Gilbert Burns had two opponents to conquer this month but was supposed to have three. Scrap that. In actual fact, he was supposed to have two, only a different two to the ones he ended up having.
Let me explain.
A week before the Brazilian’s fight with Jason Saggo in Pittsburgh on September 16 – a scheduled fight, one he expected – Hurricane Irma hit Florida and Burns, like so many others, all of a sudden had another battle on his hands. This one, of course, was not expected, and the lightweight’s immediate thought was not the UFC bout on the horizon, nor the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club)) competition he’d lined up for the following weekend. Instead, Burns, 31, first concerned himself with the wellbeing of his family – his wife and two kids – and then figured out the best and safest way to get them out of Florida and over to Pittsburgh in order for him to still make the fight.
They left at noon on the Thursday. They had to. To leave it any longer would be tempting fate and running the risk of all flights drying up. Burns and company knew they had to escape while they could. It was dangerous outside. There was wind, rain, heavier than Floridians had ever known, and his gym was shut. There was no chance of him training in Florida even if he’d wanted to do so.
So they jumped in a car and got away. Gilbert, his brother, his wife and their two children. It was a road trip. A long trip. Longer than a fighter would want so close to a fight. To cope, they swapped driving duties, Gilbert and his brother, and ended up arriving in Pittsburgh on the Friday night.
“It was supposed to be seventeen hours but we did it over two days,” he told Fighters Only editor Michael Owens. “We stopped over.”
Back home Irma did its thing. Unrelenting and unforgiving, it attacked without discrimination and ruined the lives of many. For Burns and his neighbours, however, the damage, thankfully, was minimal.
“It was okay,” he said. “A couple of trees were out and landed on cars – not my car – and we had four days without light. It was good that I left otherwise it would have been so hard. No place to train, the kids inside the home, it would have been crazy.”
Once Burns arrived in Pittsburgh he sourced a gym at which to train and looked to resume business as normal. Phone calls and messages of support arrived from those in the jiu-jitsu community and it wasn’t long before the UFC lightweight had a roof over his head and a mat on which to roll.
By Saturday night he was back in the Octagon preparing for the fourteenth fight of his career as if no great drama had unfolded. Saggo stood opposite him and Burns thought only of victory, of running straight at his opponent and finishing the fight as quickly as possible, either by TKO or submission.
Then, much to his delight, the opportunity to go home early presented itself. In round two, Burns watched Saggo haphazardly toss out his jab, just as he’d done in the first, and timed one to perfection with a counter right hand. Down went Saggo; Burns didn’t even bother following up to make sure. He knew the fight was over.
“The knockout came and was pure and natural,” he recalled. “It wasn’t something I was looking for. I was just trying to get my distance and counter the punch. I was relaxed. I was throwing super hard; I wasn’t throwing weak punches. I was throwing 100% punches and landing.
“At the end of the round he tried to put pressure on me and come with the kicks. I just stayed composed and stayed close. I put my guard up and thought if he comes close I’m going to throw bombs. He kicked, I countered with the right hook and the left hook missed. He came again and then I threw the right hand.
“As soon as I threw the hand, I saw his body was also soft and loose on the floor. I looked to see if he was going to come back but I saw he was done. The way he landed, I knew he was done. I just walked away.”
He’d beaten the hurricane and got to Pittsburgh on time. He’d defeated Saggo in two rounds and secured his fifth UFC win. All Burns, 12-2, had to do now was get back in the car with his family, get on the road, get home and hope for the best.
Easier said than done.
“On the way back it was really hard,” he said. “We were all so tired. I still planned to compete at the ADCC the next weekend but I couldn’t. My ankle from the kick got very swollen and bad. It’s very sore right now. It’s tough to compete with it. That was because I had to drive all the way back.
“In the end, though, everything worked out perfect because I had my family with me.”