Wrestling found an Olympic TV home; fans enjoyed Smith-Burroughs connection

Updated: August 25, 2021

Photo:In its coverage of wrestling on the Olympic Channel, NBC created a studio setting where host Carolyn Manno and analysts — Olympic champions John Smith (center) and Jordan Burroughs — discussed the sport with the likes of USA Wrestling president and Olympic champ Bruce Baumgartner.

Note: Go to nbccolympics.com to view all of the matches that took place in Tokyo, Japan. 

By Mike Finn

NBC calls it the “Olympic Channel” — one of many broadcast/on-line locations owned by the television network — where 2020 Olympic fans could watch and keep up what was happening for two weeks in Tokyo. But for at least seven days, it could have been called the “Wrestling Channel.” For between Aug. 1-7, that is where American fans could find live coverage of all the 15 American wrestlers competing in all three styles in Japan.

It is unknown how many fans subscribed to the channel or stayed up in the middle of the night to keep up with something that was happening 13 hours in the future from the East Coast of the United States.

Klingman: Smith & Burroughs provided perfect TV fit for NBC

But for those who did … or those who helped produce the live telecast from the Telemundo Studios in Miami, Fla., … it was a successful venture in covering the United States’ best Olympic performance in wrestling in a non-boycotted Games.

And the network, which began airing the summer Olympics in 1988 and holds the Olympic rights until 2032, took a different approach to its coverage, compared to the past when NBC normally created tape-delayed packages that could be seen at different times and locations within the NBC properties.

By placing wrestling on the Olympic Channel, it gave USA fans one place to watch live all the American wrestlers’ 43 matches and other notable bouts between top international wrestlers. NBC aired live action for over 40 hours over the first week in August with two different segments daily … from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. (EDT) when the first two rounds of a weight class were held and from 5 to 9 a.m. when the semifinals from the morning round and medal matches took place. The next day’s evening session — which was the morning time for the U.S. — would be the bronze- and gold-medal finals of those weights, with semifinals again happening before the medal bouts, setting up finals for the next night.

“Of the 341 wrestling matches that took place in the Games, we showed all or decent portions of 204 matches — 60 percent — on the Olympic Channel,” said NBC’s wrestling producer C.J. Bottitta. He added that some of the top American matches were also shown on other landing spots like the USA Network, CNBC and the NBC Sports Network.

Calling the action of all those matches was Jason Knapp, who was covering the sport for the network for a third straight Olympics. A native of New Jersey and current resident of Pennsylvania, Knapp has been in the business for over 30 years and has broadcasted many different sports … and he succeeds as a storyteller within his craft.

“I love what I do and have the passion for big moments of the Olympics,” said Knapp, who spent the first week of the Olympics covering men’s and women’s tennis. “These are the biggest moments of these athletes’ lives and they are big moments for (the broadcast crew). I’m excited I get to tell these athletes’ stories at what may be the most critical times of their lives.

“Overall, the volume of matches that we were able to produce was even kind of stunning to me. But it was a blast. It’s what you live for — to be able to see those moments.”

Knapp spent time between sessions — between 1 and 5 a.m. EDT — continuing to research information on the world’s best wrestlers before they took to the mats in Tokyo. Despite being up all night, he focused on being his best when it mattered most to viewers.

“We knew that sections of the (Olympic wrestling) was going to be shown on other NBC networks. My job was to inform viewers of not only what was going on with the matches but everything else that I can and tell those stories. That’s what makes people, who aren’t normally wrestling fans, tune into our coverage. They may not know wrestling but can relate to something that wrestlers overcome in their lives.”

And sitting next to Knapp for all of those matches for a second straight Olympics was John Smith, who is considered by many the most successful U.S. freestyler. He won two Olympic gold medals (1988 and ’92) and has went on to coach for over 30 years at Oklahoma State, the current position he holds. In addition to breaking down matches as a coach, he also spoke about changes that need to happen to improve international wrestling.

“There were a few things I wanted to get in, especially about the lack of weight classes,” said Smith, who wrestled in the 1988 and 1992 Games when men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman each had 10 weight classes. “Countries like the USA really can’t build enthusiasm with just six weight classes and where people walk away not excited about wrestling. ”

The network also created a studio segment — primarily during the medal-round sessions — that featured host Carolyn Manno and Jordan Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic champ and four-time World champ.

Manno, whose professional resume includes hosting NBCSN’s NASCAR America and has been part of the network’s Football Night in America on Sundays and Triple Crown coverage, remembers when she first saw Burroughs win an Olympic title in 2012 and she was an on-sight reporter in London to cover Burroughs’ gold-medal bout.

“To think that all these years later, we would be sitting side by side as part of NBC’s first dedicated wrestling studio show team is such a thrill for me personally,” Manno said.

“I was truly honored to play a small role on a team that delivered NBC’s most comprehensive Olympic wrestling coverage to date. Not only did I have the chance to further my on-going education in the sport, but I was able to learn so much from Jordan about the specific sacrifices wrestlers make — on a daily basis — to pursue their dreams.

“There are many things that set wrestlers apart. Their dedication to their craft is unrivaled. I only hope the audience felt how much we cared about what we were covering each night. It was a wonderful opportunity for me personally, and a watershed moment for the sport overall.”

Burroughs, who has moved his family from Lincoln, Neb., where he excelled in college, to Philadelphia, is still competing and will be at the 2021 World Team Trials this September, welcomed the opportunity to showcase his talents in a different way than most fans know him.

“I think I have a good mindset because I have experience,” Burroughs said. “I’ve won at the highest level. I’ve lost at the highest level. So literally I have been in every single match-up and every circumstance that happens at the Olympics.”

Burroughs, who created the social media phrase “AllISeeIsGold” when he first became an international star with his first World title in 2011, credits those experiences to helping him sit in front of a TV camera and express thoughtful and insightful comments.

“If you look back to those early days when I’d be on Flowrestling, I wasn’t very savvy,” he said. “But after winning my first World championship, I got thrown into a bunch of positions to give speeches or endorsements and opportunities to be in front of the camera.

“This is something that I was always interested in but reminded myself that I needed to get better. NBC and Carolyn did a great job. She made it easy for me to use my expertise without having to deal with TV stuff that I was not familiar (with).”

NBC had only expected to use Burroughs as a studio analyst until Bottitta decided to insert Burroughs into an earlier-round broadcast with Knapp and Smith.

“That exceeded my expectations because I knew Jordan was new to this,” Bottitta said. “I hoped to use him as more than a studio analyst. So having him join Jason and John for the play-by-play was not something requested of me. It’s something I wanted to try and I think that went very well.”

The combination of America’s most decorated wrestling duo played out well for those watching at home … and for both Smith and Burroughs, who also exchanged humorous comments.

“I think people enjoyed the transparency and how authentic it was,” said Burroughs, who spoke earlier in his career of breaking the records set by Smith, who also won four World titles.

“As I started to get older, it became less of a rivalry,” Burroughs said. “I started to respect him a lot more as a competitor, as a coach and a man, and as a leader. In my household, he’s the greatest American wrestler of all time.”

Burroughs, 33, said he welcomes trying to become more of a face and voice for wrestling as time goes on.

“My goal has been to transcend the sport,” Burroughs said. “After the Olympics, I got a bunch of phone calls to do a lot more stuff. Frankly, I felt like damaged goods by not making this team. Instead, I got thrust into these opportunities that I will be able to do for the next 30 years.” n