritizes quick finishing, or at the very least allows Nickal to scramble with control of the ankle. When he’s denied easy access to the underhook, Martinez favors the collar tie as well, but often takes a straight on shot across to the lead leg, where he can use his strength to finish in extended situations.
Against Burroughs, Martinez began targeting the lead leg early, pulling on the head from the collar and shooting once his attacking hand was free. Each time, Burroughs sprawls back to his knees. Burroughs spends a lot of time in low stances and from the knees, he’s often poised to counter attack as his opponent rises back into their stance following the failed shot.
But Martinez wasn’t fully committed to his shots, instead reaching hard to draw the reaction, reading Burroughs. Another benefit is that if you can keep Burroughs reacting to you, he’ll have much less time and space to get to his motion, drawing your reactions, his best tactic. Martinez had probably felt him enough in practice to know that the best defense is a good offense.
After several attempts, Martinez understood that when he reached inside, Burroughs would sprawl straight back. Logically, when they approached the edge of the mat, Martinez pulled on the head, but this time, he reached outside the leg with his lead hand, following Burroughs backward and driving him out of bounds for another pushout.
If there is one knock on the style of Jordan Burroughs, it’s that he can be a slow starter, it takes time and pressure for him to properly build momentum in a match. Behind on points and realizing Martinez was setting traps, Burroughs rushed, clearing the ties outright and attacking a leg. Martinez punished the shallow attempt, reattacking and driving Burroughs out once again to take a 3-1 lead.
Motion and Double Leg Tactics
Against wrestlers who so strongly favor underhooks and a low stance, shooting straight doubles from the outside is inadvisable. Luckily, that has never been Burroughs’ style.
There is no better Jordan Burroughs than one who is constantly threatening level changes, forcing his opponent up and down out of their stance. If they stay down, Burroughs is brilliant with short offense, attacking the head and chasing angles to find a leg or hit a go behind. When his opponents are forced on the defensive in this way, Burroughs can almost always build momentum and improvise a scoring situation.
The first time Burroughs got to his motion from the outside, Martinez matched his levels, staying low with his head up and back straight, literally using his head to block any entries.
With that information in mind, Burroughs then faked his level changes again, this time attacking a single, forcing Martinez to favor one hip and taking away the straight angle. He then circled and reattacked, putting Martinez in danger, but was not able to come away with a score.
Now Martinez was expecting the single and short offense. Burroughs level changed, Martinez sprawled, staying slightly higher off his knees in anticipation of short offense. That small window was all Burroughs needed, he changed levels and shot straight down to the feet, collecting his first takedown of the match.
A beautiful reattack by Burroughs brought the two wrestlers to the edge of the mat, where Martinez used a whizzer to force Burroughs out of bounds first.
Martinez led 4-3, with just 21 seconds left on the clock.
Without a single moment of hesitation, Burroughs pressed forward aggressively, dropping levels and attacking the head. A pushout would be enough, as Burroughs’ lone takedown could earn him the win on criteria.
Burroughs never took his hands off Martinez, following him down and back to his stance, blocking him from circling away from the edge. When Martinez finally made a break for it, Burroughs was poised for one last attack, throwing him by and circling behind for the winning takedown with six seconds left on the clock.
The dramatic comeback prompted FloWrestling commentator Christian Pyles to declare, “Biggest balls in the world, Jordan Burroughs.”
In a best two out of three series, especially in a tight matchup, adjustments between matches are crucial.
Whether intentional or not, tactical groundwork has been laid. Do you continue to program your opponent, do you play on the traps you set in match one, do you come out with a new look altogether?
Burroughs had seen the change-up on the single legs of Martinez, he now knew how to get the better of their level changing exchanges, and the underhook had been a non-factor. Martinez, on the other hand, knew he could move Burroughs, he knew he could counter shallow entries, and he knew that he couldn’t run from Burroughs late if he had a lead.
New Looks and Old Traps
Once again, Martinez came out hot with his handfight, and Burroughs once again looked to shuck off the hands and intercept pressure with shots, this time the double.
This was a crucial switch for Burroughs. Without the legitimate threat of the double, his motion would be much less convincing for Martinez and it would be difficult to catch him out of position. It’s likely that is why Burroughs began taking shots from space, picking his spots to take a leg when Martinez walked in on him.
For Martinez, some of his adjustments came in the moment. In the previous match, off the feinted double leg, Martinez was dropping straight down to his knees, giving Burroughs the distance to shoot under his hands. After being threatened for a similar reaction, Martinez added distance on his sprawl, keeping Burroughs at a safe length and limiting his shot potential.
Burroughs worked much more diligently to use Martinez’s aggression against him. At Beat the Streets in May, we saw Yianni Diakomihalis use the heavy snapdowns of Bajrang Punia to his advantage. When Bajrang pulled down and stepped back, Diakomihalis allowed himself to be snapped onto a leg, beginning scrambles that ultimately ended in his favor.
While Burroughs isn’t the gangly scrambler that Diakomihalis is, it was ultimately beneficial to get to offensive positions off the snaps of Martinez.
