LAS VEGAS — Away from competition, there are few more easier going men than Gilbert Burns, the second-ranked welterweight in the UFC.
But when there is something on the line, few are more fierce competitors than Burns, who on Saturday in the co-main of UFC 264 at T-Mobile Arena will face fourth-ranked Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in a fascinating clash of styles.
Saturday, though, won’t be the first time that Burns and Thompson nearly came to blows, however. At Madison Square Garden in New York, Thompson fought Burns’ close friend and training partner, Vicente Luque, at UFC 244.
Thompson won the fight and Burns was irate. He knew what Luque had put into preparing for that fight, and how much it meant to him. He was nearly as devastated as Luque when he entered the cage to console him.
His first thought was to accost Thompson. But Thompson saw him, approached him and, instead of throwing punches, offered a hand and a smile.
“Hey,” he said to Burns, “nice to meet you. I’m a big fan!”
That defused any confrontation, but a smile and a hand shake won’t have an impact this time. The fight between them is critical in the welterweight division, where there is plenty of uncertainty as to how the future plays out given how dominant champion Kamaru Usman has been.
Burns was stopped by Usman in February at UFC 258, and it took him a month or so to get over it.
“It took three to four weeks to finally understand the why of it,” Burns said. “‘OK, that’s what happened. That’s what I did wrong.’ I had to dig deep so much to see where those emotions were coming from. I really had to dig deep and take my time and be with myself with no cellphones, no music, no TV [to finally heal].”
Once he understood why’d he’d lost, he was much better able to deal with that he had lost.
He’d poured himself into his camp and was overflowing with confidence heading into the title fight. And early, things were going his way.
“I was doing good when I followed the strategy we had,” he said. “But when I didn’t … ”
His voice trails off and for a moment, he goes back to that dark place he was at after the fight.
But he is quickly the old, exuberant Gilbert Burns again. The fight with Thompson is a critical one for him, given how many contenders there are bunched together. Given that Usman decisively defeated Burns, Burns needs to do something dramatic to recapture the imagination of UFC president Dana White.
“I have to be careful of how I say this because I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing Dana,” Burns said. “But he can say something, ‘This guy is next,’ but if you do something that gets his attention, he gets excited and he’ll change [his mind].”
So that’s what Burns will set out to do at UFC 264. He can’t just run out and slug with Thompson, because that would be playing into Thompson’s hands. And Thompson is difficult to take down, as he has proven repeatedly but particularly in two bouts against ex-welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, so Burns knows he needs to be prepared to fight for a while on his feet.
The work he’s doing with coach Henri Hooft and training partners like Luque and Raymond Daniels has made a significant difference. There was a moment in training when the light went off and he understood what they were trying to teach him.
It was back to the why that he had to ponder after his February loss to Usman. Burns is one of just many fighters who say that Thompson is a puzzle to be solved. Thompson might have the best footwork in the UFC, or he’s up there with ex-bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
All the work he’s done has helped get him to the point where he is brimming with confidence despite facing a guy who some would say has a style that’s all wrong for him.
“Now that I understand why I have to do things, it’s made a huge difference,” he said. “I can go out there and execute because I am not just told to do something, but I know the reason. That’s why I feel so good right now.”
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