Many fighters have personal friendships with their training partners and plenty count their gymmates as honorary family members. Gilbert Burns has that kind of bond with the UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and so the pair might have to put that on hold if they meet for the title, with Burns calling out the belt-holder after overpowering Tyron Woodley on Saturday at UFC on ESPN 9. The Brazilian showed humility by pointing to the rivals’ friendship but we should remember there are no teammates in MMA.
Burns and his UFC contemporaries are on their own in the Octagon and it is up to them and them alone to develop their skills, build their profiles and maneuver into the most opportunistic and lucrative positions. Of course, it’s often said that combat sports nurture a selfish mindset. Henry Cejudo spoke of living a selfish life, citing reasons for his retirement. Laura O’Brien-Howarth, a retired British bantamweight who fought for Invicta and Cage Warriors, also told me she felt she’d focused on herself for too long.
Burns may have a great team around him but he is right to think about number one, taking matters into his own hands by challenging Usman. Managers can guide fighters through the business side of the sport, but they can’t help the athlete through a couple of tough rounds. Promoters can match contests, yet they can’t help the athlete ship punishment. And coaches, perhaps most importantly, can sharpen skills, but they can’t do the fighting in the Octagon.
“Durinho” is riding a six-fight win streak (two of them at lightweight) and given that he held little name value until very recently, it’s refreshing to hear him shooting for Usman and taking advantage of his uptick in fame. “I want to fight for the title and he’s the champion, and that’s the only reason I would call for this fight because else it wouldn’t make sense,” said the 33-year-old. “I don’t know – it’s going to be weird, but we’re both professionals. I like the guy a lot. He motivated me a lot when he became champion and I saw him come from zero. And we always like to work together because I have the jiu-jitsu and he has the wrestling.”
It’s fair to say that any confrontation between Burns and Usman would mean a few housekeeping changes at Sanford MMA in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The gym would need to dedicate staggered sessions for the champion and challenger and would also need to delegate coaches for each competitor. It would be interesting to see who Henri Hooft would corner on the night, with the Dutchman being the face of the gym and one of the finest striking teachers in the sport.
Hooft has molded Usman and Burns into two of the leading welterweights around, with Burns now utilizing dangerous striking – his combinations are vicious and well-disguised, ending with arcing hooks – to match his array of world championships in jiu-jitsu. Nowadays he has a habit of landing punches on the sweet spot, whether that’s the chin, temple, or behind the ear. His counters crash home in the blink of an eye and his cardio is excellent too, as Woodley discovered on Saturday.
Burns more than backed up scores of 50-44 (twice) and 50-45 in his favor, forcing a furious pace and scoring two knockdowns. Woodley fell to the ground first in round one as he shipped a blurring range of knees to the body and uppercuts, Burns closing the distance and working with ferocity. It seemed the fight was slipping further away from the former champion in round three as Woodley fired off verbal insults, unable to land with his back to the fence.
By the final two rounds, it was Burns’ assaults to the body and low kicks which were impressing so much and keeping Woodley off of his game. The Rio de Janeiro-born man boxed with such variety and trickery that it was no surprise when, in round four, he dropped Woodley again with a three-punch salvo, darting into range at an explosive pace. Burns dominated significant strikes 83 to 28 and that in itself told its story.
Still, blocking Burns’ path to Usman is the British striker Leon Edwards. The Birmingham man, 10-2 in the UFC, has waited long enough for a shot at the belt after shutting out the likes of Donald Cerrone, Gunnar Nelson, and Rafael dos Anjos.
Whenever Burns does get his chance he should be comforted to learn that so-called teammates have faced off in the cage before. Eduardo Dantas burst into tears after knocking out his Nova Uniao stablemate Marcos Galvao at Bellator 89 in 2013, while Evan Dunham outscored fellow Xtreme Couture member Tyson Griffin at UFC 115 in 2010.
Last but not least, one of the most noted rivalries between training partners was when Jon Jones defended his UFC light heavyweight championship against Rashad Evans at UFC 154 in 2012. The two had worked together at Jackson-Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, until “Sugar”, deciding how he could earn a challenge at the title and boost his career, moved to join Hooft and the Blackzilians in Florida. Evans was self-centered in his motives and Burns ought to emulate that as he moves forwards.
Alistair Hendrie is a freelance writer for The Body Lock MMA. He has previously written for Mirror.co.uk and Fighters Only. Check out his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more.