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You’ve likely heard more than a few times in the lead-up to Saturday’s fight about how well Kumaru Usman and Gilbert Burns know each other. They trained together. They’re friends. You get it.
That’s all fine and well. Everyone loves a good narrative. But when dissecting this welterweight title right, you have to get past that. Who holds the edge when the lights are brightest and the stakes are highest? These questions can only be answered Saturday night when the fight for gold is on.
With a record of 19-3, The 2012 Ultimate Fighter Brazil competitor holds a second-degree black belt in BJJ and is a multiple-time Gold Medal World Champion in the human chess match.
A bronze Medalist in the ADCC World Championships in 2015, it is clear that Burns is on a world-class stage when it comes to competition grappling. With six wins by KO and eight by submission, Burns has only been finished once in his career by way of KO. This KO came by the hands of Dan Hooker in 2018 in the very first round. Since then, Burns has been on a six-fight rip with two coming by way of finish.
Burns is starting to realize that his grappling is at a level that many people cannot compete with, and in turn, it will just open up his striking to become much more effective. A more dialed-in focus on the feet has really opened up a new world for the streaking fighter.
However, this fact is extremely predicated on his matchup. If Burns is fighting someone well-versed on the ground, they will be a little less inclined to fight as cautiously on the feet with him. I do like the way Burns mixes things up on the feet. He will bait you in with an array of strikes — high and low. He possesses sellable feints, a very good leg game, and commits fully to his strikes in the hopes you will change a level on him, where his world of endless skill can start to motor.
In Burns’ most impressive career win, he had Tyron Woodley on his bike and heels moving backward the entire fight, and basically took what he wanted with nothing fired back in exchange. He took an occasional pop shot here and there, but he knew that the pressure would ultimately get to Woodley, and it did.
He will, of course, have a different animal in front of him with Usman, and how he handles it will be the determining factor in whether or not Burns leaves Saturday night with UFC gold.
The Nigerian Nightmare enters the ring with a 17-1 record, his only blemish thus far coming in what was only his second MMA fight ever. Since then, Usman has used his athletic ability, pressure, conditioning, and cage IQ to rip off 16 straight wins, capturing UFC gold in the process.
Usman’s fight against Colby Covington taught us so much about him as a fighter. It showed his conditioning, his chin, his ability to match the volume, to push back, and have the pop to finish the fight in the fifth after a back-and-forth war of attrition. The most impressive thing about that victory, though, was his composure. He never got overly excited. He never charged in. He never got sold on the head games and simply let the fight come to him. He trusted the process, which is imperative in this game, along with trusting his gas tank, his coaches, and his ability.
That approach is very similar to gambling: It’s a process and a long game. Chasing is for losers and chasers never win. You let the plays come to you and you will always be ahead in the end. Chasing is for the fearful, and Usman never got rattled. He saw the process working and understood that there was nothing that Covington could throw at him to really checkmate him.
Usman has answers everywhere, which not many fighters really can say. Want to stand? He will mirror you forward, utilizing his jab in a calm manner until he finds more of a mark to open up. Want to wrestle? He will use his extremely solid pedigree to neutralize you to his advantage. Think you are going to outwork him? Chances are not in your favor.
So how do you beat him? That’s what Burns is going to try to figure out on Saturday.
How I’m Betting
Usman is as good as advertised, and Burns’ performance against Woodley may have made him look better than he actually is. Don’t get me wrong. Burns is very good and well-deserving of this shot, but he has never faced someone like Usman before.
Usman has faced the top talent in the division and has beaten them all, but he isn’t sitting back. He continues to evolve and recently brought in noted trainer Trevor Wittman to continue to tighten up some loose nuts and bolts. Wittman has done great work most notably for Justin Gaethje.
Burns is going to try to test Usman early and I see him being the more aggressive fighter from the onset. However, he will be dealing with a fighter who will move forward himself and keep the pressure on. He will learn early that Usman will find a way to push back slowly and start meeting him in the middle. Usman will eventually start owning the space of the cage and if it does hit the mat, Usman’s wrestling will be positional enough to nix out the submission threats of Burns.
Usman is steady and not a hunter of the finish, so I expect him to work at a steady pace, just pocketing rounds along the way. If there is a finish, I can see it coming after the midway point of the fight, but the majority of Usman’s fights are a dragged-out grinding affair. In 17 wins, he has nine by decision with eight of his last 10 coming that way. His last five fights all went to the cards, which makes him seasoned in dealing with the championship rounds of fights.
Burns went five rounds in his last fight against Woodley, but the conditioning against a guy who is giving you no pressure is far different than five rounds with a guy like Usman. It is a hard sell to pick against Usman until proven otherwise.
The pick: Usman
Kumaru Usman: $9,000
- 100+ Points: 8 in last 10
- 5th round: 5 of last 10
- Streak: 10 of last 10
- Most Notable Win: Colby Covington
- TD AVG: 3.4
- Finishes: 2 of last 10 (2 KO)
- Physical Advantages: Five-Inch Reach Advantage; Switch Fighter
- Avg FP: 125
- Hedge 6-7 of 10
Usman has shown the ability to score at a very high rate despite the lack of finishes. His pace, pressure, and conditioning mark him as an elite play whenever he is on the board. Whether you are riding with him to win or lose, it would be foolish to not get him into your lineups no matter what his price in a five-round fight. With eight of his last 10 fights blowing the leather off the ball in 100-plus points, you can decide for yourself.
Gilbert Burns: $7,200
- 100+ Points 6 in last 10
- 5th round 1 of last 10
- Streak 6 of last 10
- Most Notable Win: Woodley
- TD AVG: 2.3
- Finishes: 5 of last 10 (1KO 4Sub)
- Avg FP: 79
- Hedge: 3-4 of 10
Burns holds clear value at his price and there is something to be said about momentum. The highly decorated BJJ black belt can do it on the ground and with heavy leather if he starts to really lay it on you. He has his work cut out for him against a man who can nullify so many areas, but to say he doesn’t have a legit chance with upside would be foolish. Don’t be foolish. Play smart.
Photo Credit: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Pictured: Kamaru Usman, Gilbert Burns