Long before he was the UFC welterweight champion, Usman was a prospect looking to earn his way to the promotion after joining up with the Blackzilians team based out of Florida. He eventually got his shot through The Ultimate Fighter reality show where the Blackzilians took on American Top Team in a battle between two of the most prominent gyms at the time.
Through it all, Burns was right there alongside Usman as part of the same team, and he actually earned his shot at the UFC just nine months ahead of his long time training partner.
According to Burns, a big part of the reason why he was ready to walk through the fires of the UFC was thanks to those intense sparring sessions with Usman. He’s quite certain the current welterweight king would say the same thing about him.
“It was hard, it was crazy,” Burns told MMA Fighting about those training sessions. “[There are a] couple videos that was on the old Blackzilians [Instagram] that guy from Instagram posted one of those and that’s I guess 2014 and we were sparring. Crazy, we were getting after it. Back then with the Blackzilians our sparring was super crazy, super hard. Then we were sparring there for two years maybe three and then we moved to Combat Club, sparred there crazy and then we went to Hard Knocks then Sanford, we were working together for eight years.
“He was always a good round, a good look for me in sparring. Every time that I go to the sparring session and I need a good look, Kamaru was a good look for me always and I was the same for him. We have a couple wars, all in Florida, Blackzilians, Combat Club, Hard Knocks, Sanford, and he’s a very good one. I beat him up a couple times, he beat me up a couple times. We wrestle, we grapple, we have so many hours training together.”
The age old adage about iron sharpens iron definitely paid off, because now Usman and Burns are positioned to battle in the UFC 258 main event with the title up for grabs between the former teammates.
While it’s ultimately just about the competition, Burns admits it’s an odd feeling preparing to face someone he called a teammate and friend for so many years.
The same can be said when drilling with his current training partners and coaches because many of them spent years helping to mold Usman into the fighter who would eventually become a UFC champion.
“I know a lot of things about him, he knows a lot of things about me,” Burns said. “I’m training with a lot of teammates that know a lot of things about him. They’ve kind of helped me out a lot. It’s a little weird because I still like Kamaru a lot. I have so much respect, but the way I see it, it’s going to be a hard competition. It’s going to be a hard day at the desk and I don’t know if it’s good or bad to know the guy the way I know. I know a lot of things about him and I make a lot of strategy about that but he knows too so it’s hard to say if it benefits or not.
“I think it benefits, because I know how hard I need to be ready, and I’m working to get as ready as I need but so is he. I don’t know if it helps so much. We’re about to find out. This is going to be the first time that I fight against a guy that I trained very much. We’re about to find out on Feb. 13.”
At one point as he was climbing up the welterweight rankings, Burns joked that he would probably endure sparring rounds with Usman in the same training camp while they were preparing to fight each other. That never actually came to fruition, because Usman decided to change training camps just under one year ago as he began working with head coach Trevor Wittman and his stable of athletes in Colorado.
There’s no longer a conflict of interest when it comes to coaches or teammates being forced to pick sides, though Burns says he would never ask anybody to make that choice much less question the loyalty of the people surrounding him as the fight draws near.
“It’s a little weird cause I don’t want to be with the coach like ‘what do you think?’ I don’t want to do that,” Burns said. “That’s not me. I want to get that on my techniques and the things that I do and extend that. I don’t want to be so much focused on Kamaru. I want to focus on me. But when he left, it was good with the teammates because he’s not here anymore and I helped every single one. I cornered these guys and they have a lot of love for me so everyone is helping me out so much. You couldn’t ask for a better team.
“With the coaches it’s a little weird. I don’t want to be focused too much on Kamaru. Henri [Hooft] is not going to be in my corner because he said ‘bro, I like both guys a lot and I help you both guys to get right there, I don’t want to get involved so I’m stepping out’ but coach Greg Jones will be in my corner. I have Vicente Luque in my corner and Daniel [Barros Evangelista] in my corner, Vicente’s coach and my coach from Brazil and I have Vagner Rocha in my corner. So I have all my guys there, they all want to be there.”
Since Usman left the team, Burns has continued to evolve and add new weapons to his game. He’s certain that Usman is doing much the same, but he promises to show up a much better fighter than even the last time he competed while winning a lopsided decision over ex-UFC champ Tyron Woodley.
“If people like the way I looked against Woodley, they have no idea how I’m going to show up now,” Burns said. “I’m way faster, stronger, quicker, the cardio’s right there, jiu-jitsu’s been improving so much, wrestling, striking, I cannot wait. I think I’m dangerous everywhere and I can finish the fight everywhere.
“On bottom, on top, on my feet, with my hands, with my knees, with my kicks and even if you’ve got to go to a decision, we’ll go to a decision but every time I step into the octagon, I don’t look to a decision. I look for the finish. If I cannot finish, then I look for domination.”
Because he knows Usman so well, Burns isn’t going to pretend their UFC 258 fight will be an easy night at the office for either of them. But he also understands what separates them as fighters.
There’s a killer instinct that bubbles to the surface every time Burns competes, and he promises friendship or no friendship, he’s coming for Usman’s head on Saturday night.
“That’s the difference between me and Kamaru,” Burns explained. “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.
“I want to finish you, I want to beat you up, knock you out, submit you. If I cannot, if I think you’re going to stay there, then I think of domination. But first, I’m thinking of finishing. That’s what I’m looking for and I’m looking forward to being dangerous everywhere in that fight.”