Martinez worked to further exploit reactions from their first match. Off the collar Martinez had reached across for the high crotch, and he had blocked outside to run out of bounds. This time, Martinez got to the collar tie, then switched sides, lining him up with the lead leg, as he often prefers. Martinez faked his rear hand to the lead leg, suddenly changing direction and swinging through to the trail leg.
Burroughs was completely caught off guard, and Martinez finished quickly, landing in a leg lace position. Burroughs attacked the ankles of Martinez to break his base and get to a scramble situation, but the lace was tight and Martinez rolled him through, even while falling. In total, it was a four-point maneuver by Martinez.
The epic comebacks of Jordan Burroughs come from space. As the winning wrestler typically has a passivity call or two to give up, they retreat, giving Burroughs the situation he wants to mount offense.
Up by three points, Martinez instead slowed the match to a grinding halt by interlocking his fingers with Burroughs. While referees are supposed to break up these situations, Martinez was able to stall out large stretches of the match by completely freezing Burroughs in that fashion.
When Burroughs could disengage, he got to work on his level changes. However, because Martinez had points to give, it was a different game. Martinez knew that he could scramble and even reattack off single legs, but the double leg had the highest potential for becoming a four-point move. Following that logic, Martinez stayed strong in his stance, refusing to give hard reactions to initial shot fakes.
Luckily for Burroughs, he is an all-time great athlete who can shoot through your hands even if you refuse to allow a clean entry. Burroughs took a committed double, continuing to drive through off Martinez’s sprawl, cutting to the knee and turning the corner off a left side underhook. 5-4.
A takedown from Burroughs would give him the lead outright, but any one-point move would still leave criteria in Martinez’s favor, as he scored two takedowns to Burroughs’ one.
Feeling Burroughs coming on strong, Martinez went back to attacking the fingers, earning another passivity call and giving up one point. Leading 5-5 on criteria, Martinez kept Burroughs tight until the clock expired.
They would go to a third match.
Given all the drama and complex dynamics of the first two matches, match three was relatively anticlimactic.
Two wars with Jordan Burroughs may be too much for a mortal man. As it stands, in freestyle wrestling, no one has ever defeated Burroughs twice. In MMA, that may not be significant, but in wrestling you compete in dozens of matches per year, typically against the same people. Burroughs has wrestled World champions like Frank Chamizo three times, Denis Tsargush twice at the World level, as well as NCAA legends like Kyle Dake, David Taylor and Isaiah Martinez on numerous occasions.
Despite the doubts about the conditioning of Burroughs, it was Martinez who appeared deflated in match three. While many of the same situations played out, the athletic edge of Burroughs allowed him to outmaneuver Martinez nearly every time.
As Martinez pushed in, Burroughs was able to make quick cuts off the collar tie and attack legs. In single leg situations, Martinez wasn’t nearly as strong or mobile, Burroughs could shelf the leg and knee slide toward the edge to work a finish or a pushout.
Controlling the center of the mat was significantly easier, as Burroughs gave Martinez serious pause with his double fakes and stutter steps.
Martinez attacked the trail leg again off the collar tie, but this time Burroughs caught the attacking arm and easily angled off, fishing for a re-attack.
With the physicality of Martinez waning, Burroughs found it easier to clutch the wrist and even work his own underhooks and circle to position Martinez’s back to the edge. Being able to move the younger wrestler around made it simple and much less fatiguing to get to scoring positions. So diminished was Martinez’s advantage in the ties that he was the wrestler shooting from the outside more often than not.
In low stance scrambling positions and from the knees, Martinez simply could not hustle like Burroughs, who at times literally ran circles around him.
Match three was never in doubt. Jordan Burroughs defeated Isaiah Martinez 7-1 to make the 2019 World team.
2019 World Wrestling Championships and Beyond
Wrestling three hard matches in just over an hour is a fantastic simulation for the World Championships. While the tournament is spread out over several days, specific weight classes wrestle their entire bracket in one day. It is essential that World team members are prepared to compete at full strength in multiple matches in a row against the very best at the weight. When it comes to navigating World-level brackets, no one on the US team has more experience than Jordan Burroughs.
Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan may hold redemption for Burroughs. In the 2018 World championships, Burroughs let victory and a spot in the finals slip through his fingers in the closing moments of his match with Russia’s Zaurbek Sidakov, now the World #1 at 74 kg.
He may also see 2017 World champion Frank Chamizo for the fourth and fifth time in the coming months. Burroughs won their first meeting, an exhibition at Beat the Streets, while Chamizo won in controversial fashion at the 2018 Yasar Dogu tournament. But Burroughs came through when it mattered, defeating Chamizo for bronze at the 2018 World Championships.
With the #2 seed on the line, both Burroughs and Chamizo are likely to attend the 2019 Yasar Dogu tournament in July. However, it will take a massive fall from grace from Chamizo to lose his seed, as he is far ahead on qualifying points.
The 2020 Olympic year will be fascinating both domestically and internationally. In the US, 2018 World champion Kyle Dake will be dropping back down from 79 kg to challenge Burroughs once again, along with Martinez and Jason Nolf. International stars and contenders will be filling in the weight from non-Olympic weights 79 and 70 kg as well.
You can watch full Final X matches on FloWrestling.org and on USA Wrestling’s YouTube channel. International matches can often be found on United World Wrestling’s Youtube channel, as well as Trackwrestling.com.