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Gilbert Burns details awkward run-in with Kamaru Usman, coach Henri Hooft’s stance on teammate matchup

Gilbert Burns will challenge Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title in the main event of UFC 251
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Gilbert Burns says “it’s time to get this belt” as he prepares to fly to Abu Dhabi for a UFC title bout with Kamaru Usman on July 11. But having a teammate and friend on the other side of the octagon makes it a bit weirder.

“Durinho” became the No. 1 contender in the welterweight division after a dominant victory over Tyron Woodley in May. Days before signing the contract for UFC 251, he ran into “The Nigerian Nightmare.”

“On Monday, right after the UFC Las Vegas card that my brother fought at, I ran into him in the gym when I came back,” Burns told MMA Fighting. “He stayed here that week and then went to Colorado to finish his camp. We spoke, and it was all good. He said, ‘Let’s fight, leave it all in the octagon, and then we’ll have a beer together.’ It will be very professional.

“I was surprised when I saw him. But I was like, ‘Oh, he’s here, cool, let’s have this talk today.’ It was even better that he was there, actually. It was OK. I knew he would show up in the gym, but I didn’t know when. It was a bit weird, but it was very light.”

Usman and Burns won’t share the same gym as they prepare to fight for UFC gold, and they’re okay with it. Durinho said Henry Hooft, who coaches both fighters, is having a harder time dealing with it and decided not to “get involved” in either camp.

“He likes both of us and said he won’t take any side,” Burns said of Hooft. “But I’m in the gym and (Usman) went to another gym, so (Usman) has people working with him. I’m following my regular training. It feels weird for me to ask Henry something. I’m training normally, but I’m giving Henry more space, because I know it’s very personal for him. … It’s not completely normal, because I use Henry a lot, but Kamaru uses Henry a lot, too. So it’s kind of the same for both of us.”

Usman hasn’t lost a fight in more than seven years, while Burns has looked incredible since moving back up to welterweight. Even with their close relationship, Durinho doesn’t think it’s weird to deal with the usual pre-fight routine — including pre-fight interviews where he vows to finish his opponent.

“I’m going there to knock him out or submit him,” Burns said. “That’s what I want to do, but I think it’s going to be a war. I think Kamaru is tougher than Woodley and Demian (Maia), my last two fights. I had a great performance, but Kamaru is a different person, and I think it will be hard to either knock him out or submit him. That’s what I want in the fight, a finish, but I think it’s going to be an intense five-round war.”

UFC 251 goes down just 337 days after Burns’ first fight back to the 170-pound weight class, a decision win over 20-0 Russian talent Alexey Kunchenko. The meteoric rise amazes the jiu-jitsu ace, but getting to the top of the MMA world has actually taken longer than he has once predicted.

“In the beginning of my career, I’ve always had plans, dates, the year I wanted to become champion, but things happened different and I got very frustrated,” Burns said. “I stopped l thinking about dates. I knew I would become champion, I knew I would fight for the title, I knew I would headline a card. I knew it would happen one day, but I decided to relax and let things happen. And it came. I didn’t know when, but I always believed I would be the UFC champion.”

In his original plans, Burns thought he would have be holding the UFC gold around 2016 or 2017. But his first MMA loss, a decision setback against Rashid Magomedov in 2015, changed everything.

“That fight, I remember (then-UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva coming to me and saying I would enter the top-15 if I won,” Burns said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll win this fight and enter the top-15, and then I’ll have four more fights and I’ll be the champion by the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017.’ I had that in my mind, and then I had my first loss. I won another one, and then I lost again to ‘Trator’ (Michel Prazeres), so I had to see that things wouldn’t happen on my time.”

Burns had to wait a little longer, but it feels right to happen now.

UFC 251 is exactly one decade after Burns flew to United Arab Emirates to compete at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship, a grappling tournament supported by Sheik Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Durinho beat the likes of Celso Vinicius and Claudio Caloquinha to capture a gold medal, a special watch, and an $8,000 check.

“Ten years later, let’s keep the streak going and win again in Abu Dhabi,” he said.

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