They have been training partners for eight years and have shared around 200 rounds of sparring. But this Saturday night in Las Vegas, at UFC 258 (live and exclusive on RMC Sport 1 from 4 a.m. Saturday night to Sunday), the two will compete for the UFC welterweight belt. Focus on the relationship between Nigerian Kamaru Usman, undefeated UFC champion, and his Brazilian challenger Gilbert Burns, a friendship that surrounds their fight with question marks.
They both know. And everyone knows the other knows. Or maybe they know without really knowing. Before ending up in the octagon this Saturday night in Las Vegas for UFC 258, welterweight belt at stake, champion Kamaru Usman and his challenger Gilbert Burns share one thing: they know. “I love that he’s so confident as we approach this fight,” said the first at a press conference. “He’s worked for. Over the last year and a half he’s done a really good job. see him, I recognize him and I say well done to him for that. But we both know what’s going to happen. ” And the second to answer him: “He knows that I can submit him anywhere, anytime, in any position. He knows it and he is going to be careful of that because he is aware of it. He says. that people know who’s going to win… Oh yeah. He knows that. “
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The Nigerian and the Brazilian are not diviners. But if they play it like that, it’s because their confrontation has a very special flavor. If you like rivalries pushed to their limits, where insults fly as much as blows, this fight is not for you. No animosity on one side or the other. Usman and Burns will never throw bird names at each other. They will not deny their past, their friendship, mutual respect. “The Nigerian Nightmare” and “Durinho”, who made their UFC debuts nine months apart in 2015 and 2014, have shared the same workouts for eight years. When he moved to Florida to launch his MMA career in 2012, Usman joined the Blackzilians team where Burns was already playing. They then both follow Henri Hooft, their Dutch kickboxing coach, when he sets up his Hard Knocks 365 gym – since renamed Sanford MMA – in 2017.
In all, Hooft estimates that the two sparred together “about 200 times”, “hard and crazy” sessions according to Burns. We’ve even seen Usman in Burns’ corner. Enough to know each other by heart and “know” even before sharing the octagon. “Anyone knows what’s going to happen,” laughed Daniel Cormier, former heavy and light heavyweight champion, on DC & Helwani on ESPN +. Rashad Evans knew that. When he faced Jon Jones, he knew it. I knew it too! I knew it! That’s why I didn’t do it. I was like, ‘I can’t beat this guy!’ Especially as we talked about it. I can’t beat Cain Velasquez! ” “DC” refers to the fight between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, former training partners turned best enemies, for the light heavyweight belt at UFC 145 in April 2012. And his refusal to step up to the heavyweight for his training partner Cain Velasquez when the latter was champion of the category.
“I hurt him, he hurt me”
According to him, facing a former or current teammate gives a psychological advantage to the one who used to dominate the other. What do the interested parties think? “We trained so many hours together, Burns remembers for MMA Fighting. We had a few wars. I hurt him a few times, he hurt me a few times. I know a lot about him and he knows a lot about me. I don’t know if it’s good or bad to know this guy as much as I know him. I use what I know about him for my strategy but it’s the same for him so he is hard to say whether it benefits me or not. I think it is because I know how ready I have to be for him and I work for it. But so does he. I don’t know if that helps as much as that. We’ll find out soon. “
Usman makes the same observation. But specifies that there is no more friendship that counts once the cage is closed. “It’s really different because you felt it,” the welterweight champion explains to MMA Fighting. “You know the things you have an advantage over and they know them too. You know what they’re good at. That makes it happen. a little different. But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any face. I’m sitting on top of the mountain. He’s the one who wanted this fight. It’s these guys who are like, ‘We want what’ he has, we want to take his plate and eat his food. ‘If you want what you have, I have to defend it. I have to go and show them why I am at the top. I have to be the same savage every time who comes to defend what ‘he has. It’s different in a way, yeah, but when they get in the cage, they’re all the same to me. “
The UFC pulled out a trailer with the evocative title: “It’s not personal, it’s business.” With all this, the duel between the Nigerian wrestler and the Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist was already fascinating. A game of chess where you wonder how each will use their knowledge of the other, where none need to study the video to prepare their game plan. It is even more so since last June, when Usman left Sanford, Hooft and Burns to join Colorado and coach Trevor Wittman, who takes care of Rose Namajunas and Justin Gaethje. Burns once joked that he should prepare for a fight against Usman… by separating Usman. This ultimately will not have been the case. Weeks earlier, Burns had beaten former champion Tyron Woodley – from whom Usman took the belt in March 2019 – and positioned himself as a challenger for his belt.
