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Gilbert Burns' Grace Under Pressure


At first, Gilbert Burns thought his March fight against Alex Oliveira was going to be easy.

Sure, it was a short notice bout that took him from facing a world-ranked contender in Josh Thomson to an unknown making his Octagon debut in Oliveira, but Burns was fighting in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro and looking to keep his unbeaten record intact. So motivation wasn’t an issue, and as soon as he got his opponent to the mat early on, he assumed it was game over for the “Cowboy.”

“In the first round, as soon as I took him down easily in the first couple minutes, I underestimated this guy a little bit,” Burns said. “When I took him down, I thought the fight was in my hand and I just wanted to finish him. I thought it was going to be easy. And I made that fight hard. I got overconfident.”

So overconfident that Oliveira was up two rounds heading into the final frame at Ginásio do Maracanãzinho. Burns knew he was losing, and so did his coach, Henri Hooft. Hooft is not one to sugarcoat things either, so he gave it straight to his fighter when Burns admitted to not being able to find the unorthodox Oliveira.

“Of course you’re not finding him because you’re waiting for him,” Hooft said. “You’ve got to go forward. If you’re waiting, you’re gonna lose. You can beat this guy, just go forward.”

It’s a familiar conversation between any fighter on the verge of losing and his coach. Many fighters take that advice and do nothing with it, either accepting the loss or sticking with the plan that hasn’t worked over the previous ten minutes.

Burns? He roared back, looked for the finish he needed and got it, submitting Oliveira at 4:14 of the third round and getting a Performance of the Night bonus in the process.

“It wasn’t easy, but when I started to put my rhythm and my pace, I controlled the fight and I think I grew up a lot,” he said. “It was a great experience, he’s a tough fighter.”

The victory kept Burns unbeaten as he moved to 10-0, but beyond the numbers, it proved a lot when it came to his future goal to become a lightweight world champion. Like a lot of unbeaten fighters, he’s had his way with opponents through much of his career, yet when push came to shove and he was forced to dig deep and get through adversity to win, he did it. A lot of hot prospects don’t pass that test, and “Durinho” did with flying colors.

“Sometimes you gotta prove a point,” he laughs. “Sometimes a fight is not as easy as we make it look. Like two fights ago I submitted a guy (Christos Giagos) in the first round and I make it look easy, but it wasn’t easy.”

A comment like that confirms that what we see from outside the Octagon is often a lot different than what actually goes on inside it. And that’s not even counting what goes on in the gym, and the 29-year-old Burns, who is as honest as they come, is blunt when talking about the training camp for his Saturday bout in Sao Paulo against Rashid Magomedov.

“This training camp was one of my worst training camps ever,” he says with the same nonchalance as he would describing the weather in his training home of Boca Raton, Florida. “I got beat up by a couple different guys who don’t do jiu-jitsu. They’re stand-up fighters and it was hard. But the more I train, the more I bleed, it will be easier in the fight. Sometimes it’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to get used to it, and I think the fight is not going to be worse than my training.”

In other words, he likes that he was the nail and not the hammer during his training sessions with his Blackzilian teammates. That’s the point for him. If everything is easy in the gym, what happens when the going gets tough on fight night? He wants to know what it feels like before the lights are shining their brightest and when his paycheck is determined by what happens during that 15 minutes.

“I started to compete on a high level in jiu-jitsu when I was 15 years old and I know that when the pressure comes, you have to be ready,” said the second-degree jiu-jitsu black belt and four-time world champion in the gentle art. “You’ve got to train under pressure and be out of the comfort zone. I think that’s my main thing. My background is grappling, but I train a lot in my stand-up while a lot of guys stay in their comfort zone. I like to get away. I want to learn, I want to get better, and when you train like that, you start to get used to the pressure.

“The main thing in my career is to get the right mindset and get the confidence, and the way I do that is with my preparation,” Burns continues. “I’ve got to go to hell in my training, I’ve got to get in trouble, and I’ve got to get frustrated. And if I have the same feelings in a fight, I’m used to it. I think the thing that makes champions is not only the fight, but the training.”

He will put that theory to the test against a fellow unbeaten in Magomedov, and on paper, this fight is a pick ‘em matchup where the winner could be decided by who has more intangibles on their side. And if that comes up even, Burns wouldn’t mind a little help from his friends in Sao Paulo.

“I have a lot of experience in jiu-jitsu fighting in Brazil, I lived in Sao Paulo for almost four years, and I love to fight for my crowd, for my people,” he said. “The Brazilian crowd is so crazy and so nice, so it’s a pleasure to fight in Brazil. There’s always extra. I know that if I need that momentum, a little bit of a push, the crowd is gonna help me a lot, so I’m excited to fight in Brazil again.”

And about that whole pressure thing?

“It’s all pressure,” he laughs. “If you’re defending the title, if you’re fighting for the title, if you’re undefeated, not undefeated, there’s always pressure and you’ve got to handle that. But I don’t look at that; I want to look at this as an opportunity. I’m coming to Brazil and fighting on the big show in a big arena, and that’s how I look at it. I’m happy that I’m able to do what I love.”