LONDON — Sometimes I wonder: What would Muhammad Ali have been like on Twitter? How about Babe Ruth? Billie Jean King? It’s either horrifying or wonderful to think about what Jesse Owens might have tweeted from Berlin, in 1936, a few minutes before he was set to run in the 100 meters, or what Bob Beamon might have tweeted from Mexico City minutes after his superhuman long jump in ’68, or what Nadia Comaneci might have had to say after one of her perfect 10s.
We do know that U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs, the night before he began his quest for a gold medal in wrestling, tweeted this:
Thanks everyone for the goodlucks tomorrow. Dreaming of Gold tonight. My next tweet will be a picture of me holding the gold medal!!!
Burroughs is a new kind of athlete. He has figured out that Twitter offers him an opportunity to connect with his fans, to build his popularity, to raise the awareness and appreciation of his sport. But, that’s not the new part. Not even close. That’s basically the way EVERYBODY uses Twitter, from Chad Ochocinco to General Motors.
No, what’s new is this … he uses Twitter to raise his level as an athlete. It seems to me, that IS new. See, for most of his life, Jordan Burroughs has wanted what all these athletes want. He wanted to become the best in the world. This was his driving passion ever since he started wrestling, ever since he got his first aluminum trophy.
In 2009, he began to make his mark. That was the year that, while wrestling for Nebraska, he won his first NCAA wrestling title. That was also the year he started the Twitter account, “alliseeisgold.” When you first see that handle, it might not make sense to you. It didn’t to me — it looked like one of those license plates that you KNOW means something but you can’t figure out what. Alisee What?
But if you break it up right, it reads: “All I See Is Gold.”
See, he wanted people to know his quest. He wanted his greatest ambition out there. He wanted people to doubt him, and he wanted people to sustain him. He wanted attention, sure, he doesn’t deny that, but as much, perhaps more, he wanted motivation. When he had 2,000 followers, it was good. When he had 10,000 followers, it was better. When he had 25,000 followers, it was getting to be electrifying.
Some days he would put up a bit of inspiration:
• Don’t count the days, make the days count.
• Learn from the past. Prepare for the future. Perform in the present.
• “To be a great champion, you have to believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.” — Muhammad Ali.
Some days he would tell a family story. Some days he would post a picture. And a lot of days he would remind all of his followers that he was going to win a gold medal in London. “Welcome to my journey to the top of the world,” he would tell his followers. “I’ve seen it for long enough, now I want it. Gold,” he tweeted another time.
Twitter — and the energy of all the followers — became a part of Burroughs and his persona. Some people thought of it as his gimmick, his push for stardom, and again he doesn’t deny any of that. He wants to be the face of USA Wrestling. He wants to create a buzz about his sport.
But he said, even more, that Twitter energy pushed him in the gym. He had put himself out there. He had made promises. He could not back off. When the workouts grew painful, he had another reason to push through it. When practice grew monotonous, he had 30,000, no, 35,000, no, 40,000 followers to think about. Do you know what would happen if he somehow DID NOT win Gold?
He would have to change the name of his Twitter account, that’s what.
When he finished his workouts, his practice sessions, he would go to Twitter and there he had everybody’s encouragement to get him charged up again. You can do it, Jordan. We believe in you, Jordan. Can’t wait to see that gold medal around your neck, Jordan.
To win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling you have to endure a brutal day — four matches in six hours. Burroughs’ first match was against Puerto Rico’s Francisco Soler Tanco, and that was an easy one — a mismatch. It was the first time I had ever seen Burroughs wrestle live — I’d watched him a bit on YouTube — and it was remarkable just how fast he moved.
The second period match was against Canada’s Matt Gentry, who went undefeated and won an NCAA title at Stanford back in 2004. He proved to be a much tougher challenge. Gentry is now an assistant coach at Stanford, and he clearly is a student of wrestling, and he created a style that baffled and frustrated Burroughs a bit. But this match showed how well he can adjust. Burroughs will stay up all hours of the night and watch wrestling films to learn styles and break down opponents. They all do, but you get the sense that Burroughs does it a bit more. He outdueled Gentry to get into the final four.
This is where the tournament really got tough. Burroughs would have to beat the Russian Denis Tsargush, two-time world champion and a man who had claimed that it was a fluke when Burroughs beat him in last year’s World Championships. If Burroughs won that, he would probably have to wrestle Iranian Sadegh Goudarzi, who had won silver at the last two World Championships.
