It wasn’t that long ago that Gilbert Burns was taking shots at Belal Muhammad and calling him out for a fight after the one-time UFC title challenger fell behind him in the rankings.
The Brazilian was looking to make a charge back to title contention but Muhammad beating a lower ranked fighter in Sean Brady still managed to ultimately leapfrog Burns in the UFC’s official rankings. At the time, he didn’t understand how it made sense for Muhammad to take his spot, which is why he voiced his opinion so loudly on social media and through various interviews.
“That bugged me a little bit that he passed me in the rankings,” Burns explained on The Fighter vs. The Writer. “He never beat me, he beat No. 7 or 8 that was Sean Brady, very tough guy, too. Great performance by Belal in the last fight that’s my opinion. It’s not a fact, it’s only my opinion. I don’t think he should have passed me in the rankings but he did pass [me].
“I’m not complaining. I did a little bit but it is what it is. That ranking doesn’t mean s***.”
Several months passed and Burns decided he needed to take a new approach to his career, which included serving as a positive role model to his kids and the students he teaches, while also letting go of unnecessary grudges that really served him no purpose.
That’s why he actually approached Muhammad after his fight at UFC 287 to bury the hatchet while still making it clear that they could cross paths in the cage in the future.
“I don’t have no problems with him,” Burns said. “I kind of squashed the things I was saying because I don’t want to push no one down to elevate myself but with him, I had that little thing because he passed me in the rankings. I didn’t think he should pass me. He beat my guy Vicente Luque so I had a little thing with him.
“When I fought [Jorge] Masvidal, I came and I talked to him and I’m like ‘bro, I don’t think I’m doing that right, I don’t want to push no one down.’ We had a good conversation. We might fight, don’t get me wrong, the kind of bad things I’ve been saying about you, I’m not going to say anymore.”
Almost like he was predicting the future, Burns ended up booking a short-notice fight against Muhammad, which will now serve as the co-main event at UFC 288. The five-round fight could easily put the winner in line for a title shot, which is all that’s ever really mattered to Burns.
That said, Burns admits he’s still not the biggest fan of Muhammad or the way he carries himself but that doesn’t prevent them from sharing a mutual respect for each other before, during and after their fight on Saturday.
“I have a lot of respect for all these top 10 guys, most of the guys in the UFC I have tremendous respect. That doesn’t mean he’s my friend,” Burns said. “That doesn’t mean I like the guy very much. As a person, I don’t know him so much, a little bit that I know I don’t like very much. He’s not my favorite guy. I think that he’s different, he’s a little annoying. He tries to be too cool. He’s just not my favorite people.
“A lot of guys I like for real. Like Robert Whittaker, I just like the personality. I don’t even know the guy. A lot of other fighters, I just like the personality, who the guy is, who he represents. Belal, I don’t like that much but I respect the guy very much. He’s a great fighter. He’s been on a race to the title shot, a good win streak so I have a lot of respect for the guy.”
When it comes to Muhammad’s recent win streak, Burns gives him credit for putting on some impressive performances, especially with his knockout over Brady and a unanimous decision victory against his close friend and teammate in Luque.
Those two fights in particular really put Muhammad on Burns’ radar even before they were scheduled to clash.
“Belal Muhammad is a very tough opponent, very crafty,” Burns said. “He adjusts. He fought one way against [Vicente] Luque, he fought the other against Sean Brady. He fought a different way against Demian Maia. He fought a different way against ‘Wonderboy’ [Stephen Thompson] so he can adjust very well. He has good cardio, good volume.”
While his full focus is centered on Muhammad and the fight at UFC 288, Burns won’t lose sight of the bigger picture where the welterweight division is concerned.
As it stands, Colby Covington has been promised the next title shot against reigning champion Leon Edwards and the UFC has been adamant about that fight happening later this year.
Burns had already conceded that Covington would get the opportunity to compete for UFC gold ahead of him but he also knows that a jaw-dropping performance against Muhammad at UFC 288 could easily shift the narrative to his cause.
“The goal is since I got the fight with Masvidal was to make doubt,” Burns said. “Masvidal was very crafty, he was there the whole fight. I’ve got to give it up to him. I couldn’t get a finish. I think a finish would have impressed a lot more but it was a dominant win. But that’s the same goal to finish the guy.
“Go out there, finish Belal Muhammad impressively and put the doubt [in the minds] of Dana [White] and the fans and the media and everybody and try to earn the title shot. That’s the goal.”