IT WAS SEPTEMBER 2020, and UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman raised some eyebrows as he entered the Sanford MMA gym in Deerfield Beach, Florida. It was his first visit since he changed teams in the spring.
There was talk of Usman defending his title in December against former training partner and current Sanford fighter Gilbert Burns, who was in the gym that day. Some fighters joked with Usman about how he was invading his old turf.
“Very professional,” Burns told ESPN of his exchange with Usman. “But nothing too friendly, no hugging. Nothing like that.”
Burns wondered if Usman was playing a “mind game” by visiting a few months before their fight. But Usman said he was there just to help close friend Sean Soriano during his training camp.
“That was my team,” Usman said. “That was my gym. … Of course I showed up. I didn’t know there was a rule that I couldn’t come in the gym.”
Usman left Sanford MMA to train in Colorado with coach Trevor Wittman. He wanted more individual training than he was receiving in Florida, and by that time, it was apparent Burns — who was on a six-fight winning streak — would be his next opponent.
Negotiations for their December bout fell through, as had their original July booking when Burns tested positive for COVID-19. But Usman and Burns will finally square off Saturday in the main event of UFC 258 in Las Vegas. The winner will leave the UFC Apex with a gold belt, but the story lines go deeper.
Emotions will be running high — not just among the combatants, but with friends and colleagues who watched the fighters spar upward of 200 rounds as their children became friends while playing in the gym. Loyalties will be divided, to the extent that one of the best coaches in the business will sit this one out rather than corner Burns. And when the bell rings, the focus will be on whether these ex-teammates will hesitate to inflict violence on each other, or whether any lingering resentment from Usman’s departure will make it easier to view the opponent as the enemy.
“Things are going to be a little weird,” Burns said.
USMAN APPROACHED HIS mentor, Rashad Evans, last May about his predicament. Usman knew Evans — a Hall of Famer and former UFC light heavyweight champion — would be able to relate.
“He’s definitely me,” Evans said of Usman. “I feel it. It’s crazy.”
In 2011, Evans left JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because his then-teammate Jon Jones was about to get a light heavyweight title shot. Evans was supposed to get that opportunity, but an injury opened the door for Jones, who beat Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the belt. A fight between Evans and Jones was inevitable.
Evans moved to South Florida, and he brought along Usman. The two met through an acquaintance when Evans needed wrestling help while training for his 2010 bout with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Evans and Usman helped launch the Blackzilians team in Boca Raton, Florida, with late MMA agent Glenn Robinson. In 2012, Burns joined the team with his mentor, MMA legend Vitor Belfort. Henri Hooft, a decorated Dutch kickboxer, was the head coach.
In 2015, Usman represented the Blackzilians on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show, winning the tournament and earning a UFC contract. Burns was already in the UFC by then.
The team went through several iterations over the years. Hooft had a falling-out with Robinson in 2017, and many of the core members of the Blackzilians – including Usman and Burns — stayed with Hooft, who formed HKickboxing. That team ultimately was rebranded as Sanford MMA in late 2019.
A few months later, Usman was heading west.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) February 11, 2021
“Kamaru came here to start a team with me,” Evans said from his home in Boca Raton. “We’re the OGs of the team.
“It’s a tough feeling, because when you came here and put all the pieces in place to make the team we did, never in a million years did we think we’d be facing the situation that I faced at Greg Jackson’s.”
But it wasn’t just Burns’ ascension that prompted Usman’s exit. He had considered leaving before Burns became the No. 1 contender, but he didn’t want to be away from his daughter, Samirah, during training camps. Ultimately, Evans and former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, another Blackzilians mentor, helped steer Usman to Wittman, the same coach Evans turned to when he initially left JacksonWink.
“It’s one of the things about the fight game that really sucks more than anything,” Evans said. “There’s a lot of egos involved. There’s a lot of moves that get made with a selfish point of view in mind without thinking of other people.
“It doesn’t make for a team that can stay together for long. It doesn’t matter what team you’re on; at some point if you don’t constantly do upkeep on who’s in the gym and what their true intentions are, you have a lot of growing dissension on your team. And before you know, it’ll cause a fracture in your gym.”
Usman admitted he “never” thought he’d have to stand across the Octagon from a well-liked teammate.
“You’re training with someone, and you’re giving them a bunch of knowledge you have, and you’re learning from them as well,” Usman said. “You’re trying to help them build their career, but you’re not thinking, ‘Hey, maybe they’re trying to take it from me. They’re trying to take my career.’
“It sucks that we’re kind of put in that situation. But such is life.”
Burns said he and Usman have a “great relationship” and he has “nothing against” him. He just wants to prove himself as the best welterweight in the world.
There doesn’t appear to be the animosity that framed Evans vs. Jones, which Jones won by unanimous decision in 2012. But Usman admitted this fight “absolutely” feels different.
“I work tirelessly to get to a certain spot and a position where I can send my daughter to private school if I want,” Usman said. “And so for you to see that and say, ‘You know, I want that — I’m taking that,’ then [viewing Burns as the enemy is] inevitable.
“Of course it’s different now. I see you as just the face that’s standing across from me trying to take that from my daughter.”
Usman looks at Burns differently now because of what’s at stake, but he said there was a change in how he felt at the gym long before this fight was booked. Usman felt a kinship with the Blackzilians and HKickboxing, but he never felt like a part of Sanford MMA.
“It’s a different energy and it’s a different feeling,” Usman said. “The guys now, I don’t necessarily know. They just formed the team.
“But the guys I know on the team, the energy is a little different, because this is an uncomfortable situation that they’re in. It’s a little tough and it’s a little hurtful to see some of the things that they’re saying and they’re posting. At the end of the day, that’s life. You have to roll with the punches, literally, and that’s what I’m doing.”
