NEW YORK -- The long, cold stare down at the weigh-in told the tale.
Sure, the main goal of “Salsa in the Square,” held in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday night, was to raise funds and awareness for Beat the Streets, a nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk urban kids reach their human potential by participating in amateur wrestling. But to Jordan Burroughs, the competition between the United States and Cuba was also another chance to show who’s number one.
So when the 2012 Olympic champion met his opponent, Luis Esteban Quintana Martinez, at Wednesday’s weigh-in at the New York Athletic Club, a little intimidation was on the menu.
“The stare down is a prelude to where I want to go,” Burroughs, 26, said. “I’m hoping to score as many points as possible, as quickly as possible, and make as many people scream as loudly as possible.”
True to his word, Burroughs ran up a 10-1 score against the less experienced Quintana, including a double take-down. Then, with seconds to go, he pinned his opponent, drawing raucous cheers from more than 2,000 fans packed in seats and bleachers, with a few hundred more watching behind barriers.
It was Burroughs’ fifth straight victory at Beat the Streets and the 103rd win in his storied senior career, which includes two freestyle world titles (2011 and 2013) at the 74 kg. (163 lbs.) weight class.
“People call this an exhibition, but obviously everyone wants to win,” Burroughs said. “When you get on the opposite side of someone who’s been training and who has dedicated his life to the sport, it’s going to be very intense.”
“Every time I get an opportunity to wrestle here, I love it,” the New Jersey native added. “It’s close to home, my family is here and it’s for a great cause: raising money to take kids off the streets, and onto wrestling mats.”
Talk like that is music to the ears of Beat the Streets founder and chairman of the board Mike Novogratz, who estimates “Salsa in the Square” and its post-event gala will raise more than $1.5 million to fund after-school programs and camps for student athletes in middle and high schools in all five boroughs of New York City.
“A lot of wrestlers beg to compete in this,” Novogratz said. “It’s fun, it’s in the middle of Times Square, it’s on TV, it’s cool. Plus, you’re wrestling the Cubans right before the world team trials, so it sharpens your skills.
“Of course, I appreciate it, because it helps us raise money, and the New York City fans love seeing wrestlers like Jordan, (David) Taylor and (Brent) Metcalf.”
Two-time NCAA champion Taylor, a freestyler who wrestles at 74 kg. (163 lbs.), notched a big win over Cuba’s Livan Lopez Azcuy, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, in one of the evening’s most exciting contests. Metcalf, another two-time NCAA champion, won a hard-fought battle against Franklin Maren Castillo in a 65 kg. (143 lbs.) freestyle match.
Greco-Roman wrestling was represented by two-time Olympian Spenser Mango, who was edged by Maykel Anache Lamouth at 59 kg. (130 lbs.), and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy Bisek, who defeated Yurisandi Hernandez in a 75 kg. (165 lbs.) match. All told, Team USA wrestlers won nine of the 13 bouts against the Cubans.
Women were a big part of “Salsa in the Streets,” with four freestyle matches including wins from 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Randi Miller and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Clarissa Chun.
“I’ve never wrestled a Cuban before, but any time I’ve watched them they are great athletes,” said the 33-year-old Chun, who will try to qualify for her third Olympic team next year. “The opportunity to wrestle in the middle of Times Square is awesome.”
All of the Team USA participants in “Salsa in the Square” are expected to compete for a spot at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships, to be held in Las Vegas in September. The U.S. World Team Trials will be held in early June in Madison, Wisconsin, for the freestyle wrestlers, and in Ithaca, New York, for Greco-Roman competitors.
“This event was great preparation for the athletes as they prepare for arguably the most important event of their lives, our world team trials,” said Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling. “They are also motivated to participate because they know it’s the ultimate way to give back to our sport. It’s never hard to convince the athletes to compete here.”
Bender thinks squaring off against Cuba was especially timely.
“Cuba was fifth in the world last year; they are one of the premier wrestling programs on the planet,” he said. “Their women’s program is one of the top up-and-coming programs in the world. I believe most of the Cubans who wrestled here, have already been selected for the world championships.”
A selection of top Beat the Streets’ student wrestlers competed in preliminary matches held before the USA-Cuba bouts, and many more escorted Team USA and Cuban wrestlers to the ring.
MarcAntoni Macias, head boys’ coach at Beat the Streets, thinks meeting Olympic and world team athletes has a profound effect on the young wrestlers, who range in age from 10 to 18.
“It means everything to see these Olympic athletes, to understand what they can achieve,” Macias said. “To represent your country to the highest and best standards, that’s what it’s all about. That’s our message to them: Wrestling is fun, wrestling is tough and wrestling can make you a better person in life.”