“A lot of people are kind of writing this off [as] ‘Oh, well, friends, teammates, they’re fighting each other.’ At the end of the day, I don’t see anybody, there’s no friends in there,” Usman said during a news conference on Wednesday, referencing the more quarrelsome buildup to his recent fights. “That’s kind of the way people have been putting it: ‘Those other two fights were more personal,’ and things of that nature, this one not so much. What could be more personal than someone who you train with every day saying, ‘I see what you have. I want that, I’m going to take that from you.’”
Familiarity is indeed the central story line of Saturday’s bout, Usman’s third welterweight title defense.
He and Burns fought for the now-defunct Blackzilians, a team of professional fighters based in South Florida, starting in 2011. They began training together at Sanford MMA, a gym about 40 miles north of Miami, in 2017.
During that time, Burns (19-3) learned Usman’s tendencies. He also witnessed the Nigerian fighter (17-1) become the first African-born UFC champion when Usman defeated Woodley by unanimous decision after five rounds to win the welterweight belt at UFC 235.
“I’ve known Kamaru for a long time, since the very, very beginning,” Burns said (via UFC). “Right away we kind of liked to work with each other, and that was always a war. So when Kamaru became a world champion, that motivated me a lot. He just made it even more real for me because I know I could do it.”
Burns, the top welterweight contender, has earned six straight wins.
But Usman hasn’t lost since 2013. His 12 consecutive victories make for the longest active streak in the UFC, and another would push him into a six-way tie for the second-longest streak in the promotion’s history.
Woodley belittled Usman during the UFC 235 news conference, prompting Usman to say, “You can feel like the big brother all you want but at some point, big brother going to get they a-- whooped.” He followed through, seizing the belt and casting Woodley into his current descent.
Usman next fought Colby Covington, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump who has often been criticized for his behavior. Covington, who began disparaging Usman months before their fight, assumed a more vitriolic tone than Woodley, provoking several confrontations, including one in the Palms Casino Resort buffet line the day after Usman defeated Woodley. Usman went on to crack Covington’s jaw en route to a fifth-round victory by TKO in December 2019.
“That’s one thing that I’ve been seeing lately is just kind of how people in the media and fans kind of perceive me,” Usman said. “Just because I’m quiet, just because I’m not the most braggadocios or boisterous guy out there, they kind of overlook me. They kind of take it as a weakness to where that’s not the case at all.”
“When the Max Holloway fight was over and I saw Masvidal walking in instead of me, that hurt me a lot,” Burns said in reference to the UFC 251 co-main event. “That was like man, that’s supposed to be me there right now.”
The lead-up to this weekend’s event has been far less contentious for Usman, who split from his former teammates to train in Denver last summer for the original matchup against Burns. He said he did so to secure more personalized attention during his pre-fight camp.
“He can say, ‘I beat him a couple rounds,’ but I say, ‘Yeah, but I beat you couple rounds too,’ so it's kind of very even the advantage that we have knowing each other's game,” Burns said of his history with Usman. “The thing that I believe I got the advantage is the teammates because he left the team, and all the teammates that helped me get prepared for him know him very well.”