While Evans described Usman’s situation as him being “ousted” from his team, Usman isn’t ready to go there.
“It’s tough to say, because I’m the one going through it at the moment,” Usman said. “And he’s already gone through it, and he knows how he felt going through it.
“At this point, all that is blocked out. I’m focused on going out there and defending my title. That’s the most important thing to me right now. I don’t have time to let any other feelings in. When all is said and done, then I’ll decide how I really feel.”
MOST GYMS HAVE a rule that teammates cannot fight each other unless a title is on the line. Some teams have tried to avoid those scenarios. Daniel Cormier dropped down to light heavyweight in 2014 to avoid then-heavyweight champion and American Kickboxing Academy teammate Cain Velasquez. Cormier ultimately won the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles, but he didn’t come back to heavyweight until Velasquez was no longer in contention.
But teammates or former teammates facing each other is not unheard of in MMA. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz trained together before they fought twice in the UFC, and TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt were sparring partners at Team Alpha Male before they clashed twice for the UFC bantamweight title. In those cases, though, there was bad blood, and the fighters were years removed from training with each other.
In the case of Usman vs. Burns, they considered themselves teammates at this time last year, and neither has talked trash about the other.
“Fighting a friend is different, because when it comes time to land that blow to end the fight that could permanently scar your opponent, are you going to be able to pull the trigger knowing that you’re going to have to look in his eyes again?” Evans said. “Knowing that you may have to really hurt him, knowing his family, knowing his background, knowing all those things. Are you gonna be able to pull the trigger and do what needs to be done?”
Former UFC contender Gil Melendez said he couldn’t do it.
“For me to compete to the best of my ability, I have to want to destroy my opponent. After all, he’s trying to take food off my table, take clothes off my kid’s back.”
Usman and Burns said that won’t be a problem.
“I had so many fights in the Blackzilians [with Usman],” Burns said. “It wasn’t sparring — it was a fight.”
— UFC (@ufc) February 9, 2021
It would be inaccurate to say Usman and Burns were close friends, but their relationship extended beyond fighting.
“Our children were close because they are a month apart, my youngest son and his daughter,” Burns’ wife, Bruna, said. “So until the age of 3 to 4, they played a lot in the gym. Kamaru is a super dad, too. He always brought Samirah to the gym, so it was the place where they played.
“But outside of the gym, we were never that close.”
If the two weren’t close friends, they were at least solid teammates, who share a manager in Ali Abdelaziz. Usman worked Burns’ corners for some fights, and he flew to Brazil — on his own dime — to help Burns before his 2016 fight against Michel Prazeres. Burns helped Usman train for his 2018 bout against Demian Maia by mimicking the Brazilian’s style during training.
“I liked him,” Usman said. “I trained with him a little bit more than others, because he could push me. He was a grappler. It was kind of a learning thing, too. He was learning from me; I was learning from him. In that sense, I trained with him a lot more.”
The familiarity will have an impact Saturday, but it’s uncertain which fighter will benefit more. Melendez said it will be noticeable early which fighter will be willing to hurt the other.
“He’s a strong guy, so I did a lot of work to surprise him, because he never trained with me so much at this weight,” Burns said. “[He] will feel a stronger ‘Durinho,’ physically speaking. With the same speed as before, but with greater physical power.”
It’s also likely to help Burns that the coaches he’s working with — even though Hooft is sitting this one out — are familiar with Usman. But Usman also is getting more time under the tutelage of Wittman, who’s considered one of the best in MMA.
“We know how it’s gonna go,” Usman said. “Of course, he’s gotten a lot better. I would be playing myself if I said he hasn’t improved over the years. And confidence is a hell of a drug as well.”
But, Usman added, “I showed [Burns] the game.”
HOOFT SAID THAT when Usman and Burns begin their walk to the Octagon on Saturday night, he’ll be out in the backyard by his pool. His wife will watch the fight, but he won’t. He’ll read about it later. He already wishes it were Sunday.
“I would love to be there to see Gilbert winning the belt,” Hooft said. “He worked so hard for it. He’s such a good guy — family man, f—ing great team member. One of the team captains. So was Kamaru before this fight, everything the same, also a great guy.
“I don’t want to see one guy lose his belt, and I also don’t want to see the other guy not getting his belt. It’s not as easy as most people think it is.”
Jorge Santiago, the Blackzilians’ original jiu-jitsu coach, has been part of Usman’s camp for UFC 258, but he still considers Burns a friend and pupil. As recently as last year, Burns was asking Santiago for advice about fighting Maia.
“It’s one of the things about the fight game that really sucks more than anything. There’s a lot of egos involved. There’s a lot of moves that get made with a selfish point of view in mind without thinking of other people.”
“That’s the price of the success,” Santiago said. “[Burns] made it, and he earned it. Of course, Kamaru gives the title chance to him. There’s nothing wrong to pursue your dream. But it’s super weird, especially because I know them very well.”
Usman and Burns both have good friends at Sanford MMA, and within the gym’s walls, rooting interests are split. Burns’ brother and teammate, Herbert, who is a UFC featherweight, said Usman used to inspire the team with his work ethic.
“During the fight, who you’re cheering for, that’s a personal thing,” Herbert said. “Then you can do whatever you want. At the gym, you have to support the team.”
How the dynamic changes after the fight could depend on how things play out Saturday night. Hooft and Gilbert Burns said Usman would be welcomed back to Sanford MMA when this is all over. But it’s not certain that Usman would be interested.
“The one thing I try to live by in life is you never say never,” Usman said, “because you never know what tomorrow brings.”
Brett Okamoto and ESPN Brazil contributed to this story.