LONDON -- Late Thursday night, before Jordan Burroughs turned off his light and tried to fall asleep before the biggest day of his 24-year-old life, he said good night to his fans in the most Burroughs way possible.
Using his handle @alliseeisgold, Burroughs told his 35,000 Twitter followers he was off to bed, where he would soon be dreaming about the gold medal he was about to win. He added that his next tweet would include a picture of him holding his shiny new piece of hardware. For most any other athlete, it would have been the kiss of death. Too much pressure. Too many expectations. Too big of a chance to fail.
Burroughs, though, refused to have it any other way. For the past two years, the two-time NCAA champion from Nebraska dripped with confidence. He hadn't lost a match in four years and told anyone and everyone he met that it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. The 74-kilogram wrestling tournament at the Olympic Games was going to end only one way: with a gold medal around his neck. "All I See Is Gold" became his mantra. There was the Twitter handle. A website. And T-shirts.
And the claims that he wanted to be the best ever. The man who could change the sport of wrestling. For most athletes, the pressure would have been a nightmare. But not for the baddest wrestler in the world. On Friday night at the ExCel Center, Burroughs backed up his guarantee in a way that Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth could understand, beating a two-time world champion and four-time world runner-up en route to the first Olympic gold medal of his career.
"A lot of people call me cocky. A lot thought I didn't have what it takes. But no one's laughing anymore," he said.
When the gold was finally his, Burroughs celebrated the exact way he had always planned. First, he grabbed an American flag and jogged around the mat, holding the flag behind him like a cape. Then he scaled a pair of walls and climbed halfway up the stands in search of his mother. Once he saw her, he gave her a hug and told her thank you. And that he loved her.
With Burroughs' victory comes a $250,000 reward from USA Wrestling as part of its "Living the Dream" medal fund. When asked if he thought he would buy a new Audi he had long been dreaming of, Burroughs shook his head.
"I think my mom wants me to take her shopping first," he said.
On one hand, it was the end of an emotional six-year journey for the New Jersey native, who admitted this week that he had cried several times during his college career because he had missed his family and sacrificed birthdays and holidays to train. At the same time, it was a beginning. While most of the top college wrestlers tend to leave the sport to pursue a lucrative career in MMA, Burroughs is insistent that his first goal is to chase down John Smith's record of six straight world championship and Olympic gold medals. Then he might think about MMA.
"When people think about wrestling, I want them to think Jordan Burroughs," he said.
USA freestyle coach Zeke Jones thinks that's not only possible, but probable.
"He hasn't even scratched the surface of his potential," Jones said. "He can get a lot, lot better."
On Friday, he was good enough. After narrowly beating former world champion Denis Tsargush of Russia in the semifinals, Burroughs appeared to be in control of his world championship rematch with Iran's Sadegh Goudarzi. In both the first and second period Burroughs attacked with about 15 seconds left, scored a quick point and then held on for the 1-0, 1-0 victory.
Earlier this week, one USA Wrestling official cautioned Burroughs that he was doing an awful lot of talking and tweeting. He was warned to be careful. It was his first Olympics. He didn't quite know what he was getting into. Burroughs responded not to worry. "I know what I'm doing," he said.
But Burroughs admitted that the nerves did get to him during the morning session, in which he narrowly escaped a competitive match against Canada's Matt Gentry, a former NCAA champion from Stanford. After the session, Burroughs' coach at Nebraska, Mark Manning, insisted that his wrestler had "a lot more in the tank" than what he had shown. He joked that he had an idea of what he could do to help erase the nerves for the finals.
"I grew up on a farm so I have a red-hot cattle prod," Manning said. "I'm going to stick it up an orifice and we'll get him going."
In the finals, it wasn't a problem. And Burroughs proved that he was worthy of all the self-inflicted hype. Afterward, there were those who wanted to make comparisons to Usain Bolt, who boldly proclaimed he would defend his Olympic titles in the 100- and 200-meter dash. But Bolt's competition was against a clock. He knew the time he could run. He just had to do it when the lights were on. No one was standing in his way.
With Burroughs, it was the exact opposite. On four different occasions Friday he walked to the center mat, where men from Puerto Rico, Canada, Russia and Iran were waiting to pull, twist, turn, tug and shove him back to Nebraska empty-handed. If they injured him, fine. If they injured themselves, that was fine, too. As long as it was their hand the referee raised at the end of the competition.
But all four of those men failed, largely, Manning believes, because of the "intestinal fortitude" Burroughs possesses.
"I love that he's confident in himself," Manning said. "When it comes to his goals, he's comfortable sharing and being public with it. And not many people have the inner self-confidence to do that."
After climbing in the stands, receiving his medal and answering questions at a news conference, Burroughs said he planned on celebrating with a special treat he had packed for himself before he left the States to come to London: a bag of cotton candy.
"It's back in my room," he said. "Before I hop in the shower, I'm celebrating with a bag of fluffy stuff."
But first, of course, there was some business to take care of. In a hallway outside the interview room, Burroughs held his gold medal up next to his face and smiled. Someone snapped a photo. And within seconds, Burroughs posted it on Twitter.
"I did it," he wrote, "2012 Olympic gold medalist."