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Instead of boarding a plane in Las Vegas on Friday for a 20-hour flight to Abu Dhabi and a shot at the UFC welterweight championship, Gilbert Burns found himself behind the wheel of a car facing a 38-hour drive home to South Florida.
It would be a brutal drive under any circumstances, but it’s hard to imagine what it felt like when Burns’ dreams were crushed because of a positive COVID-19 test.
“It was so devastating,” Burns told Yahoo Sports by phone. “I couldn’t believe it. That corona thing is going wild in Florida. It’s a risk, but I was just hoping it wouldn’t get me.”
Jorge Masvidal accepted the fight against Usman late Saturday, setting the MMA world abuzz with excitement. Usman and Burns were friends and training partners until they agreed to fight each other after Burns’ dominant win over ex-champion Tyron Woodley. They remain friends, but Usman left Florida to train for Burns in Colorado.
Usman and Masvidal are arch rivals and UFC president Dana White believes that the change will positively impact pay-per-view sales.
“I loved that Usman-Burns fight,” White said. “I loved it. There were some people who were saying that we settled for Burns when [Masvidal was holding out for more money] but that’s not true. Stylistically, that was an awesome fight and my excitement level for that was through the roof.
“Masvidal is kind of the people’s guy and so I do [think pay-per-view sales will increase] because of it.”
Where that leaves Burns is anyone’s question. He believes that Usman will win, but he’s concerned with what happens if Masvidal wins. Masvidal told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani that if he becomes the new welterweight champion, he’ll look to defend against either Nate Diaz or Stephen Thompson. Burns said he thought Conor McGregor could be in play for Masvidal, too.
The outcome of Saturday’s fight will have a direct bearing on Burns’ future. White was noncommittal about what would be next, but said several times, “Gilbert Burns is the No. 1 contender.”
Burns said if Usman wins, he feels they’ll fight next for the belt. But if Masvidal wins, Burns fears he may be skipped.
“I want to fight for that title so bad, I can’t even tell you how badly I want that,” he said. “I think I’m OK if Kamaru wins. I believe I’d be next in line and I wouldn’t fight anyone else; I’d just wait for the title shot. But if Masvidal would win, it would be devastating. The division would be a mess. I think he’d call out Conor or Nate, and I wouldn’t want to sit around all that time. In that case, I would probably end up fighting either Colby [Covington] or Leon Edwards. I think Kamaru wins it and I hope he does. That would be nice. If Masvidal wins, it’s going to be horrible.”
Burns said he believes Masvidal isn’t in proper shape and thinks he matches better against Usman than Masvidal does.
“He’s a dangerous striker, but I hit harder than [Masvidal] does and Kamaru wouldn’t take me down and try to grapple with me,” said Burns, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. “He could and I think he would take Masvidal down.
“Masvidal is an easy guy to read. When he’s out of shape, you can see that big belly and skinny arms and that’s what I see when I see him now. If he’s out of shape like I think he is, he’ll be dangerous at the beginning of the first round and the beginning of the second, but Kamaru will do what he does best and outwork him and grind him down.”
‘I’m a real fighter’
Burns took exception with a tweet sent by Diaz that expressed approval of the Usman-Masvidal match.
Diaz tweeted, “Real fights are better fights,” which angered and puzzled Burns at the same time.
“Honestly, it bothered me and I don’t know what he was talking about,” Burns said. “I’m a real fighter. I think I’ve proven myself. I beat the No. 1 contender [Tyron Woodley] and Demain Maia and Gunnar Nelson and a lot of other guys. I don’t have to prove anything. I not sure what he was talking about, but I am a real fighter.”
There are three title fights on Saturday’s card, which top to bottom is deep with a lot of potentially outstanding fights. But the odds at the MGM Grand Sports Book don’t necessarily reflect that.
The favorites in the fights on the main card are all at least 2-to-1.
Usman is now -290 over Masvidal, who is +230. There was a little early money on Masvidal, as Usman opened at -300 and Masvidal at +240 at the MGM.
In the rematch for the featherweight title, champion Alex Volkanovski is -230 over ex-champion Max Holloway, who is +190. Petr Yan is -240 over the legendary Jose Aldo, who is +200 in their fight for the vacant bantamweight belt.
In a rematch of their title fight from UFC 237, which Jessica Andrade won by second-round KO with a vicious slam, Rose Namajunas is now a -210 favorite. Andrade is +170.
In the other main card bout, Amanda Ribas is a mind-blowing -825 favorite over Paige VanZant, who is +575.
Fight back on
Marina Rodriguez’s bout against Carla Esparza that was scheduled for July 15 on Fight Island was postponed when one of Rodriguez’s cornermen tested positive for COVID-19.
But the bout has been rescheduled for July 25, the last of the scheduled shows in Abu Dhabi.
Ponzinibbio on comeback trail
The deep welterweight division will get deeper with the return of Santiago Ponzinibbio, who has been sidelined for 20 months with a blood infection.
In a compelling interview with MMA Junkie’s Farah Hannoun, Ponzinibbio detailed the arduous journey that he said at one point threatened his career.
“I had a lot of pain, a lot of swelling in my body,” Ponzinibbio said. “I couldn’t walk. … The day I didn’t take the anti-inflammatory, I couldn’t go to the room, I couldn’t go up the stairs. It was crazy. A couple of doctors saw the MRI and they said, ‘Listen, you have an infection in the bone. It’s very, very dangerous. Maybe you can’t fight again in your career.’”
The interview is well worth your time to see what he endured in order to get back to competition.
He said it
“Usman is a bad dude. I believe Usman doesn’t get the respect he deserves. That Usman-Colby Covington fight was incredible; just incredible. They went to war for five rounds and he made a statement when he finished Colby. The bookmakers are showing him the respect he doesn’t get from the journalists. Listen, there was a time when I had my criticisms of Usman, but ever since I went off on him about that comment he made about going 30 percent, look what he’s done. The guy has been phenomenal.” — UFC president Dana White on welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
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