UFC 258: Usman vs Burns - Can a former team-mate halt The Nigerian Nightmare’s record-breaking ascent into rarefied air?

History will be made one way or the other this weekend when Kamaru Usman lays his welterweight title on the line against former training partner Gilbert Burns in the main event at UFC 258, exclusively live on BT Sport this Saturday night.

By George Mills Published: 13 February 2021 - 8.45am
Features UFC

Kamaru Usman

Fights like this don’t come around often.

When the cage door closes on Saturday night, both Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns will know exactly what to expect from the man standing on the other side of the Octagon.

Former team-mates at their Florida stable who, by the challenger’s estimate, shared more than 200 rounds across more than seven years of shared training, Usman and Burns now face one another with far more than simply gym bragging rights at stake. 

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“We started training together in 2012 in Blackzillians,” 34-year-old Burns told MMAJunkie.

“Then Blackzillians broke down, they disappeared, so we moved with Henri Hooft. We went to a place called Combat Club. Then we were there for almost a year, and then we opened up the Hard Knocks. We were at Hard Knocks for two years. Then we moved to Sanford MMA and then we been in Sanford for a total of two years. So I’ve trained with Kamaru for seven years and we both love to train.

“He was a good training partner for me and I was good partner for him. Just sparring sessions, over 200. And just the grappling sessions, plus the wrestling sessions, for sure I have so many hours on the mat with Kamaru. We know each other very well.”

Usman has not yet rematched an opponent in 18 professional contests but Saturday night’s showdown will present the 33-year-old with a psychological puzzle that will question him far more thoroughly than the experience of reconvening with a one-time foe.

How aware is the champion of that pressure heading into the fight this weekend?

“I will say it’s definitely different because you’ve felt them,” Usman conceded, speaking to MMAFighting.

“I’m the king of the hill. I’m sitting up at the top. He’s the one who picked the fight”
- Kamaru Usman

“You know the areas where you kind of had the upper hand and they know that as well. You know the areas where they’re strong. So it makes it a little different.

“At the end of the day with me, when it comes to me, I see no face. I didn’t pick him out of a line up and say ‘this is the guy I’m going to take out.’

“I’m the king of the hill. I’m sitting up at the top. He’s the one who picked the fight. These are the guys who say ‘we want what he has.’ So when you want what I have, I have to defend that. I have to go in there and show them why I’m sitting at the top.”

The contest should present the 170lb king with the sternest examination of his championship tenure to date, pitting him against a dangerous grappler packing heavy artillery in both hands.

And it’s been a long time coming; two previous postponements have prevented the rivalry from being settled with the first scheduled contest between the two men being canned at a week’s notice in July last year after Burns was struck down by Covid-19.

Usman subsequently stepped up to face a worthy adversary in Jorge Masvidal at the last minute, dominating the promotion’s most in-form fighter over five rounds at UFC 251 on Fight Island.

The rescheduled date was also pushed back when injury prevented Usman from defending the belt at UFC 256 in December but the old adage proved to be correct as the fight came together at the third time of asking for UFC 258 this weekend.

While the agony of perpetual delays has been a frustration to both fans and fighters alike, the time apart will have allowed both combatants even more time to formulate a game plan for one another.

And Usman believes in doing so, Burns will draw a performance from the champion that has rarely been needed yet.

“Kamaru looks to dominate you... I want to finish you”
- Gilbert Burns

“What I’ve come to realise is I dictate what goes on in the fight,” Usman told BT Sport’s Adam Catterall during an exclusive chat this week.

“I control what is going on in that fight. If Gilbert does his homework and he is as fully prepared as I think he’s going to be, he might just pull out the dog out of me and you might just see that savage that was in that [Colby] Covington fight.

“If he slips up and doesn’t do his homework properly then you’re just going to see a one-sided domination like you always see in my fights.”

Those words uttered from the mouth of most other athletes on the UFC roster may come across as brash arrogance but from Usman they speak to the facts.

No other UFC fighter has pieced together a longer winning run in the history of the promotion, while victory over Burns this weekend would see Usman move past Georges St-Pierre’s record of 12 straight wins to set the mark on 13.

But it is the manner in which Usman has cruised to those victories that is most impressive; the former college wrestling standout has never been knocked down, never been taken down and has only unanimously lost a round against a fellow UFC fighter once, during 2019’s thriller against Colby Covington.

With such a body of work to support Usman’s championship credentials, how much of a chance does does Gilbert Burns really have of upsetting the odds at UFC 258?

The bookies believe the Brazilian is a live underdog with an outside chance of becoming the first welterweight champion from his native land; Brazilian fighters have lifted the belt at every other weight class in the UFC apart from 170lb.

Those in the know, however, believe Burns stands a better chance than most to dethrone one of the UFC’s most ferocious champions.

12
Consecutive UFC wins for Usman

Burns is a multiple-time world jiu-jitsu champion, a 2nd degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under legendary BJJ practitioner Rafael “Fofitio” Barro and a brick-fisted powerhouse on his feet.

Wherever the fight goes, Burns has demonstrated his ability to cause problems, as his one-sided beatdown of former long-time 170b champion Tyron Woodley showed last May.

It was a performance that echoed the manner in which Woodley found himself outclassed and outgunned by Usman at UFC 235 – but Burns believes the similarities between himself and Usman end there.

“Kamaru looks first to domination. He wants to dominate you, put you in a bad spot, make you tired, wear you out and then beat you up. I’m different on that than Kamaru,” he explained to MMAFighting.

“I want to finish you, I want to beat you up, knock you out, submit you.”

Can Burns prevent Usman rewriting the record books by creating history of his own?

BT Sport is the only place to find out. Tune in to BT Sport 1 HD from 1am on Saturday night as we bring you exclusive coverage of UFC 258: Usman vs Burns.