Gilbert Burns is one of the best welterweights in the MMA world today, and dealing with asthmatic bronchitis was a catalyst for leading him to a martial arts path.
Just like his mother and grandmother, Burns and his younger brother Herbert struggled with the pulmonary disease for years and had to be taken to a hospital several times for a shot of adrenaline as early as six months of age. When a doctor suggested his parents sign Gilbert and Herbert up for sports to help with their condition, they immediately thought of swimming.
Burns’ parents Herbert and Tania shared a piece of land in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, with other members to the family, and one day a man reached out to rent their backyard to use as a site for karate classes.
A 4-year-old Gilbert Burns was having his first contact with martial arts, but that didn’t last too long. Seven years later, however, his father’s upholstery business would forever link the Burns kids, including Gilbert’s older brother Frederick, to jiu-jitsu.
“My father worked as an upholsterer at home and one day this client showed up to get his car seats fixed, and there was a gi inside the car,” Burns told MMA Fighting. “My brothers and I helped my father at work sometimes, and we found the gi in there and started playing with it. My dad saw that as an opportunity.”
The year was 1998 and the Burns family was short of money. That said, the patriarch decided to make a bold suggestion: Instead of getting paid for the job, a money that they all needed very much, he asked the client, which happened to be jiu-jitsu coach Luiz Carlos, if he would give his sons a jiu-jitsu scholarship. Carlos agreed, and gave them all three months free of charge.
“My father turned at us after the first day of training and asked if we enjoyed it,” Burns says. “When we said yes, he told us, ‘So work really hard because I won’t have money to pay for it. I’ll go there and try to convince him when this three-month period is over.’”
One month into jiu-jitsu and the Burns trio was already competing in a local tournament in Sao Goncalo. The next month, they entered another one in Niteroi. When the three months of free training were over with three tournaments in the books, Burns was in love.
With jiu-jitsu? Not really.
“I had love at first sight with competition, actually,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t really enjoy training because there were some older kids there that smashed me, so I hated training. I loved the competition, though. Everyone screaming… And my father said he’d buy us all ice cream if we won, so we were always excited to compete [laughs].”
It was everything they could ask for, until Carlos’ gym went bankrupt. Luckily for Gilbert and his brothers, Carlos reached out to Associacao Oriente leaders Max Camara and Rafael Barros to suggest adding the trio of promising grapplers to their stable.
And that’s when “Durinho” was born.
Oriente had a long partnership with Rio de Janeiro’s Nova Uniao, and Frederick would often go to Rio de Janeiro to train with experienced names like Vitor Ribeiro, Leo Santos and Robson Moura.
“Shaolin” Ribeiro gave Frederick the “Todo Duro” nickname because, as Herbert explains, he was “all stiff” doing grappling transitions. When Gilbert made the trip to Rio de Janeiro to train with the fighting legend he was given a new alias, a diminutive version of his brother’s.
“Imagine hearing that Americanized name, ‘Gilbert Burns,’ back in those days while you’re fighting in a gym,” Ribeiro says. “I said, ‘No, I won’t call you that.’ I was teaching classes and had headaches only thinking about repeating that name [laughs]. That’s when I thought, if his brother is ‘Todo Duro,’ he’s ‘Durinho.’ He was younger and tough as hell, so he’s ‘Durinho.’ I liked it, it was easier to say, and he liked it too [laughs].”
Unlike his first steps in the gentle art, Durinho actually enjoyed training jiu-jitsu at that time. Yet, he only woke up to the idea of turning it into a career after his first trip to the United States years later. He loved going to Tijuca Tenis Clube gymnasium in Rio de Janeiro to watch jiu-jitsu superstars compete for the IBJJF world title as a 15-year-old, and he “had that click.”
In 2007, when he was well-recognized enough as a promising brown-belt to have people investing money and taking him to California to compete for a IBJJF medal, Burns decided that’s all he wanted for his life.
“I saw some fighters I hadn’t seen in years, and when I asked them how they were doing, they all told me they had been living in the United States for years, had their own house and their own gym,” Burns says. “In my head, they were good at jiu-jitsu but they were not at my level — or at the level I thought I would get —, so I thought to myself, ‘I’ll be here soon.’”
