Gilbert Burns was one of only a handful of fighters who gave Leon Edwards a legitimate chance to upset Kamaru Usman in their rematch this past August.
Obviously, Edwards got the job done with a stunning comeback knockout to end Usman’s title reign but he still had something to prove in their trilogy at UFC 286. It’s safe to say Edwards passed the test after he defeated Usman in a second straight fight except this time there were no last second theatrics — he earned the victory in a five-round decision.
Much like the first fight, Burns never counted Edwards out in the trilogy but he also admits that Usman was likely still carrying around some demons from that knockout loss he suffered, which could have easily played a part in his losing performance.
“I think Leon came in with the perfect game plan,” Burns told MMA Fighting. “A lot of kicks, [Kamaru Usman] is going to be worried about the head kick. He kicked so good, he has a great kicking game, sharp. So he started with low kicks and then body kicks and then Kamaru was too worried about the head kick that the body was hurting him. The leg was hurting him, the front kick and then knees and then lateral movement. The takedown defense was impressive, too, but a guy that’s getting hit to the body, your gas tank kind of slows down a little bit. You’re not the strongest man anymore.
“I think Leon fought the perfect fight that he could against Kamaru and then the other hand, I think Kamaru wasn’t 100 percent mentally for that fight. Worrying too much about the head kick. You can see, I know Kamaru, you could see at the beginning he wasn’t letting go. He stopped the feints after one knee. He wasn’t moving, trying to load up a lot at the beginning.”
Burns spent years training alongside Usman as teammates in Florida before they booked a matchup against each other, which led to the now former UFC champion moving his camp out to Colorado to work with head coach Trevor Wittman.
Despite the change in scenery, Usman still found plenty of success with Wittman.
That said, Burns felt like the biggest deficiency Usman faced in his attempt to get revenge on Edwards ultimately came down failing to land takedowns.
“I felt that he wasn’t 100 percent and I felt that one of his best weapons was his wrestling and he didn’t look that sharp,” Burns said. “I’m not trying to throw nothing on Kamaru, I think he’s a great fighter, one of the best that ever did that and a dominant champion, high level but I don’t think Kamaru wasn’t on his best day and on the other hand, Leon was on a great day. That’s what happened.”
Burns can’t say for certain why Usman appeared to be struggling with his wrestling but he recognized right away that something was off with his former teammate.
“Maybe the body kicks were bothering him,” Burns said. “Leon did a great job as well but I think one thing that my wrestling coach, he was Kamaru’s wrestling coach — Greg Jones — that’s one thing that he’s very good at — make sure you commit to the shots when you take the guy down, make him pay for it. Kamaru that’s his best weapon. In my opinion, it didn’t look sharp.
“Maybe it was a factor from the kicks, maybe it was a factor from another thing but in my eyes, he didn’t look as sharp as he used to be.”
While Edwards’ second win puts Usman back in the ranks of contenders, Burns doesn’t know if that actually makes his own path to the title any easier.
In fact with Colby Covington already named as next in line for a title shot, Burns can’t help but wonder if an Usman victory would have served a better purpose where his own career is concerned.
“I’m happy for Leon, the guy, a lot of ups and downs in his career, COVID, lockdown, he had the fight with Tyron Woodley — I got the fight with Tyron Woodley,” Burns explained. “He had the fight with Khamzat [Chimaev], the eye poke with Belal Muhammad, and I know the guy has been through a lot. I’m happy to see those guys going through a lot and getting gold.
“But I’m not happy because of the division because I do think with my own thought, if Kamaru won he might retire. I still think on that. That’s not a confirmation, that’s a personal thought, I do think but then that would be the clearest path [to the title]. Then Leon just lost, Kamaru retired, then it’s an open belt. But one guy has to win, Leon did a great job, he deserves that, he won the fight. But I’m not more happy, less happy. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”