Cool customer

Joe Stevenson is one of the world's elite mixed martial arts fighters, but he says he's almost envious when he watches Josh Burkman fight.

Burkman, Stevenson says, is so relaxed during a fight that he swears he's seen him yawn.

Burkman's cool might be best illustrated by his courtship of Arianny Celeste.

Celeste is one of the UFC's ring card girls, a woman so striking hundreds of Internet sites are filled with pictures of her.

Burkman, who will fight judo expert Karo Parisyan at UFC 71 on May 26 in Las Vegas, hadn't met Celeste prior to his fight with Chad Reiner.

In the middle of that Jan. 25 bout, Burkman was hot, tired and sweaty and had the arms of a trained professional fighter who was trying to choke him unconscious wrapped around his neck.

The rear naked choke is one of the most effective finishing holds in MMA. Burkman knew, even as he was gasping for a breath, that a submission loss would put his dreams of gaining a welterweight title shot in jeopardy.

As he lay on the mat, wondering how to extricate himself, his eyes gazed through the cage and into the crowd, where they met those of Celeste, who was seated at ringside.

"I saw her and I thought to myself, 'I can't let myself get choked out in front of her,'" Burkman said. "I had to figure something to do."

Burkman managed to wriggle free of the choke and went on to win a unanimous decision. A few weeks later, he saw Celeste in Las Vegas. He summoned the courage to ask her to dinner.

They've been an item ever since.

Burkman said he appreciates Celeste's understanding of the commitment a fighter needs to be successful. And Stevenson can attest that Burkman is willing to do just about anything to win.

"He's really explosive and he has great athleticism, but the thing that sets him apart is that he never gasses," Stevenson says. "That's because of the way he prepares himself. He just works and works and works. He's able to fight at a very high pace for an extended period of time because of all he puts into it."

Burkman is athletic enough that he was able to dream of playing in the NFL. He grew up a three-sport star in Salt Lake City, earning varsity letters at Cottonwood High School in football, wrestling and baseball.

He played running back at Dixie College, a junior college in St. George, Utah, where he teamed with a number of current NFL players. At 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, he didn't have prototypical NFL size. His 4.5 speed in the 40 wasn’t much better than a lot of NFL linebackers. But Burkman had a knack for finding a crease and making 4 yards out of what appeared a loss and 20 yards out of what should have been 5.

But he wasn't as committed to his workout regimen in his college days as he is now.

"I think I'd be there if I knew then what I know now," he says.

It's not that he minds competing in mixed martial arts. He is convinced that MMA is on the verge of a major breakthrough and will soon be regarded as one of the big four sports, along with baseball, basketball and football.

But it was one of the few times in his athletic life he didn't go all the way.

"I'm a naturally gifted athlete," he says. "But for whatever reason, that didn't work out."

Burkman comes from a family of fighters. His grandfather and father were boxers. His mom would walk into his bedroom when he was 3 to find him laying on top of his bed beating up his pillow.

He's quickly become one of the world's top welterweight mixed martial artists and will move closer to a championship shot with a win over Parisyan.

Parisyan is one of the UFC’s top young stars and Stevenson concedes his buddy will be in for a tough fight.

"Karo is a great, great fighter, but so is Josh,” Stevenson says. "This is one of those fights that you say is a fight fan's fight. They’re just a couple of guys who are going to go in there and get after each other.

"I could see either guy winning by submission, but I could see either guy winning by knockout or decision, too. I think it's going to come down to the little things that you do in preparation that nobody sees that's going to make the difference."

Burkman has a wrestling base, but says his favorite technique is punching someone in the face, so that gives you an idea of what his fighting style is like.

And though there aren't a lot of judo fighters in MMA, Burkman is confident he'll be able to deal with Parisyan's throws.

"In camp, we have a few judo guys who are trying to throw me,” Burkman says. "When I get tired at the end of my sparring sessions, I'll get one of those guys to come in and we'll play around. I'm not practicing just trying to block the throw. I'm trying to figure out if I do get thrown, how to deal with it.

"Honestly, I think one of the worst things for a judo guy is a good wrestler. I think I'll be able to offset some of his throws by picking him up and slamming him. But if I get thrown, I just have to remember to stay calm and learn how to deal with it."