Josh Emmett was frustrated on Saturday at UFC Vegas. Although he’d just upended Shane Burgos despite hyperextending his ACL in the first minute, he told Jon Anik that he felt journalists were “counting me out” and that “I’m gonna stop doing interviews with you guys, you always doubt me.” The 35-year-old, who earned the ninth and tenth knockdowns of his UFC featherweight tenure on his way to victory, resorted to brawling in close quarters and also mentioned to Brett Okamoto that “some of the main journalists, they’re biased, I know there’s politics. Some of the journalists, some of the commentators, I know who they’re rooting for.”
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Emmett is currently on a three-fight win-streak and perhaps he has been underestimated after fighting only once in 2019 and twice in 2018. With victories over Michael Johnson, Mirsad Bektic, and Burgos now in the books, the man who’s sweated it out at Team Alpha Male for over a decade is eager to climb the rankings. Ranked #8 in the featherweight division, Emmett said he doesn’t want to be “a gatekeeper” anymore, so he could be eyeing up whoever loses the upcoming title eliminator between Brian Ortega, ranked #2, and Chan Sung Jung, ranked #4.
“I’m not fighting anyone else behind me anymore,” Emmett said. “I want to fight forwards because I want a shot at that title eventually. I know I can compete with anyone in the division and I know I will be a world champion. Everyone’s always talking about these other hungry fighters, but I’m one of the hungriest fighters in the UFC. Nobody pushes me, they (the UFC) push all these other guys up. I hope the UFC can push me, build me up, do something for me, instead of just trying to keep me as the gatekeeper and keep me fighting veterans, tough prospects and up-and-comers, it’s just so frustrating for me.”
Emmett should be commended on speaking out on wanting more opportunities. Dana White, the UFC president, appreciates athletes wanting to raise their exposure and he went on record at the weekend in stating that he won’t waste his time with fighters who don’t want to fight. In that sense, once he’s had an MRI on his debilitated knee, Emmett will want to silence the naysayers and return to the Octagon as soon as possible.
Is Emmett underrated, then? Maybe. He’s not much of a trash talker, it must be said, and he fights in a weight class which is so stacked that he often gets forgotten among the crop of talent. The fact that he was an underdog against Burgos is perhaps most understandable when you consider that he gave up three and a half inches in height, and five inches in reach. He was also six years older than the surging Burgos.
There’s also a prevailing narrative that Emmett’s Team Alpha Male gym has slumped since head coach Justin Buchholz left in January 2018. Indeed, Emmett’s teammates Urijah Faber, Cody Garbrandt, Darren Elkins, and Joseph Benavidez all suffered high-profile setbacks after Buchholz departed, but Garbrandt’s buzzer-beater over Raphael Assuncao and Emmett’s spellbinding performance against Burgos perhaps put paid to that.
So, over the next year or so, how might Emmett fare against Ortega? The Californian is well-rounded and a devastating jiu-jitsu player, yet questions remain over his longevity as a top contender after he suffered a knee injury in December 2019. That came a year after he shipped a ruthless shellacking from then-champion Max Holloway. Emmett could trouble Ortega with his jab, one-two, and forays to the body, while he’d also look to coax the Mexican-American into trading in the pocket.
Emmett’s durability and tunnel vision could also serve him well in any future fight with “The Korean Zombie.” A former title challenger, Zombie’s career has stuttered due to injuries and national service in his native South Korea, but he brings massive clout in his fists and a dangerous ground game, as evidenced by his legendary twister over Leonard Garcia in 2011. Emmett would require plenty of fakes, shimmies, and well-timed attacks in order to get past Zombie, who lives up to his nickname with his all-out-attack kickboxing.
Emmett should also look towards one of Yair Rodriguez or Zabit Magomedsharipov, who are set to have their rematch in August. That said, Emmett’s performance against Burgos will leave the rest of the featherweight division in no doubt over the Arizonian’s capabilities. After his left knee buckled in round one as he stretched to telegraph, Emmett absorbed jabs from all angles and starting points before surging back in thrilling fashion.
Burgos jabbed from the hip in round one, mixing in lovely calf kicks and hooks to the body for good measure. The 29-year-old, a stalwart of Tiger Schulmann’s, used his reach to offset his rival, and although Emmett was countering with tight hooks up close in the second round, Burgos had the greater disguise in his boxing, adding to his highlight reel with a crunching spinning back fist.
Come the decider, Emmett was two rounds down. Despite admitting to coach Danny Castillo that the injury to his left knee was stunting his movement, he made a fool of the oddsmakers by dropping Burgos twice in a hellacious, frantically paced final round. Emmett’s first coup came via a short right hand, the trajectory of which Burgos ducked right into. His second knockdown came from another right hook, this time followed up by precise elbows which bounced their target’s head off the mat.
Sure, it wasn’t enough to earn his fourth finish by strikes in the UFC, but Emmett showed the kind of heart, ability and concentration in the trenches which should serve him well. He took a dizzying array of assaults from Burgos in the early stages but came through in the end, and credit should go to the likes of Castillo and Chris Holdsworth in his corner, both of whom steered Emmett through choppy terrain.
Emmett’s revival and capacity for taking punches to the face helped him earn a third consecutive post-fight bonus, yet he retained his feeling of being dismissed when Dana White said that his wasn’t quite the most exciting fight of the year, judging by the standard set by Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s humdinger in March. As such, the chip on Emmett’s shoulder remains, but the media and the American’s promoters can’t overlook his talents for much longer.
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.