- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
It’s one of the most intriguing prefight storylines in combat sports. Teammate versus teammate. Friends turned foes.
In MMA, there’s a pretty common stance on teammates fighting each other: They typically refuse to do it — unless a championship belt is at stake. Well, there will be a belt on the line on Saturday at UFC 258.
Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman (17-1) will look to defend his title against longtime teammate Gilbert Burns (19-3) this weekend inside the UFC’s Apex facility in Las Vegas. The two were teammates with Blackzilians and then Sanford MMA in South Florida from 2012 to 2020. Only after they were lined up to fight each other last spring did Usman leave to train with coach Trevor Wittman in Denver.
There are varying degrees of “betrayal” in a fight between former teammates. It’s not hard to come up with examples of it turning ugly. Years ago, Tito Ortiz felt Chuck Liddell stabbed him in the back when Liddell went after his UFC light heavyweight title. Rashad Evans thought his team at Jackson Wink MMA sold him out for a younger phenom in Jon Jones back in 2011.
There has been no bad blood between Usman and Burns going into UFC 258, but as one can imagine, the relationship has changed. Even if they remain friends past Saturday, for 25 minutes they’ll try to deny each other a UFC title — and everything (symbolically and financially) that comes with it.
And for Usman, this title fight is especially important, following a slow five-round title defense over Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251. Usman is not a bona fide star yet, so any chance to beat an established one (like Masvidal) is an opportunity to build his brand. Instead, many fans were displeased with the conservative game plan Usman used in that fight.
Should Usman beat Burns, he has several high-profile matchups potentially in his future, including rematches with Masvidal and his most heated rival, Colby Covington, as well as a fight against 2020 breakout star Khamzat Chimaev.
It could be a lucrative stretch coming up, but for that to be the case, Usman has to remain champ. And on Saturday, the man known as “The Nightmare” will have to do it against a welterweight who knows him better than any other.
By the numbers
0: Brazilians who have been UFC welterweight champion. It is the only men’s weight class in which a fighter from Brazil has never reigned. Burns is seeking to accomplish what Demian Maia, Thiago Alves, Andre Pederneiras and Jorge Patino all could not in their title challenges at 170 pounds.
2: Seconds that Usman has been in bottom position on the mat in his 12 UFC fights. That is the shortest total time on bottom in welterweight division history, which is significant with this weekend’s opponent being a four-time submission grappling world champion. Usman’s 54.3% of control time is the fourth best ever in the 170-pound division.
1.93: Strikes absorbed by Burns per minute in the Octagon, the lowest rate among active welterweights.
2: Fighters who have started their UFC careers with a longer win streak than Usman, who is 12-0 inside the Octagon. Anderson Silva started 16-0 in the UFC before losing to Chris Weidman in 2013, and Khabib Nurmagomedov went 13-0 before announcing his retirement in October.
18: Consecutive victories for the two fighters combined. Usman’s 12-fight winning streak ties him with UFC Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre for the longest such streak in welterweight division history. Burns has won six fights in a row, with the past four coming since he moved to 170 pounds in 2019.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
A look back
Five vs. five
Kamaru Usman’s most recent results
Win: Jorge Masvidal (UD, July 12, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Colby Covington (TKO5, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Tyron Woodley (UD, March 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Rafael Dos Anjos (UD, Nov. 30, 2018)
Win: Demian Maia (UD, May 19, 2018)
Gilbert Burns’ most recent results
Win: Tyron Woodley (UD, May 30, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Demian Maia (TKO1, March 14, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Gunnar Nelson (UD, Sept. 28, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Aleksei Kunchenko (UD, Aug. 10, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Mike Davis (Sub2, April 27, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Teammates turned foes: a brief history
Here are the most notable examples of training partners becoming Octagon opponents:
Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz: These former friends fought twice in the UFC over a span of two years. The rivalry began in 2004 at UFC 47, with Liddell knocking out Ortiz in the second round following a bitter buildup. In the rematch 2½ years later at UFC 66, this time with Liddell as light heavyweight champ, Liddell once again finished Ortiz with punches. The two met for a third time in 2018 under the banner of boxing’s Golden Boy Promotions, with Liddell coming out of retirement at 48 years old. This time Ortiz, 43, got the TKO.
Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans: Jones was just a year into his long title reign at light heavyweight when he faced former champion and Jackson Wink teammate Evans in 2012 at UFC 145. After months of bad blood came to the surface between the two, Jones scored a unanimous decision win over Evans to defend his title for the third time.
Cody Garbrandt vs. TJ Dillashaw: At UFC 217 in 2017, Garbrandt defended his bantamweight championship against his former Alpha Male teammate, who had left the team with striking coach Duane Ludwig. Dillashaw scored a second-round knockout to take the title. He won a rematch nine months later at UFC 227, this time knocking out Garbrandt in Round 1.
Dom & Gil’s film study
Dominick Cruz on how Usman sets up his power:
Gilbert Melendez on what Burns does to create openings:
And the winner is …
ESPN MMA analyst Gilbert Melendez, a former UFC lightweight who for his entire career had successful MMA fighters as his training partners, focused his fight breakdown on the teammate-vs.-teammate angle. “We’ll understand more about the dynamic shortly into the fight,” Melendez writes. “As soon as the bell rings, we’ll see if Usman is going to pressure Burns to the cage like he does to everyone else. If he stays at the center of the Octagon and holds his ground, it’ll show that he respects Burns’ grappling.”
Brandon Gibson, striking coach at JacksonWink MMA, believes these two former teammates will have all they can handle across the cage from them on Saturday. “Burns has been on fire. He looks great,” Gibson said. “The fight against Tyron Woodley, a unanimous decision win last May, was almost a flawless performance. I think Usman’s skill set but more so his size and his strength are going to be able to dictate where the fight goes. With these two guys being training partners for so long, they know each other very well.”
See what Gibson and other experts had to say by clicking here.
How to watch the fights
Watch the prelims on ESPN, ESPN Deportes or ESPN+: Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV
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There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Saturday’s fight card
PPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ET
Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Gilbert Burns | Welterweight
Maycee Barber vs. Alexa Grasso | Women’s flyweight
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Ian Heinisch | Middleweight
Ricky Simon vs. Brian Kelleher | Men’s featherweight
Maki Pitolo vs. Julian Marquez | Middleweight
ESPN/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Rodolfo Vieira vs. Anthony Hernandez | Middleweight
Belal Muhammad vs. Dhiego Lima | Welterweight
Polyana Viana vs. Mallory Martin | Strawweight
Andre Ewell vs. Chris Gutierrez | Catchweight (140 pounds)
ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET
Gabe Green vs. Phil Rowe | Welterweight
(c) = defending champion
Three more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Maycee Barber, who meets Alexa Grasso in the co-main event, is returning to the Octagon for the first time since tearing an ACL in a January 2020 fight with Roxanne Modafferi. It was Barber’s first career loss. Now the 22-year-old flyweight is seeking to become the second female fighter to start a UFC career with four knockouts in her first five fights, joining Cris Cyborg.
2. Kelvin Gastelum, who faces Ian Heinisch, is on a career-long three-fight losing streak, a skid that began with a close decision defeat against Israel Adesanya in a 2019 bout for an interim middleweight title.
3. Maki Pitolo is on a two-fight losing streak, but his middleweight opponent, Julian Marquez, has not competed since July 2018. Marquez has secured a finish in all seven of his career wins.
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight preview.
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