Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns headlines UFC 258 this February 13, 2021 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States.
One sentence summary
David: Hughes vs. Charuto: the 17 years later edition
Phil: Hooft on Hooft action
Record: Kamaru Usman 17-1 Gilbert Burns 19-3
Odds: Kamaru Usman -260 Gilbert Burns +240
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Usman is starting to walk the path of ‘welterweight grinder’ ala Hughes and GSP. Whether he can achieve what they did at their height is anyone’s guess, but he’s done nothing but win and more importantly: he broke Colby Covington’s face. His reign so far has been a mixed bag. No, not in terms of the quality of his performance, but in terms of his quality of opposition. Covington and Masvidal are solid fighters, but neither strike me as the Penn to Usman’s GSP/Hughes. It’s a credit to Usman that his welterweight run has gone off without a hitch. But could Burns be that man? That classic rival? Spoiler alert: I don’t think he is, but I’ve been wrong before. A lot.
Phil: Usman is that rarity- a champ who has gone undefeated in a major MMA promotion, who was earmarked for success (being the #1 WW prospect in the world in BE’s own scouting report for example) and went on to achieve it without much of a hitch. His obstacles have less been the people that he’s fought than his own style: crushing physical strength parlayed into top control is unappetizing both for matchmakers and for opponents who are looking to sign on the dotted line against him. It was his willingness to step in on short notice and take tough fill-in spots which convinced the UFC that he would make a good “company man” champion, I think. Now it’s just a matter of turning that title into a championship reign for the record books.
David: Burns has had a wonky path to the title. What began as a lightweight journey with bumps and bruises to highlight an ignominious end turned into something of a manifest destiny at welterweight. He’s a lot more comfortable, and equipped to fight at this weight, which I was highly skeptical of. Getting knocked out by lighter weight fighters is traditionally a red flag, but hey — if Rafael dos Anjos could do it. And so now here we are, talking about Burns like he’s one win away from being the welterweight champion. I still don’t know how we got here.
Phil: Burns UFC run was rocky right from the start, where he found himself stuck in a surprisingly ragged fight with future action fighting staple Cowboy Oliveira in his sophomore fight. Burns looked borderline panicked to be in there with a physical force like Oliveira, but turned the fight around with a mounted armbar in the third. Struggles with Magomedov, Prazeres and Hooker indicated that he was going to have the troubles of many expert BJJ crossovers: not sure whether to focus on the wrestling to get the game to the mat, or the striking to make sure that it didn’t matter. Welterweight has been a renaissance for him, and if some of the wins he’s gotten have been a bit long in the tooth, the consistency with which he has taken and won fights is remarkable.
What’s at stake?
David: It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. If it’s a close fight, we’ll probably see a quick, if not immediate rematch. Khamzat Chimaev and Leon Edwards are the future of welterweight contention, but Edwards might be taking a detour to the 209, and then there’s Chimaev. That’s right Gina. COVID can have serious long term side effects. Who knew pathogens could do damage to the body?!
Phil: Welterweight greatness for Usman. GSP is going to be a tough GOAT to catch seeing as he started his second reign at about 26 years old and Usman is 33 years old. Conversely, Burns has a chance to render a pretty significant upset.
Where do they want it?
David: Usman brings a classic welterweight lunch pail style of clacking meat and sweat together to clinch victories; literally and figuratively. With his folkstyle pugilism, he’s all about breaking down opponents systematically. Victory is a marathon, not a sprint for Usman. Underhooks, bodylocks, and attrition strikes are the name of the game. For some people, it’s not a lot of fun to watch but I like it. Remember Sagat in the OG Street Fighter? Tiger shot, tiger shot, tiger knee, tiger shot, tiger shot, tiger knee. Predictability has an elegance all its own, and I’ve always appreciated fighters who want to do one thing, and force you to beat that one thing. Predictability goes both ways: if your opponent knows what you’re gonna do, chances are, you’ll know what they’re gonna do in response. Usman is not the most technical wrestler, per se. You won’t see the intricacies you find in a Khabib, for example, and the way he leverages position into something beyond attrition strikes and hip control. But Usman’s persistence is second to none. As he showed against Covington, he’s not lost on the feet either. Part of this is a credit to his (and Burns’) coach, Henri Hooft. Usman has the perfect striking style to complement his strategy. With his long reach, he probes with the jab while keeping his stance straight with almost zero overreach. It’s funny. You would never know Usman’s wingspan is so disproportionate precisely because he fights much smaller than he is. In lesser hands, that might be a contradiction, but because Usman is only ever aggressive in the clinch, and against the cage, it forces opponents between a rock and a hard place. Try to blitz him, and you’ll be in range for a bodylock. Try to outpoint him, and he can pick you off from afar. I think that’s why we all struggled to beat Sagat in Street Fighter. He was a paradox engine: with his long reach, and massive frame, you’d assume he’d just close the distance and manhandle you with that Thai clinch, but instead he pressured without getting too close. That didn’t make sense to a middle schooler’s Hulk Smash logic. Usman’s opponents probably feel the same way.
