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Gilbert Burns admits that after facing COVID-19 it was a ‘blessing’ he didn’t fight Kamaru Usman in July

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Gilbert Burns
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Gilbert Burns never wants to turn down an opponent offered to him much less pull out of a fight he’s already accepted.

In fact, the top ranked welterweight contender earned his title shot against reigning champion Kamaru Usman largely by risking short-notice opportunities that other fighters seemed less interested in taking. That attitude made him a favorite of UFC President Dana White at the start of 2020 and it helped Burns solidify his position as the next fighter in line to challenge for gold at 170 pounds.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian was knocked out of his scheduled bout against Usman at UFC 251 in July after he tested positive for COVID-19. While there have been some false-positive tests that were later discounted, Burns’ diagnosis was confirmed and he was sent home rather than jumping on a plane bound for Abu Dhabi.

Jorge Masvidal eventually accepted the fight with Usman before losing a five-round decision to the champion but Burns admits watching that event was one of the toughest moments of his entire career.

“I was watching that fight and I was almost in tears because when Masvidal was walking out to the fight, it was supposed to be me,” Burns told MMA Fighting. “When I saw him walking, it was supposed to be me.

“I held on because my kids were here but I almost cried watching Masvidal walking in. That was my chance. It was supposed to be me.”

As much as he wanted to be there fighting for the welterweight title, Burns realized rather quickly on his trip back home to Florida that COVID-19 is no joke.

He faced a variety of symptoms over the next couple of weeks and a month past his diagnosis, Burns said he was still feeling the after effects of the disease.

Because the coronavirus is primarily a respiratory disease, Burns stated that his cardio and conditioning definitely took the brunt of the damage once he returned to the gym after finally being cleared by doctors.

“My energy level was not normal coming back,” Burns said. “It’s a long process. I was not at 100 percent [a month after testing positive].”

Considering the toll that COVID-19 took on him personally in the weeks following that fight cancellation, Burns can look back and admit that facing Usman in July would have been a huge mistake.

It broke his heart not to compete that night but Burns knows it was ultimately in his best interest to get healthy again so he could give his absolute best when he finally takes on Usman in the title fight.

“I feel better that I didn’t fight,” Burns said. “I know that sounds weird but if I got that virus and for any reason tested negative, I was going into the fight and I wasn’t feeling good. Don’t get me wrong, even if I’m not feeling good, I’m going to fight anyways. I’m not going to pull out, especially for a title fight. I’m going to give my best. I don’t know if my best will be enough but I’ll never pull out of the fight.

“But to take me out and I got home and started getting sick, I definitely see it as a blessing.”

At the same time he tested positive, Burns also revealed that several of his coaches also dealt with COVID-19, but none of them really faced any serious issues.

In many ways the unpredictability of COVID-19 has been one of the toughest parts of the entire pandemic, which is why Burns continues to preach precaution and safety in the face of the disease that has now killed more than 332,000 people in the United States alone.

“It was very confusing,” Burns said. “Three of my own coaches had it, Kami Barzini, Greg Jones and Vagner Rocha, but they had no symptoms. Vagner felt nothing. Greg Jones and Kami as well, they had no symptoms. Aung La [A Sang], the ONE champion that trains with us, he had no symptoms. It’s confusing.

“You can’t say it’s just for elderly [people]. Just make sure you take care of yourself, wear your mask, stay clean, don’t go out crazy. Take all the precautions. It’s very confusing, that virus. People get sick, people don’t. Just make sure to take care of yourself and respect the limits. Make sure you [distance] yourself from people and stay safe.”