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Klingman: Smith & Burroughs provided perfect TV fit for NBC

Note: The following column appeared in the August 26 issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. Click here to subscribe.

By Kyle Klingman

Virtually no one attended the Olympics this year because of the pandemic, so the only option was watching it from home.   A few people mentioned they watched a couple of foreign commentators stumble their way through the wrestling broadcast. Apparently, they didn’t know the difference between a leg lace and a shoelace.

NBC’s Olympic broadcast team included John Smith (left), producer C.J. Bottitta, Jordan Burroughs and play-by-play announcer Jason Knapp.

It was assumed that wrestling will not be on mainstream television, so one had to search for it on-line. You take what you can get when you want to watch something bad enough.

Fortunately for me, I found nbcolympics.com, where the commentators had 11 World and Olympic titles between them.

I got to listen to John Smith and Jordan Burroughs call the action.

No matter where your allegiance lies, it’s pretty well accepted that Smith and Burroughs are the two best international wrestlers the United States has produced. You can argue over the order, but each created his own space in wrestling that has yet to be duplicated.

Smith won six World/Olympic titles in a row from 1987-92 and retired right before his 27th birthday. No other American has won more than three in a row.

Burroughs has five World/Olympic gold medals and three World bronzes but, at the age of 33, he refuses to retire. He plans to wrestle through the 2024 Olympics — maybe longer if he feels like it.

The 2020 Olympic Games were not Burroughs’s time to shine on the mat. It was his time to shine off of it … in the broadcast booth. Kyle Dake earned the 74-kilogram spot at the Olympics so wrestling fans got to enjoy Burroughs in a new role.

He turned his blast double into a double dose of greatness with Smith.

Neither was in Tokyo for the Olympics, either. They called the action from a studio in Miami — but fans couldn’t tell the difference. No other sport has had a cross-generational pairing like this — ever.

Imagine these commentary combos:

• Boxing: Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard

• Basketball: Michael Jordan and Lebron James

• Football: Jerry Rice and Tom Brady

• Golf: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods

• Gymnastics: Mary Lou Retton and Simone Biles

• Hockey: Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe

There’s no need to imagine in wrestling. The John Smith-Jordan Burroughs pairing was a reality this year.

Jason Knapp was on play-by-play with Smith while Carolyn Manno was the studio host with Burroughs. Both performed ably, but, for wrestling fans, we hung on every word from the best our sport has to offer.

It was fun to hear them banter back and forth about wrestling. Burroughs only called the action during select moments, so we got to hear Smith coach the American wrestlers through various positions.

Smith might say, “Lift the leg. Lift the leg. Bring it up. Bring it up. Keep your head up. There you go!”
His commentary was biased, it was preferential, it was slanted — and we loved every second of it.

Burroughs provided clarity to the matches at the end of each round. Manno was exceptional at knowing her role by letting the former Nebraska star be the expert. Burroughs’s analysis of Gable Steveson’s thrilling gold-medal match was particularly memorable, but his insight about how a wrestler thinks and responds made him must-see TV.

Burroughs also showed great respect for Dake, the man who beat him off this year’s Olympic team. There’s little doubt that he was thinking, “It should have been me out there.”

The best moment came when Burroughs spent a minute discussing Smith’s legacy and how he revolutionized the sport with his low-level attacks.

“Thank you, Jordan,” Smith replied with genuine appreciation.

Smith also articulated what we all think but don’t have the credentials or the platform to say. He was frustrated with the unnecessary stoppages and the pointless challenges that chew up time and take away from authentic moments of joy at the end of matches.

“Why did they blow the whistle and stop the action?” Smith would often ask. “I don’t understand what’s happening here.”

None of us understood, John. Thanks for being our voice of reason.

(Kyle Klingman, the former director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, is an editorial content provider for Flowrestling.) n

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