NEW YORK -- A capacity crowd of 5,000 raucous fans poured into the Hulu Theater at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Monday night, primed to cheer on Team USA wrestlers competing in Beat the Streets’ “Grapple at the Garden,” the organization’s 10th annual benefit to support grassroots inner-city wrestling programs.
Many were on hand to watch Jordan Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic champion and four-time world champion, take on Ben Askren, a 2008 Olympian-turned-mixed martial artist who now competes as a welterweight fighter in UFC.
Askren, who last wrestled a freestyle match in 2010, was at a distinct disadvantage to Burroughs, the reigning world bronze medalist currently in training for next month’s Final X world team trials in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I tell the kids I coach — taking on challenges doesn’t mean you say ‘yes’ when you think you can kick his butt; challenges mean you say ‘yes’ no matter what,” said Askren, who runs the Askren Wrestling Academy in his home state of Wisconsin. “That’s what I did. I love BTS, I love New York City, I love challenges.”
“Life isn’t all about winning,” he added.
Askren’s words proved prophetic. Burroughs dominated their 74 kg. main event encounter from the start, throwing Askren out of bounds — and into the first row of seats — and scoring two double-leg takedowns en route to an easy 11-0 win by technical fall early in the second period.
“I thought there was a chance I could get a takedown,” Askren said. “I knew I wasn’t going to beat him. But he came at me a little harder than I thought he would.”
Burroughs was thrilled with the capacity crowd as well as the social media attention his good-natured bantering with Askren created.
“It generated a ton of buzz for the sport of wrestling,” he said. “We got MMA fans to cross over to wrestling; wrestling fans are obviously already fans of MMA. This was big time. Moving forward I think people will be more aware of what wrestlers’ capabilities are.”
A longtime BTS supporter, Burroughs now stands undefeated in nine of the organization’s New York City competitions. The New Jersey native, who was a three-time All-American at Nebraska, has also worked with BTS branches in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
“There are a lot of individuals in these programs that look a lot like me,” Burroughs said. “They come from these urban areas that have an environment (where) people don’t thrive, they don’t go to school for free, they don’t get to Division 1 programs and get full scholarships and get to travel the world. I’m really the living embodiment of a lot of youth that are brown in this country, who get the opportunity to get out of the ‘hoods and the environment they are in.”
The mission of BTS is to develop the full potential of urban youth and to strengthen the culture of New York City wrestling. BTS works directly with the New York City Department of Education in a public-private partnership to bring the sport to over 3,000 New York City student-athletes.
“We want our wrestlers to develop through wrestling and use it as a catalyst for life,” said BTS chairman Raymond Barczak. “We want qualities like grit, hard work and determination to drive positive changes in work life, professional careers, school life.”
“Each year this event grows,” he added. “Last year was one of our biggest events, it was 1,200 folks who showed up, and this year it’s 5,000.”
The 13-match card featured many other U.S. world and Olympic medalists, including 2016 Olympic champion Kyle Snyder, who squared off against two-time Canadian world team member Nishan Randhawa in a 97 kg. bout.
Snyder made quick work of his opponent, defeating the Canadian 14-1 with moves including an exciting takedown suplex in the final seconds of the first period.
“To raise awareness about BTS is pretty cool,” Snyder said. “I was fortunate to grow up with everything I needed but as I travel around the country, I realize there are a lot of people who don’t have all of the support, the coaching, the gear to be able to compete.”
Like Burroughs, Snyder will compete at Final X in June in Lincoln, where he seeks to qualify for the world team. The three-time NCAA champion out of Ohio State lost his bid for a third world title to Russian Abdulrashid Sadulaev last October, the first time he was defeated on that stage.
“(Training) is going good,” Snyder said. “My body feels good. I’m healthy, no injuries. I’m looking forward to making another world team and competing at worlds in Kazakhstan (in September).”
In other action, J’den Cox dominated Patrick Brucki, a junior national medalist who competes for Princeton, earning a 10-0 shutout. Cox, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, lauded this year’s BTS format, which pitted many NCAA wrestlers against international stars.
“We’re looking to beat Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan. We need to bring everybody else along, everyone coming up behind us,” Cox said, adding that Burroughs has led a generation of successful U.S. wrestlers and inspired others, including himself and Snyder, to train harder.
“We get to be where we are, by competing with the people around us,” he said. “Seeing greatness forces you to try to get to that point.”
In battles between world bronze medalists, Team USA women convincingly defeated Canadian opponents, with 2018 world bronze medalist Mallory Velte besting Linda Morais, a 2016 world bronze medalist, in a 62 kg. bout; and 2017 world bronze medalist Becka Leathers defeating 2018 world bronze medalist Diana Weicker.
“I like to attack, that’s my style,” said Velte, who quickly defeated Morais via 10-0 technical superiority. “It’s always good to get another match.”
The Californian, who trains full-time in Canada, thinks winning a world medal has changed her outlook.
“It helps me believe in myself,” she said. “I know what I need to work on, and (I know) how to win matches. I’m definitely thinking about the Olympics. I’m hitting the peak of my career and I’m looking forward to 2020.”