Gilbert Burns understands the risks every time he sets foot inside the UFC octagon.
With 25 professional fights and possibly hundreds of grappling matches, the Brazilian knows that he’s always taking a chance with his health — both short and long term — whenever he competes but even he was left shaken after recently witnessing a terrifying incident in the NFL.
On Jan. 2 during a game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills, safety Damar Hamlin made what appeared to be a routine tackle but after getting back to his feet, he immediately collapsed back down to the field again. Team personnel and eventually paramedics rushed to the field where Hamlin received CPR and AED (automated external defibrillation) and it was later revealed that he had suffered cardiac arrest.
It was a harrowing situation for all of the players on the field that night — the game itself was eventually cancelled — but for Burns it served as a harsh reminder about the dangers that come along with any contact sport whether that’s football or mixed martial arts.
“That was scary, especially in a football game,” Burns said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Sometimes I feel like MMA is a little bit more fair because we signed the contract. It’s you against one guy in the same weight division and you know the guy’s intensity. You know what the guy wants to do. But on the football field, it’s different.
“I’m running with the ball and freaking Francis Ngannou is coming after me. It’s a little bit more unfair in that way because those guys are huge. You’re running and you get hit by the guy you don’t see coming. It was scary.”
Wow Hope he is good! https://t.co/GCDGzQ4dEi— GILBERT BURNS DURINHO (@GilbertDurinho) January 3, 2023
While Hamlin was in critical condition for several days after he initially collapsed on the field, the 24-year-old former University of Pittsburgh standout eventually woke up and just over one week later he was able to return home to Buffalo.
As it stands, Hamlin still has a long road of recovery to travel just to return to full health much less addressing the chances that he’ll ever play football again.
Seeing how it all unfolded and knowing that Hamlin’s life is likely forever changed as a result reminded Burns why he would like to see leagues like the NFL or promotions such as the UFC provide more for athletes, especially where healthcare and long term benefits are concerned.
“I hope MMA gets way more serious with healthcare because we put everything on the line,” Burns said. “At the end of the day, we do that because first off, we like it. We know the dangers. We know what we are doing. That feeling that we could live or die, we accept that. I go into the fight knowing I could get hurt pretty bad. But financially, we still need to get better.
“That guy [Damar Hamlin], I don’t know how much he makes but I bet that money, his kids will be taken care of, his family will be taken care of in case something happens. I just hope that MMA and [NFL] steps up and provides for the family if something happens with the fighters or the football players cause when you get to the highest level, things are going to happen. I would like to see all the athletes taken care of financially, especially if something that bad happens so the families are taken care of.”
In his own personal experience, Burns has never witnessed anything quite like what happened to Hamlin but he has seen fighters suffer brutal knockouts to the point where he was left praying that he would watch them wake up again.
“I was cornering Vicente Luque and Jalin Turner took a fight on short notice,” Burns explained. “Vicente knocked him out and over two minutes [passed] before that guy woke up. In the moment, I was very happy because Vicente won by knockout, we were celebrating, we got the shirt on him and got him a drink and we were celebrating and then we looked and the guy was still on the floor. Then we talked more and we celebrated a little bit more and then we looked and he was still down.
“Then I started praying. Please God let that guy come back. I stopped celebrating and I was freaking out but then after like 30 more seconds, he finally woke up but he had no idea where he was.”
Burns isn’t the first fighter to express a desire to see promotions like the UFC step up for better healthcare for the fighters. While the promotion does offer insurance coverage for injuries suffered both in fights and during training camps, the athletes aren’t offered full healthcare benefits.
In the past, UFC president Dana White has hinted at long-term benefits and perhaps even exploring the possibility of a pension fund for fighters but neither has been instituted yet.
Burns adds that a catastrophic event related to his health could also dramatically impact the well-being of his family, which is another reason why he hopes combat sports promotions will step up to do more for athletes in the future.
“The hardest stuff for me would be something happens to me, I cannot fight anymore, and I still got to do something so my family doesn’t have to go through a hard time because I still have to provide for them,” Burns said.
“I think all the big MMA organizations, the NFL, and every big contact sport should provide more for the athletes and their families.”
It’s impossible to know if major promotions like the UFC or Bellator MMA, which is own by Paramount, will consider better healthcare benefits for athletes but Burns implores all of them to take a long look at what happened to Damar Hamlin and realize that could just as easily be a fighter left in that same dire situation.
“Please, the owners, the big organizations have got to step up a little bit more for the mental health and for the support for these guys for their families in case something happens,” Burns said.
“They’ve got to step up to the plate. Because we’re putting everything on the line. When you put it on the line, you’ve got to be compensated long term as well. Not short term but long term as well.”