Gilbert Burns stood in the center of the Octagon moments after defeating Jorge Masvidal in the co-main event of UFC 287 last month in Miami, speaking with Joe Rogan.
After laying out that he’s one of the few people on the roster that is genuinely willing to fight anyone and says “Yes” whenever the UFC calls, the Brazilian welterweight declared his plans for the future.
“Leon Edwards! Colby Covington! Whoever is holding that belt, I’m coming for you!” Burns bellowed, much to the delight of the packed house in South Beach. “I’m not taking any other fight — only the title fight! Come on!”
Saturday night in Newark, New Jersey, the man that just last month declared he wasn’t taking any other fights steps in with Belal Muhammad in a five-round co-main event at UFC 288, so what changed?
Gilbert Burns | Greatest Hits
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Gilbert Burns | Greatest Hits
“To be honest, a lot of things changed,” Burns said with a laugh when we spoke just a few days prior to his departing for New Jersey. “I said, ‘I’m not fighting, I’m not fighting,’ but Tuesday or Wednesday of (the next) week, the current champion, Leon Edwards, said he’s not fighting in July.
“I said, ‘I want a title shot’ because everything was pointing to July 22 in London to be a welterweight title fight, and so July is right there, we’re close, let’s go. Whenever he said he’s fighting in October, everything changes and I said, ‘Man, now I gotta fight’ because otherwise Kamaru (Usman) wants to fight, Belal is there and wants to fight, maybe Shavkat (Rakhmonov), and it’s gonna get busy.
“A couple days after that, Oliveira unfortunately got hurt, fight was off, and Belal Muhammad was the first one out there, calling out Colby,” continued Burns, referencing the postponed lightweight pairing between former champ Charles Oliveira and top contender Beneil Dairush, which has been reshuffled to UFC 289 in Vancouver next month. “I said, ‘I like that,’ and then I started to make some calls — the UFC, my manager — and tweeted out the same thing, asking for Colby, too.
“A couple hours later, the UFC called me and said, ‘Colby is not available, but Belal is available’ and I said, ‘Let’s go!’”
It’s sound logic from the 36-year-old Brazilian, who earned a first-round submission win over Neil Magny in January at UFC 283 and will join fellow UFC 288 combatant Jessica Andrade in making their third appearances of the year this weekend.
The divisional landscape can shift and change with each passing event, one outcome realigning matchup possibilities and causing a ripple effect down through the ranks. New contenders emerge, new rivalries are sparked, and close battles or unsatisfying endings create a need for immediate rematches, forcing anyone trying to bide their time to jump back into the fray or risk being overtaken by those that do.
Stepping in to face Muhammad on short notice is no cake walk, either, but Burns would rather dictate his next steps than wait to see how things play out, and is ready to assume the risks that come with stepping in against the streaking juggernaut from Chicago.
“It’s always a risk; every single time in there,” Burns said, smiling. “In Brazil, go there to fight Neil Magny; not much to gain. Come here to Miami to fight Jorge; not much to gain. Fight Khamzat Chimaev; not much to gain at all. After I lost to Kamaru (Usman), they gave me ‘Wonderboy’ — I lost to a wrestler by TKO, and they gave me one of the best strikers; not much to gain there too.
“I’ve been risking a lot, but this risk is for a No. 1 contender fight. It’s a lot of risk because the guy that I’m facing is as hungry as me. He comes here with the same intentions: he wants the title shot, I want the title shot, so it should be a crazy fight.
“It’s way better for me to dictate my next steps than the other way of waiting,” he continued. “I said, ‘I’m gonna take the risk and roll the dice.’ I know it can go the other way — I want to win very badly, but I know if can go the other way, and if it goes the other way, I have full ownership and I’ll be fighting these guys.
“But I don’t believe that will happen — I do believe I will beat this guy,” Burns added. “I know when you take a risk, these two possibilities could happen, but I’ve put in all the work for it to go my way.”
Very seldom do you hear a fighter mention that things might not go their way when they step into the Octagon.
Interviews are usually filled with violent forecasts of dominant victories that are all but assured, and the talents of the man or woman set to stand across from them are mostly acknowledged in passing; a throwaway line about what they bring to the table sandwiched between more positive self-talk and vocalizing of a dream scenario that rarely unfolds as envisioned.
But Burns has been around this game for years, fought too many quality fighters and been a world-class competitor in both Brazilian jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts for too long to pretend like the task before him this weekend isn’t daunting.
It’s actually part of what has him so excited to step in there with Muhammad on Saturday night at “The Rock.”
“I respect him, I’m not overlooking him. I don’t think it’s going to be easy; it’s going to be very tough, and that gets me excited,” said Burns. “I know this guy is not going to quit, he’s going to keep coming. If I knock him down, he’s gonna get back up and keep coming. I know how tough he is and I’m getting ready for it.
“This guy is tough as nails. I know he’s as hungry as me — we both want that title, whatever it takes — and we’re showing up. We’re getting the tough road to being the champion in the UFC. A lot of guys get an easy way — a guy coming off a loss, get this, get that, get a handout title shot — but we both are getting the hard way, so, for sure, I respect this guy. I know how tough he is. I’ve looked at a couple fights that he won, I’ve seen the work he did to win fights; he’s very smart and he’s a dog; he’s not a quitter.
“I literally gotta put this guy out of there,” he added. “I’ve got to finish this guy or else it’s gonna be five rounds of war. I’m ready for it. I have a ton of respect and I’m looking forward to it.”
A month ago, Burns was ready to spend the summer hanging out with his family — fishing, travelling, enjoying the sunshine — while waiting for Edwards and Covington to duke it out for the welterweight title, hopeful that his body of work would be enough to secure him the next championship opportunity.
A month later, Burns is ready to step back into the Octagon to face Muhammad, risking his place in the pecking order in hopes of guaranteeing himself a second chance to claim UFC gold the next time he makes the walk to the cage.
He’s risking a lot, but the potential rewards were too great for “Durinho” to simply sit on the sidelines and let others dictate the direction his career takes.
“It’s hard for both guys, we’re both risking a lot,” he said. “Whoever wins, they’re going to feel great — going to have a title shot, a lot of fans — but the one that loses is going to be two, three steps behind, so we’re both risking a lot.
“I want gold, he wants gold, and everything is at stake. Whoever loses is three steps behind. Whoever wins is set — he’s going to get a better contract, going to fight for the title — so it’s a good risk.”
And if he’s victorious, that summer with his wife and kids will be even sweeter.
“That will feel amazing!” Burns said of potentially having secure a championship opportunity before heading into a carefree summer with his family. “Have a great time — go to Brazil, see my parents, have a great time with my kids; it’ll be nice.
“I go out there May 6 and get a win, that’s a great year for me; Fighter of the Year for me maybe, already, and the next one for the title, for sure, so then I can sit down and relax a little bit.
“But, as of right now, we just sit down for the interview and then go back to work.”