“The two toughest wrestlers in the field,” Burroughs would say.
So, what is it that gets a wrestler through that kind of challenge? Talent, of course. Hard work, naturally. But Burroughs would say, more than anything, it takes confidence to beat the best wrestlers in the world. You have to believe it more than they believe it.
“With all the support I got on Twitter,” he would say, “I feel like I had more confidence than anyone in the world.”
The match against Tsargush was testy. Both wrestlers were warned — Burroughs more than Tsargush — for slaps to the head. At some point Burroughs started bleeding. Tsargush talked a lot (“But it was in Russian so I didn’t understand it,” Burroughs would say). Wrestling breaks up its fight into three periods — the first fighter to win two periods, wins. In the first period, Burroughs unleashed a move he has made again famous in wrestling circles, the double-leg takedown, and won fairly easily. But in the second, Tsargush dominated with his powerful and deliberate style.
The third period was close, but late in the round Burroughs again pulled off his double-leg takedown — a breathtakingly fast move where he ducks under, grabs both legs, and, well, takes the wrestler down. That and a finishing move gave him the victory.
That led to the final. In the moments before the final, Burroughs went to his training room. He told his coach he was visualizing and relaxing. But what he was really doing was, yes, checking Twitter. He wasn’t looking to increase his fame — he did not tweet, himself. He was looking for inspiration. He was looking for encouragement. He was looking for a little bit extra.
His gold-medal match was indeed against the Iranian, Goudarzi, and there was a loud and passionate contingent of Iranian fans in the crowd. This is where Burroughs took his wrestling to the highest level imaginable. He came in with a risky but brilliant strategy to win the match. Goudarzi’s strength is in his quickness and in his inventive attacking style. He is, Burroughs figured, at his most dangerous when at his most desperate. He is tougher when he is down.
So what Burroughs decided to do was this: Keep the period scoreless for the first 1:45 or so of each two-minute round. And then, in the final 15 seconds, get the takedown, leaving Goudarzi almost no time at all to make his final charge. “I knew,” he said, “I could get the takedown whenever I wanted.” He figured if he could pull off this plan, Goudarzi would only have a few seconds at the end of the round to get the last takedown, and Burroughs felt sure he could hold off the Iranian for 10 or 15 seconds.
The strategy worked perfectly. Goudarzi tried to attack Burroughs early in each round, but Burroughs’ defense was impenetrable. The round stayed scoreless until there were 15 seconds left; that’s when Burroughs took Goudarzi down. He won the first round 1-0.
Second round, exactly same thing. Goudarzi again tried but never came particularly close to break through Burroughs’ defenses. And with 10 seconds left in the round, Burroughs dove underneath and again came through with a takedown. For the last 10 seconds, he rebuffed Goudarzi. Burroughs won the second round 1-0 too. And he won the gold.
Burroughs was elated, of course, and he ran around with the American flag on his back, and he jumped on top of the gold medal podium before the ceremony could even begin. He found his mother in the crowd and hugged her. It was quite the scene.
And he proved to be as much fun in real life as he is on Twitter. When asked if he was happy to be facing an Iranian in the final — a geopolitical question, I guess — Burroughs said that he would wrestle anyone. “If the Queen of England came out on that mat, I’d probably double-leg her,” he said.
When asked if he wanted to build the popularity of wrestling, he said that he found it disturbing that there’s more poker on ESPN than wrestling. When talking about how he planned to celebrate, he said — and I’m pretty sure he’s the only Olympic athlete to ever say this — that he had brought a bag of cotton candy with him, and one of the first things he planned on doing was chomping some of that. It was cotton candy, apparently, that he missed most of all during training.
Burroughs said that he will be very happy to collect a $250,000 prize from USA Wrestling for winning the gold medal, and he feels sure that he will take his mother shopping. He said he hoped to wrestle five more years, and he hoped at the end of those years that he could lay claim as the greatest-ever American wrestler. It was all joyous and wonderful.
A few minutes after the press conference ended, after he had gone through drug testing, a tweet from “alliseeisgold” popped up on the feed. It said simply:
“I did it! 2012 Gold Medalist!” And there was a photograph of Burroughs holding up his gold medal. It wasn’t anywhere close to the most exciting or clever or bold of Jordan Burroughs tweets. But it was the one tweet that mattered. It was the tweet he saw coming all along.