Josh Burkman is a tale of two people. He was a stud collegiate football player who became a mixed martial artist for the first half. He was a cast member of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. The jock vibe was strong, but his use of metaphysics was always stronger. He dated ring girls.
That Josh Burkman feels like a yearbook memory.
These days, living out in undisturbed Utah, Burkman might be a little too "new age" for popular taste. He will tell you without flinching that he healed himself holistically from a multitude of career-threatening ailments, and that raw foods and scripture were the key, along with a year off from fighting in which he rediscovered the power of positive reinforcement.
He can speak on behalf of chakras. He can expound wholesomely on the virtues of water. If you mention yoga, he can attest to the magic therein. Ask him about the importance of marriage, and he’ll have you believing in a harmony that resonates through the cosmos to shut down the lonesome, selfish abyss.
In a nutshell, Burkman is that guy who brings arcana into the self-conscious, often dubious world of fighting. He wards off skepticism with crystal clear eyes and a deep-rooted belief in profound interconnected things.
And since he came into alignment with all these elements, it’s hard to argue the results in something as earthbound as the cage.
Back in 2008, Burkman was at the tail end of his UFC career, when he fought Pete Sell at UFC 90 in Chicago. This was the low point to that half of his fight game existence.
"That last fight in the UFC against Pete Sell, I was running twice a week and hitting mitts twice a week getting ready for that fight," he says. "Because every time I did something my nerves would flare up and I couldn’t do anything but be on ice. I didn’t want to drop out of the fight. I still wanted to fight."
At that time, Burkman had an assortment of physical issues. By his own count, he had a herniated disc in his neck, four bulging discs in his back, not to mention arthritis and nerve damage from compressed discs. As he says, "I had the back of an old man." He wouldn’t pull out of the bout because, as he says, "I like to fight."
Then he lost for the third time in row. With his contract up, he decided to take a year away from fighting. That year away morphed into his own personal odyssey that went into his resurrection (and mysticism) as a fighter. It gave him time to heal, as he says, "in mind, body and spirit," without the use of drugs and surgeons. Since that hiatus, he’s gone 8-1 outside of the UFC.
He has, in essence, reinvented himself as a fighter.
"The protocol was, I was doing yoga, I was on a raw food diet, I was staying very hydrated, I had a sports psychologist, and I also had a guy name Robert Donatelli, who’s a neck and back specialist from the PGA and Major League Baseball," he says. "When I went in for another MRI, and they were like, your back looks a lot better.
"We regenerated discs through a holistic process."
Now at 33 years old, Burkman says he feels far better than he did at 28. He is getting set to fight Steve Carl for the inaugural welterweight title in the World Series of a Fighting, a promotion he has emerged as the unexpected face of. He got to this point by beating UFC veterans such as Gerard Harris and Aaron Simpson in his first WSOF shows.
But it was his last fight, against perennial top-three welterweight Jon Fitch, that truly spoke to Burkman’s renaissance. Fitch had gone 14-3-1 in the UFC, which made his release feel less premature than it did unwarranted. He was still a viable UFC elite. Heading into his WSOF debut, the only knock on Fitch was his style as a wrestling industrialist; he liked to grind opponents into bloody pulps for as many rounds were allotted. This wore thin on the UFC, but looked like gold to WSOF. Fitch, the name brand, had already beaten Burkman once back in 2006 in the UFC. It was thought that he would do so again in his new home.
Didn’t happen, though.
Forty one seconds into the fight, Fitch was being woken up by Steve Mazzagatti after getting choked out, and Burkman -- just as cool as you please -- came roaring into legitimacy. Shortly thereafter he began popping up in the top-10 space of welterweights.
"I had the opportunity to fight one of the top three welterweights of all time in our sport," he says. "The World Series of Fighting, they brought Fitch in thinking he was going to be the guy. There’s no doubt. There’s no way that they couldn’t have.
"And that was the biggest win of my career, hands down. I believe it was also good for our organization because it was almost like the UFC against WSOF. And I went out there and not only proved to our organization, but to everybody else, that there are great fighters outside of the UFC. That you should pay attention to them. If not, you might miss some really good fights."
Even with his career divided in "before" and "after" sectors, in his 36th professional MMA fight Burkman is fighting for his first title on Saturday night at WSOF 6 in Coral Gables, Fla.
"For me it means more because I started out in the first show with this organization," he says. "And I really feel like I’m part of this organization. The better they do, the better that I do, and obviously the better that I do, the better that the organization does. I think that goes for all the fighters. I’ve been here since day one, and I’ve fought for three of their shows. For me it’s more about I want to win this belt and I want to continue to prove that my style is one of the best styles in mixed martial arts, and I think holding the championship gives you a higher platform."
Burkman has been nothing short of impressive in his second coming as a mixed martial artist. Before he choked out Fitch, he put away Simpson with a lunging combination of punches followed by a big knee to close the deal.
Against Carl, Burkman knows he’ll be contending with a neck-hunter with a very unusual technique.
"He’s won six fights in a row, and he’s won all those six fights by submission in the first round," he says. "To do that at any level is impressive, but to do that at the professional level is even more impressive. He’s got this drunken monkey, very laid back but aggressive style of fighting. That unorthodox style is difficult, so I have a lot of respect for Steve Carl going into this fight.
"But I think there’s some things he’s not aware of, that I’m going to make him very aware of in this fight."
Burkman, who spent many years training out of state with Tito Ortiz in California, and Randy Couture in Las Vegas, now conducts all his training in Utah. He recently had a son, Legend, whom he says balances him further in the fight game. Since he’s been married, he is proud to point out that he’s gone undefeated. The difference between Burkman back in the day and the Burkman now, he says, is pure, organic selflessness.
These days there are two stories that he incorporates into his life. The Book of Joshua, from the bible, which is his namesake. And the boxer James Braddock’s story in general.
"One of my favorite movies is Cinderella Man," he says. "Right now, just where everybody’s at, America just needs a good story. My goal, and my dream, is to be that story in MMA, where this is one of the best comebacks we’ve ever seen, where the kid was out of it, he was done. And he did what’s right. He was a good husband, he was a good father, and he became a world champion."