Durinho had a great year in 2010, capturing the gold medal at the IBJJF World No-Gi and Brazilian National — and thousands of dollars at UAEJJF’s Abu Dhabi Pro. The crown jewel was still missing, the IBJJF World Championship as a black belt.
The wait was finally over in 2011.
Going through a murderer’s row of talent the included Lucas Lepri, JT Torres and Kron Gracie, Burns sat atop of the lightweight mountain and became the man. Instead of going back to the jiu-jitsu mats to pursue more medals, Durinho felt it was time for a change.
“Being a jiu-jitsu world champion as a black belt was on my bucket list and that was done, so I decided to go to MMA,” Burns says. “I’ve always wanted to fight MMA since my days at Nova Uniao, when I watched (Jose) Aldo and the guys train, but I wanted to have that in my record, to be a world champion as a black belt. It was my dream, and it would also give me a name to get in the UFC later. I wouldn’t just be another jiu-jitsu guy, I would be a world champion.”
The talented Niteroiense met UFC star Vitor Belfort only three days after becoming a world champion in jiu-jitsu and was invited to be part of his camp for an upcoming fight with Yoshihiro Akiyama. Burns loved it so much he made his amateur MMA debut a week before Belfort’s knockout win over “Sexyama” in 2011, winning by submission just months after his IBJJF run.
From that point on, he was a man on a mission.
Burns learned from some of the best jiu-jitsu had to offer for years, from Andre Galvao to the Mendes brothers. He was a full-time fighter now. In his first years preparing for a new sport, Durinho was lucky enough to train with the elite.
Michael Chandler, Gray Maynard, Martin Kampmann and Tyson Griffin were some of his training partners in Las Vegas. When he moved to the other coast, Burns trained with future UFC stars Kamaru Usman and Vicente Luque “before they even got in the UFC, which was a giant learning experience for me.”
“I had no MMA record and I was already in Vitor’s corner,” he says. “I was in the workout room with Rashad Evans, Henri Hooft and Tyrone Spong, and years later I would be part of their team. It’s crazy how life goes. The cool part of being in a big UFC event and visualizing everything there before I was even in the UFC. I trained with the best in jiu-jitsu and the best in MMA. I’ve been training my whole life for this.”
The call to finally enter the UFC came in 2014, after making a name for himself in the regional circuit with a perfect 7-0 record — and even helped as an assistant coach for Belfort’s team on The Ultimate Fighter.
Durinho beat Andreas Stahl in his UFC debut before cutting down to lightweight and tapping Christos Giagos and Alex Oliveira with armbars. He had a rocky road then, going 3-3 between 2015 and 2018 before saying goodbye to his life as a lightweight with wins over Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Mike Davis.
The biggest moment to date in Burns’ professional career goes down Saturday night in Las Vegas, when he headlines UFC on ESPN 9 opposite former 170-pound champion Tyron Woodley — and that comes just months after Durinho stopped Demian Maia in the octagon, his third welterweight victory in a row after decisions over Alexey Kunchenko and Gunnar Nelson.
The win over Maia was life-changing, just like his father’s idea to take free jiu-jitsu classes for his kids instead of money decades before.
With two of his sons now part of the UFC roster, the elder Herbert and Tania can now follow their own dreams. Close to graduating in law school and nursing, respectively, papa and mama Burns were planning on moving to Florida to stay closer to their sons and grandsons before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and forced them to say in Brazil.
When that move finally happens, it could be just in time to see that kid from Fonseca, a boy that only became a grappler because of a gi in the backseat of a car, become the next man in line for the UFC welterweight throne.
“Nothing is by chance. No way,” Burns says. “It was an opportunity that thank God my dad took it, and it changed not only my life, but my brothers’ and my parents’ lives, too. Now we can support their studies, and we hopefully will be able to get their visa so they can move in with us here in the United States.
“That decision he made that day, to exchange his pay for jiu-jitsu classes, was a gigantic investment that keeps bearing fruits. This is my first main event, the first of many. I’m a few fights away from the belt… It’s crazy to stop and think about all this.”