With a fight scheduled for July 12, then canceled due to a positive for Covid-19 for the Brazilian and rescheduled in December before a new cancellation, the first Nigerian champion in the UFC – Israel Adesanya was after him – had chosen to move away to better prepare for the fratricidal shock. “I had come to a point where I needed certain things in order to be able to grow taller, he admits. Over time, I felt I needed a little more. It’s hard to have That’s when you’re on a team where there are thirty fighters and your coaches leave almost every week from the middle of the week. It makes it difficult to get the personal attention you need to stay on top. end, I didn’t feel like I had that 100%. There are other underlying things that happened that I don’t want to talk about now, that helped push towards this decision sooner and faster but it was something I wanted for a long time. “
Real fight, real stakes
He says he found happiness in Wittman, who praises “his work ethic and his humility” (he does not hesitate to seek advice from Namajunas and Gaethje) and evokes “an already strong relationship with him”. And with all the setbacks, he was able to work (and evolve) a few more months with his new coach before the reunion in the octagon. The plot grows: will the UFC 258 version Kamaru be different from the Usman that Burns was used to sparring with? Jorge Santiago, Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach at Wittman, says “Usman is a whole different fighter.” But Burns knows him better than anyone, or almost anyone, and vice versa for that matter, and won’t be completely surprised anyway. Both have spent time making each other better and will now face the outcome. But for the first time, they will face each other in a real fight with real stakes.
So who will be able to best adapt their strategy? Who will benefit from the past? In Burns, who has been able to rely on a room where everyone knows Usman’s strengths and weaknesses? “That’s the thing I think I have an advantage over, replied the person. He left the team but all the teammates who helped me prepare for this fight know him very well and everyone could tell me things like, ‘Oh, he’s doing this well, be careful about that’ or ‘You’re going to touch him with that.’ Their advice was really good, so was the coaches. If it was just between Kamaru and me, yeah, it would be 50-50, I know him and he knows me. But the difference with the team-mates and the coaches gives me a little advantage. “
To Usman who has been able to prepare differently in recent months but who knows how Burns works at Sanford (and who may still have moles there to fill him in)? “I think that’s a huge advantage,” Wittman replies from the UFC website. “Burns stayed on the same team so Kamaru knows him well. But Burns doesn’t know Kamaru from the last year. He’s a Different Kamaru. I don’t take any credit for making Kamaru a champion but I do take it for making him even better and filling the holes that were left in him. We want to show that he has become a different animal. . ” Henri Hooft did not coach Burns for this fight and will not be around. Given his past with the two, he prefers to remain neutral and pay homage to them on Instagram: “I am proud to see two of my guys at the top of their discipline. (…) I know the best will win but for me they are all both of the winners. ” However, it will take one. Which will undoubtedly have to avoid a pitfall: focusing too much on the opponent because we know him too well.
“It’s a little weird because I don’t really want to go to the coach and say, ‘What do you think?’ I don’t want to do that, explains the Brazilian. It’s not me. I want to focus on my techniques, on what I can do, and improve them. I don’t want to focus too much on Kamaru. focus on me. ” Burns, with a more devastating punch and who says he has “progressed everywhere” since the departure of his friend, will he find the key to bringing down a dominant and still undefeated champion in the UFC (in case of victory he would surpass the legend? Georges St-Pierre for the best series of welterweight victories in the organization)? He admits that it won’t be easy, because he knows better than anyone who is in front, but relies on what separates him to grab the belt: “Kamaru seeks first to dominate his opponent. He wants to dominate you, get you in trouble, tire you out and then hurt you. I’m different from him. I want to finish you, I want to hurt you, knock you out, submit you. If I can’t, then I think about dominating. But I am thinking of finishing first. “
“We ignored all that”
On the other side, will Usman have the formula to dismiss the one he knows so well? And will he be as motivated to hurt a friend as he is against disrespectful Colby Covington or against lodger Jorge Masvidal, the fighters beaten for his first two defenses of the title? “Facing a former teammate doesn’t give Kamaru any extra motivation, not even a little,” Wittman says. “We put that aside. I spent time so that Kamaru didn’t see Burns as a former teammate and friend. . Burns ‘goal is to take everything Kamaru worked so hard for and if I think they can remain friends after the fight, Kamaru must end Burns’ title aspirations. ” The fight is less “seller” than others but hits the top of the sports basket. He is super intriguing, above all. We’ve understood why.