Phil: There are many fighters who take immense physical gifts and cheat with them, by investing in the stuff which only they can pull off, but Usman’s consistent success has been down to doggedly sticking to the fundamentals which any MMA fighter should learn. Then he turbocharges those fundamentals by being freakishly big, strong and durable. Before the Covington fight, I had my skepticism that Usman could fight consistently without the cage as his ally: he’s always been pushing his opponents back into the cage. There his shot selection has been enhanced by knowing his opponent is stuck on the end of his reach, and he can default to his cage wrestling if necessary. The Covington fight was something of a revelation here, in that Usman stood in the center and calmly won a range kickboxing fight, fencing behind the jab, sinking in big right hands to the body against the southpaw, and eventually knocking Colby out. It’s a scary development, although one he (probably wisely) shelved against Masvidal in favour of grinding the Cuban out against the cage.
David: I’ve officially gotten past my Burns skepticism. And not just because he made me look like a fool in picking Woodley over him. But in fairness, one of the things that’s hard to analyze is how well changes in a fighter’s style due to camp, coaching, or inner growth either maximize or minimize a fighter’s inherent strengths. While Burns has always been a power spammer of sorts, he’s only recently been able to channel that into ideal weapons to support his jiu jitsu prowess. Favoring the lead leg for offense, he bursts in with heavy strikes to sequence for quick double legs and singular pressure. It’s a very linear style that wouldn’t work well for most fighters, but Burns is such a powerful threat on the feet and on the ground, it helps establish a groove that’s hard for opponents to calibrate. Since I’m using nothing but Street Fighter analogies today, Burns attacks like an FADC combo. There’s not really a good way to defend it. You have to simply fight past it. If you can.
Phil: Burns was not a tall lightweight (reference his fight against Hooker) and is a downright squat welterweight. What he lost in reach at this weight class he’s made up for in durability and aggression, and more of an ability to lean on both those traits. There are many tricky things about this style matchup for him: the fact that Usman is a long, powerful jabber and Burns never throws straight punches. There is the way that Burns tends to concede space, and Usman is still a tenacious pressure fighter who does his best work by the cage. There is the simple size disparity. But, Burns is a big, aggressive puncher and a nasty sub threat, and that’s the kind of dynamic offense you need to engineer upsets. For all Usman’s many skills and physical attributes, he is at the very least not a defensive wizard, who tends to stay in his stance and watch punches crash into his jaw so that he can punch back.
Insight from past fights
David: Just kidding. I am still a Burns skeptic. One of the things we still haven’t seen Burns do well is respond to pressure. Alexey Kunchenko is a solid fighter, but he’s not a title contender and Alexey forced Burns into some really inefficient backwards movement. I don’t take too much stock into that fight. Again, Kunchenko is underrated. And that was Burns’ return to WW after a five year absence. But neither Nelson, Maia, nor Woodley are anything close to pressure fighters. On the contrary, they’re perfectly suited for Burns’ simplistic attack. However, Usman isn’t the perfect fighter either. While he has excellent posture, his defense still leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn’t move his head, doesn’t always keep a safe distance, and his ability to generate offense comes entirely from Me Want Forward Movement.
Phil: I would take a small exception with that list: I think Demian Maia is a pressure fighter, and that’s what he was able to do against Burns. The aforementioned tendency to give ground was on display in that fight, as Burns tried to outfight his countryman and ended up getting trapped on the fence and taken down. He scrambled back to his feet and walloped Maia, but it wasn’t a tremendously encouraging outcome if you’re looking for rock-solid cage control. In addition, Burns still has a loss to a grinder (Prazeres) on his record and the aforementioned struggles with big, rangy guys like Hooker and Oliveira.
David: Trevor Wittman? Usman is such a classically trained fighter, I do wonder about outside influence. It’s not that I question Wittman’s ability. On the contrary. But coaches have their own biases too. Even the right cook in the right kitchen can burn the soup.
Phil: Wittman seems like such a great coach, both at driving fundamentals into his fighters and at getting them to perform at their best, even if they’re a bit... unique, personality-wise (Rose and Gaethje, for example). I think the interesting X-Factor is how the experience between these two plays out- who got the better of the other in sparring, how does that inform how each of them responds? If Usman won, does he play it safe, and does Burns sell out for big offense early?
David: Colby landed a lot of shots on Usman because he’s a heavy volume puncher, and kind of underrated as far as technique goes. Burns is none of that. He doesn’t throw in combination, and likes to get out as much as he likes to scramble in. I do believe there’s a nuance to Burns’ striking I’m understating. He executes with enough movement and weaving to keep his strikes from being fully telegraphed, but he’s also one of those fighters where if he’s backing up, he’s neutralized. The tactical x-factor is if Usman doesn’t want to take it to the ground at all because of Burns’ grappling. That will favor Usman on the surface, but it also gives Burns a window to quick-sequence his striking/double leg combinations, which I think is a very real threat Usman would be wise to respect. Sure Burns isn’t the better wrestler, but he’s an extremely fast, and had zero issue putting Woodley on his back with these strike-shoot sequences. Kamaru Usman by Decision.
Phil: I think it’s just a rough matchup for Burns. I can’t see him taking Usman down, and his tendency to throw raw low kicks opens him up for Usman’s long punches. Usman’s favoured tactic of grinding it out on the floor and in the clinch may still be available against Burns, but even if it isn’t he’s a more consistent pressure fighter, and Burns just doesn’t have the calm under fire that would be necessary to have an Eddie Alvarez or Dustin Poirier-type fighting off the fence performance. The possibility that he just clobbers Usman is still a real one, but it’s not one I can realistically bank on. Kamaru Usman by unanimous decision.