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Six Years with Josh Burkman

Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.

The reminders of Evan Tanner are everywhere for Josh Burkman.

“I got one doll,” he chuckles. “And it’s the little UFC doll of Evan Tanner and it just sits in my office. I look at it and wonder what would be going on if Evan was around right now. He always just seemed to drop into my life at different times.”

Tanner, the former UFC middleweight champion, tragically passed away at the age of 37 on September 5, 2008, after a trip into the desert in California turned tragic due to heat exposure.

Burkman, his longtime friend and training partner at various times over the years, would fight Pete Sell a little over a month and a half later.

Before September 5, Tanner spoke with Burkman, who was in his native Utah at the time.

“I just want to make sure you still have my snowboard,” Tanner told his friend. “I hope that one day I get to make it back and we get to go snowboarding again.”

“Yeah,” Burkman responded. “I’ll see you this winter, and let’s go.”

Burkman pauses before continuing.

“Even bringing it up now still throws me off a little bit, and I get a little emotional.”

One of the other reminders is visible every time he looks down at the hands he makes his living with. On his index finger is a scar and a missing nail, both of which he picked up on the day his father called him and told him of Tanner’s untimely death. A door slam followed, and with Burkman’s hand still in the door, the loss of the top of his finger.

“I’m looking at it as we sit here and talk,” he said quietly. At the time, he was already dealing with back and neck problems, and now with Tanner gone and a two-fight losing streak staring him in the face, another injury was just another obstacle to get over. But put them all together, and Burkman never had a chance against Sell, as he lost a three-round decision and his job in the UFC.

It didn’t compare to the loss of a friend though.

“Losing Evan Tanner and the way that it happened, it affected me a lot,” he said. “Evan was up in Utah living with me before that, and we became such good friends. He was good friends with my father, and our friendship was not just through training and fighting, it was through life.”

It hurt, but Burkman carried on. He didn’t talk much about Tanner publicly, choosing to keep his memories to himself.

“I could have, but I chose not to. I chose to just mourn and handle it in my own way and move on,” he said. “I still feel like those lessons I learned from Evan Tanner and the conversations we had were very unique, and I take them with me to this day.”

The most important lesson was that he needed to make some changes personally to be better professionally.

“I didn’t want to just travel around and train in different places and be a lone wolf,” he said. “So I decided to move back to Utah (from Las Vegas) and settle myself there again so I can be the man that my wife deserved. And once I got settled, I wanted to be a husband and have children, and be a father, and I think that has given me more purpose in my life than anything else. And now, being a martial artist, providing for my family, taking care of and being a good example for my boys has made me such a better man, a better athlete, and a better martial artist.”

Six years after Tanner’s passing and the Sell fight, Josh Burkman is back in the UFC, signing a new contract last Friday that will begin with a January 3 bout against welterweight contender Hector Lombard. It’s a development Burkman expected to happen a long time ago, but there were still some mountains to climb first, beginning with his year-long layoff following his release from the UFC.

“After the Pete Sell fight, it wasn’t necessarily just about healing my herniated disc in my neck or the bulging discs in my back, but I feel like because my body was off and my mind was so off, I was lost,” he said. “And that spiritually had me off. So I feel like that year off, more than fixing my body, more than trying to find that peace that I had in my life once before, it was healing my spirit. And I think that was one of the biggest things that year off did for me.”

Never hiding his desire to get back into the UFC, Burkman ran off three wins in 2009-10 before a loss to Jordan Mein in April of 2011. He would lose only once (to Steve Carl) in seven fights over the next three years, with victories over Gerald Harris, Aaron Simpson, and Jon Fitch keeping his name in the news and on the UFC radar. And when he was released from his World Series of Fighting contract last week, UFC President Dana White brought him back into the fold, and as the two talked, White pointed to a board on the wall listing the promotion’s welterweight roster.

“He (White) said ‘look on that board. This is wide open, so make the most of it,’” Burkman said. “When I first got into the UFC off The Ultimate Fighter, I had only been doing this for two years. So that first stint in the UFC was really just a big learning experience for me. Not to mention that I was just playing; I was having fun. So this time coming back, it’s a second chance at all that. This isn’t the learning phase. I always knew that I would make it back, and I knew that I would be at my best when I was able to come back. I feel like the timing is right and couldn’t be better.”

In 2005, the world belonged to Josh Burkman. A former college football standout, the Salt Lake City native turned to mixed martial arts and made his pro debut in 2003. He fought ten times in that first year, and by 2005, he was competing on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. On TUF 2, Burkman defeated Melvin Guillard but broke his arm, eliminating him from the competition. He was still brought back for the finale show, and from 2005 to 2008, he compiled a 5-5 record in the Octagon. Today, Burkman and Rashad Evans are the only members of the TUF 2 cast still in the UFC.

“I know that I’ve been doing this a long time, but when I start seeing my friends and co-workers retiring, I’m like ‘wow,’” he laughs. “I don’t even feel like that’s around the corner for me. I’m 34 years old, I started this sport at 22, and if anything, I feel like I’m figuring out my diet and my body and my training better, and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Randy Couture and Robert Follis for that. But I’m telling you, it’s marriage. Marriage has rejuvenated me, my wife is an incredible cook, a very healthy woman, she’s given me all those secrets that she has, and I think that’s part of it. They say behind every good man is a good woman; well, mine’s right next to me.”

Married to Brandy Lyn since 2011, the couple has a two-year-old son, Legend, with another boy due in January, 11 days after Burkman’s return to the Octagon. When he talks about his family, Burkman beams, and you can tell immediately that he’s not the same person he was back during his first stint in the promotion. That isn’t an indictment of the “old” Burkman, who was just having the fun any 20-something pro athlete would have at the time.

“I was a selfish person, I was a rebellious person, and I was a reckless person,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that I was a bad person.”

He laughs, but he’s right. Burkman was always one of the good guys, but he was reckless when it came to his career. That’s not the case anymore.

“There’s a drive to make sure I get the best out of this before I retire,” he said. “I think a lot of people retire from professional sports wishing they would have done more. I had a football career that could have been much more than it was, and when I got out of the UFC, I just decided to make a choice and to make some changes. And the biggest thing was that when I retire, I want to look back at my career and say that I gave it everything I had and I could be as good as I could be. And I still have not done that yet, but over the last two years, I’ve begun doing that and I think that the best part of my career is right in front of me.”

Perhaps more importantly, the best part of his life is in front of him, and he knows it. So after all those lessons, he must have something for his sons, right?

“I think the lesson that I’ll teach my sons is that I was a fighter when I was younger,” Burkman said. “And I tell people the definition of a fighter is to struggle. I would get in really good shape and then I would go and live my life in extreme and get really out of shape. And that was my balance. I was never really that focused. And the change that came into my life was when I turned into a martial artist, when the goal was to study this game all the time and to try to get better every day and revolve my lifestyle around it. I will try to teach them those lessons - that whatever it is that you choose to do, work at it and try to be better all the time.”