Jordan Burroughs (L) and Bo Nickal. Jordan Burroughs (L, at his summer camp in August 2023) and Bo Nickal (R, after a UFC 290 win in July 2023). (Burroughs photo from Tom McGurk/The Courier-Post, via USA Today Sports; Nickal photo from Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today Sports.)

One of the long-running debates in sports has been what level of injury targeting is appropriate for athletes, and what level of encouraging that is appropriate for commentators. The latest spot where this came up was in the ESPN broadcast of the title match of the 174-pound division of the NCAA men’s wrestling championships Saturday night.

That clash saw Ohio State freshman Rocco Welsh take on Penn State senior Carter Starocci, who was wearing a notable knee brace. With Starocci up 2-0 in that title match, the ESPN broadcast saw analyst Daniel Cormier ask fellow analyst Jordan Burroughs (a two-time NCAA champion at Nebraska, six-time world champion, and Olympic gold medalist) “If you’re Rocco Welsh, are all your attacks going to the bandaged leg?” and Burroughs (seen at left above a wrestling camp he ran in 2023) respond “Absolutely. I’m attacking that thing like crazy.” (Correction: this post initially had the question coming from play-by-play voice Mike Couzens, it came from Cormier.)

There are many who find that perfectly acceptable college wrestling strategy and commentary. And it likely wasn’t even the thing on this broadcast that offended the most people. But another former Penn State wrestler, Bo Nickal (a current UFC fighter, seen at right above after a UFC 290 win in July 2023 ), took strong exception to Burroughs’ comments with a tweet:

Nickal’s tweet prompted a lot of debate in the responses, with many defending Burroughs’ commentary and saying Nickal would do the same in a fight or as a commentator, but others agreeing with him and criticizing Nickal. But this got particularly notable a little later, when Burroughs responded with a shot at Nickal and MMA:

In the end, this didn’t matter to the match outcome. Starocci won that match 2-0 and became just the sixth four-time champion in NCAA men’s wrestling history (teammate Aaron Brooks would also join that club later in the night), and Penn State won the team title (their third in a row) and set a points record.

Afterwards, Starocci spoke about the knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, which had him injury default twice at the conference championships and enter the national bracket as the ninth seed. He wouldn’t answer if it was a torn ACL, but as per Greg Pickel of On3’s Blue/White Illustrated, he indicated it was certainly severe.

“It was hard,” Starocci said. “Twelve days ago I was on crutches. I just had to wrestle. That man, [trainer] Dan Monthley, he’s a national champ. It’s a blessing to be at Penn State. These coaches, they’re super dedicated. Dan Monthley, I wouldn’t be walking if it wasn’t for him. He looked me in the eye and said it was going to be a long road. I just believed in him.”

That injury, and the prominent brace Starocci wore for it, certainly sparked some discussion around Burroughs’ comments, Nickal’s criticism of those, and Burroughs’ return shot. It’s unusual to see a prominent athlete so critical of a commentator in a different sport (albeit one Nickal has his own competitive background in).

And it’s particularly unusual to see an ESPN commentator fire back at a critic by insulting an entire sport, one that ESPN also happens to air. Whether Burroughs’ initial commentary was in bounds or not, the response here probably wasn’t exactly what ESPN wanted to see from someone featured on their broadcasts.

[Awful Announcing on Twitter/X, On3]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.