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Gilbert Burns oozing confidence after unlikely rise to title contender

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4-min read

LAS VEGAS — Most people in the United States didn’t know what the coronavirus was, how bad it would get or how significantly it would alter life as we know it on March 14, 2020.

Lockdowns were just beginning, sports were just starting to be canceled, but no one could imagine that less than a year later, the pandemic would have left nearly a half-million Americans dead and inalterably change so many lives.

One of the lives that was changed on that date was Gilbert Burns’, though his battle with the coronavirus would come much later.

[UFC 258 on ESPN+ PPV: Buy Usman-Burns fight here]

But on March 14, 2020, with most other sports shutting down, the UFC held a show in Brasilia, Brazil, in an empty arena. On that card, Burns was about to face Demian Maia in the co-main event.

The jiu-jitsu aces were expected to play a high-level game of twister, but what happened instead was that Burns turned into a legitimate championship contender on the basis of a single crushing left hook.

Midway through the first round, Burns caught Maia with a left hook on the chin, and thought he’d scored a walk-off KO. But Maia wasn’t out, so Burns had to follow him to the mat to finish him off.

Handling Maia that way was a sign that Burns had arrived, that the wins at welterweight over Alexey Kunchenko and Gunnar Nelson were an indication of a man whose time had arrived.

One fight and one battle with the coronavirus later, Burns is poised to complete his unlikely rise. He’ll fight longtime friend and training partner Kamaru Usman on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at Apex in the main event of UFC 258 for the welterweight championship.

Usman is a -275 favorite at BetMGM to retain the title, but Burns oozes confidence. Beating guys the caliber of Nelson, Maia and Tyron Woodley in the one-sided manner he did it will do that for a guy.

BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MARCH 14: Gilbert Burns of Brazil celebrates after his TKO victory over Demian Maia of Brazil in their welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event on March 14, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)

Gilbert Burns (19-3) is undefeated since moving up to the welterweight division in 2019. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)

He trained more than 200 rounds over an eight-year period with Usman in Florida and knows more than anyone what he’s gotten himself into picking a fight with the UFC’s dominant welterweight champion.

He expects a memorable fight, even though they know the intricacies of each other’s styles so well. But Burns promised that the time apart will make a difference.

Far from expecting a stalemate, anyone who saw them work together said it would cause people to stand around the cage and watch them go at it.

“I believe he’s learning some new tools, but so am I,” Burns said of Usman. “Even though we knew each other so well, the sparring sessions we had were a lot of fun to watch. I believe it will be [in the fight]. I’m not going to be … [the guy] who just wants to strike with my opponents.

“I’m going to grapple with every single one and I’m going to strike with every single one. I don’t see it being easy for either guy, but I see a war and both guys hammering like we did at training.”

What Burns thought was a bad break turned out in retrospect to be a great one for him. After he dominated Woodley over five one-sided rounds, he called for a shot at Usman at the time, and the UFC gave it to him. They were supposed to fight on Fight Island in July.

As he was in Las Vegas preparing to board the UFC’s charter to Abu Dhabi, he was yanked off because of a positive COVID-19 test.

He had it bad, and had to drive from Nevada to Florida because he was unable to fly while feeling miserabe. It took him more than a month to feel better as he struggled to beat the virus.

Jorge Masvidal stepped in on short notice to take the title shot, but Usman dominated him to retain the belt, setting up the show with Burns on Saturday.

It was, as it turned out, a blessing to delay.

“I’m the best I have ever been right now,” he said. “I feel I have continued to get better and better once I got back into this gym, and I’m not the same fighter I was back [in July]. It hurt so much to lose that title shot. You work so long and so hard for one that when you get it, you never want to let it go.

“But I couldn’t fight. There was no way, and it took me a long time to really get back and be healthy and do what I had to do. But I was able to use that time and I got myself even better. So there will be fireworks [on Saturday], for sure. This will be great.”

It all started on that night 11 months ago, though, when in front of an empty arena, he crushed Maia and proved that he belonged with the elite of the welterweight division.

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