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UFC Fight Night: Maia v Burns Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN 9’s Gilbert Burns

Upstart contender, Gilbert Burns, will duel with knockout artist and former champion, Tyron Woodley, this Saturday (May 30, 2020) at UFC on ESPN 9 inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.

At some point in the last two years, everything clicked for Burns. Really though, it all came together piece-by-piece since his 2014 UFC debut. Back then, Burns was one of those highly decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu guys with iffy kickboxing and wrestling skills. By 2017, Burns was scoring knockouts and had found his power. Power helped pull everything together for Burns. His confidence on the feet grew tremendously, as Burns was much more willing to plant his feet and exchange. As a result, the takedowns came easier, and thus his jiu-jitsu grew more effective. Now, Burns is confident he’s among the world’s best, ready to make his run at the title.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Under the tutelage of Henri Hooft, Burns’ kickboxing has really developed into a formidable threat. Of course, hitting really damn hard helps, but Burns’ solid kickboxing fundamentals have come a long way.

Working with a kickboxer like Hooft, it should be a surprise that Burns’ kicks have come such a long way. Burns likes to move forward and stalk opponents, so he isn’t look to dance around at range, but Burns is now far better at punishing foes as he advances with kicks.

His primary kick of choice is the calf kick. Against an Orthodox opponent, little set up is required for Burns to punt out his opponent’s ankle whenever the lead foot/ankle/calf is a bit too close. Often times, Burns kicks the leg out so damn hard that his opponent is forced to stumble to recover stance, allowing Burns a free opening for his punches.

UFC Fight Night: Maia v Burns Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

In consecutive fights with Jason Saggo and Dan Moret, Burns showed what happened when his opponents do not earn his respect. Against both grapplers, Burns pretty fearlessly pushed forward into the pocket, unloading with big overhands and left hooks — generally his power punches of choice (GIF).

Burns has proven quite violent when his opponent is trapped along the fence. Opposite Saggo, Burns forced his opponent’s stance to square and then teed off, landing a heavy uppercut after showing the overhand several times (GIF). Burns presented Gunnar Nelson with a double threat while trapped on the fence as well, shooting numerous double-leg takedowns before instead jumping into a flush knee (GIF).

Often times, Burns is looking to draw offense out of his opponent with his pressure. Ducking under a punch is commonly the setup for his double leg takedown, but he’ll also slip/duck low before returning with a heavy hook or overhand.

Burns’ performance against Demian Maia is responsible for his current surge, and it really was a masterpiece. Much of Burns’ brilliance was on display on the mat, but his kickboxing was sharp and effective too (if more brief). Early on, Burns was uncharacteristically more evasive for obvious reasons, but he was also slamming his shin into the calf and mid-section of his Southpaw foe.

After several minutes of wrestling, Burns was able to escape to his feet, and he capitalized on his foe’s momentary fatigue. Pressing Maia, Burns put a stiff one-two combination down the middle. When Maia tried to reassert himself with the jab, Burns stood his ground, slipped, and cracked the veteran with a left hook that ended the bout (GIF).

Defensively, Burns has improved plenty. However, it’s still worth mentioning that he does tend to load up on his power punches. In his most recent loss, Dan Hooker was able to fight his way inside Burns’ swings several times, timing him with shorter punches that decided the fight.

Wrestling

Unlike a fair amount of credentialed jiu-jitsu guys, Burns is a quality athlete, strong and quick. That helps a ton in wrestling exchanges, as does his improved ability to measure and control distance while reading reactions.

A majority of the time, Burns looks to shoot his double leg along the fence (GIF). There’s a reason that’s a common technique: it works really well! His power punches are remarkably effective at convincing an opponent to keep his hands high, at which point Burns is in on the hips.

If his hands lock, his opponent is probably going for a ride.

UFC Fight Night: Burns v Kunchenko Photo by Alexandre Schneider /Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Should his opponent pull him off the waist and up into the clinch, that’s no guarantee of success. Burns has pulled off some powerful clinch throws, usually by locking his hands and gaining outside position with his knee. Against Nelson, Burns gracefully used an overhook throw to counter Nelson’s forward pressure, fully planting him on his back (GIF).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A gi and no-gi Worlds gold medalist, ADCC bronze medalist, and Ultimate Fighter (TUF) grappling coach, Burns is one of the very best submission fighters in UFC. Eight of his wins overall have come via tapout, including four inside the Octagon.

Generally, submission aces in MMA tend to search for the back mount and finish from there. Burns can definitely count himself in that group, and he has finished a few fights via rear naked choke in the manner one would expect. However, Burns is unusually aggressive with his armbar, which has tapped three UFC foes.

Against Łukasz Sajewski, that finish came from back mount. Burns secured a kimura trap, allowed his foe’s head to slip free, and threw his legs across the face — smooth and easy. Christos Giagos was forced by Burns to make a bad decision. Mounted by the Brazilian, he tried to buck and push his foe off. That works quite a bit in MMA, but Burns was able to latch onto the arm and finish (GIF). Finally, Alex Oliveira also found himself mounted, and Burns was similarly able to latch onto an out-stretched arm.

QUINTET Ultra: UFC v PRIDE Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

There are a couple key details about how Burns completes the armbar that separate him from the many fighters who have fallen off top position in pursuit of a quick tap. Namely, Burns is excellent at going belly down. He maintains a tight squeeze with his thighs and usually hooks the head, keeping his opponent in danger at all times. In addition, Burns will often control a leg, allowing him to more easily roll his opponent and regain top position (GIF).

In addition, Burns is really good at tearing through his opponent’s grip. As he falls back, Burns will take his shin and go across his opponent’s connected hands. It looks visually similar to a triangle, but instead Burns is quickly kick off that connection and hipping into the submission.

Lastly, Burns showed off creative defense against Maia. The first time Maia shot in against “Durinho,” Burns attempted a funk roll rather than defend traditionally, hooking the far leg and diving beneath. However, he also entered into a jiu-jitsu style leg entanglement at the same time, successfully blending the two grappling arts.

When Maia did work his way to Burns’ back, the Brazilian took a risk. Before Maia was fully settled and locked into his trademark body triangle, Burns swam an arm beneath Maia’s legs. Could Maia have attacked with a triangle or arm bar in response? Yes. However, it worked out, as Burns escaped out the bottom before Maia could effectively respond.

Most fighters cannot afford to take a such a risk against Maia, but Burns pulled it off.

Conclusion

Burns is on a real tear, having won five straight and relocated weight classes in the process. This is the big fight he’s been working towards, a chance to definitively prove that “Durinho” is a threat to Welterweight gold.

Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 9 fight card this weekend right HERE, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then remaining main card portion that will air on ESPN/ESPN+ proper at 9 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC on ESPN 9: “Woodley vs. Burns” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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