Many of the questions that UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman is fielding in the days leading up to his next title defense swirls around the narrative that he’s about to face a former teammate and friend in Gilbert Burns.
For the better part of eight years through various locations and team names, Usman and Burns counted on each other to get ready for fights, often times sparring for numerous rounds during a training camp as each sought to become the best in the sport.
Usman made it to the top of the ladder first as he conquered the 170-pound division but Burns ascended in rapid fashion with his rise to No. 1 contender status following wins over Tyron Woodley, Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson.
As it became clear that they were on a collision course to clash, Usman eventually left his former team based in Florida to begin working with head coach Trevor Wittman and his stable of fighters, which included former UFC interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. While it was easy to manipulate a conspiracy theory about how Usman and Burns must have undergone some sort of falling out and that led to the change of teams, the reigning welterweight king says that really couldn’t be further from the truth.
“All in all, it came to a point where certain points in your career, you need certain things to be able to grow,” Usman explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Over time, I felt like I needed a little something. I needed a little more. It’s kind of tough to get that when you’re on a team with 30 guys and your coaches are gone every other week, mid-week. It makes it tough for your to get that personal attention that you need to get in order to stay on top.
“I’ve done a decent enough job to get to this point but in order to stay there, which is the hardest part, you need certain things. You need certain attention. Towards the end, I just didn’t feel like I was 100 percent getting that. There was some other things, underlying things that happened, that I don’t care to go into right now that kind of helped push along that decision a lot sooner and a lot quicker but it was something that I kind of wanted for a long time. I narrowed it down almost for that last year of some of the coaches that I really liked and respected, I see the way they work and thought that could be a good fit for me.”
Usman has already bonded well with Wittman as his head coach and the individual attention he receives at his new camp in Colorado is what he believes is necessary to maintain his status as UFC champion.
“I’m the type of guy, I’m going to come to work,” Usman explained when detailing his relationship with his new head coach. “If you have a coach that’s about his business and is skillful and thinks about everything, it makes for an easy transition when you have the people who’s definitely willing to work and exercise those things that you’re giving in the work on. It was a great fit.”
As far as facing a former teammate and training partner, Usman knows that introduces a new wrinkle into his preparation because he spent a lot of time helping to make Burns a better fighter and the same could be said in reverse.
That said, Usman is ultimately treating Burns like the next biggest threat to his title and that means the Brazilian contender is going to get the absolute best of him from the first second of the opening round until the fight is finally finished.
“I will say it’s definitely different because you’ve felt them. You know the areas where you kind of had the upper hand and they know that as well,” Usman said. “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.”
In his two most recent fights, Usman has dealt with a pair of opponents who talked as much trash as possible to either hype the event or perhaps to attempt to get into his head before setting foot in the octagon.
Colby Covington took a number of personal jabs at Usman and even with only five days’ notice after booking the fight, Jorge Masvidal spent that entire time cutting weight and cutting down the UFC welterweight champion.
This time around, Usman has only heard respectful comments from Burns and outside of an understandable prediction that he’ll win at UFC 258, the Brazilian hasn’t said much of anything that could be misconstrued as taking a shot at a former teammate.
Considering the satisfaction felt from breaking Covington’s jaw when they met in 2019 or winning a largely one-sided decision against Masvidal this past July, it might seem like Usman won’t have the same kind of motivation with somebody like Burns.
It turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“In a sense they’re all different but when it gets closer to the fight, they’re all the same,” Usman said. “These guys all sit there and look at what I’ve earned and what I’ve worked for and say ‘I want that. I want to eat his food. I want to take his plate.’ So at the end of the day, I have to be that same savage to go in there and defend each and every time.
“It’s a little different in a sense but at the same time, I see no face. When we get in there, they’re all the same.”
That’s how he feels about the aftermath of the fight as well.
He may not call Burns a teammate any longer but he has no animosity towards him right now outside of the fact that somebody is coming for his welterweight title.
Assuming Usman wins on Saturday night, he’ll gladly shake Burns’ hand and put the fight behind them but he can’t say for certain if his opponent will feel the same way.
“That depends on him and how they take it,” Usman said. “I see no face when I step in there so it depends on how they take it. Jorge Masvidal stepped up, he took his loss and he took it like a man and he shook hands and we went about our business. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen again but it all depends on how they take it.
“If [Burns] takes it well, it is what it is, but if he doesn’t, it also it is what it is. I’m walking out there with my hand raised.”