by Brian Campbell CBS Sports
Gilbert Burns is so excited and he just can’t hide it.
Riding a five-fight win streak, the welterweight contender enters Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas main event (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) knowing his life could be on the verge of changing for good. Burns (18-3) will headline his first show against former champion Tyron Woodley (19-4-1) with a title shot possibly at stake.
“I love to be there, 100%. I say that this [Octagon] is my house and that’s why I can’t wait to compete,” Burns told CBS Sports’ “State of Combat” podcast on Wednesday. “Right now, I don’t have to do this crazy weight cut anymore to lightweight and I’m always training. I just love to compete. I know when I get in the Octagon, I’m going to get paid for that and I’m going to improve.
“On Saturday, I think I’m going to shock a lot of people.”
The 33-year-old Burns will be facing a version of Woodley, at 38, who has a lot of explaining to do regarding which direction his career is heading following a 15-month layoff and a lifeless, one-sided title loss to Kamaru Usman in 2019.
Not only will the two welterweights be squaring off in front of an empty arena at the UFC Apex facility as professional sports continues to ease back amid the coronavirus outbreak, the fight will be contested in a 25-foot cage (instead of 30 feet) normally used to film the “Dana White Contender Series.”
So who will that adding wrinkle favor?
“For sure, it favors me. I’m not going to run, I’m going to be on his face the whole entire fight,” Burns said. “I’m going to embrace this storm and I can’t wait. I believe it will be a tough fight and will be a war but I know what I have to do to beat Tyron Woodley. He’s still dangerous and is going to come and swing as hard as he can, but I can’t wait to beat Tyron Woodley. I’m so excited.”
While Woodley agrees the smaller cage will limit his ability to circle away from pressure and control the terms of the bout given that the cage wall will be right behind him, that doesn’t mean he feels he’ll be at a disadvantage.
“I think that in the smaller cage, you are going get more action. But you have to be careful what you wish for,” Woodley told CBS Sports. “If he feels as if this will win him the fight, he’s going be sadly mistaken.”
As far as the reasons for why he looked so flat against Usman, it’s still something Woodley can’t properly explain. Either way, Burns believes he has benefited from training in the same gym as Usman and talking at length about how best to defeat Woodley.
“I talked to Kamaru a lot and I watched a lot of tape on the fight. I’m kind of a nerd like that and I make my notes,” Burns said. “I think there’s a key to beat Tyron Woodley. If you look back at his title defenses, he beat Robbie Lawler but never gave him a rematch. After that, he only beat guys who were good at one thing.
“Stephen Thompson is only a karate guy. He knows ‘Wonderboy’ don’t want to shoot on him. Then he beat Demian Maia and he knows Maia won’t strike with him. Then it was Darren Till, who we all know won’t shoot on Tyron Woodley. But if you look back at Rory MacDonald, he does everything and dominated him. Jake Shields was awkward in style and he beat Tyron Woodley. Kamaru did the same and that’s it, another domination.”
Burns believes his recent evolution as a striker to compliment his already world-class submission game will be the key difference. He showcased that growth emphatically by needing just one round to stop Maia in March.
“He has great jiu-jitsu and is a world-class jiu-jitsu player, but it’s going to be very hard for him to submit me,” Woodley said. “If this was a pure grappling match, he would have the advantage. But this is a mixed martial arts fight. Look at the other advantages like my takedown defense, which is impeccable. If I make him work and miss, I’m going to make him pay and his shots will be starting to come from far out. His losses have not been to the caliber of fighters that I have lost to.”
Although this will be Burns’ first opportunity to fight past the three-round limit within UFC, he is far from nervous at the prospect of entering deep waters.
“I love the deep waters, bro. I’ve been there a couple of times in training,” Burns said. “I want to be able to go five rounds and show everyone my gas tank. I know that I need to mix things up and I’m going to do that. I hit hard and I can wrestle. I have a gas tank that he can’t even imagine. That’s the key, to put pressure and he’s going to come with the big overhand right. I just have to keep moving, mix everything up and I’m going to get a win on Saturday.”
Both believe an emphatic victory can lead them directly to an Usman fight this summer, despite current talk of the champion facing everyone from Jorge Masvidal and Conor McGregor to Colby Covington and Leon Edwards. For Burns, he also made sure to clear up that there would be no issue in fighting a teammate.
“For sure we would fight each other if we had to, for sure,” Burns said. “[Usman] is a professional and I’m a professional. He’s in the best place as champion of the UFC and makes a lot of money and that’s what I want to be. I have nothing but respect for Kamaru but he knows that if I beat Tyron Woodley the way that I want to, next will be Kamaru. I have no problem fighting Kamaru.”
While this may not be the deepest fight card UFC has ever put out, there are still some names worth paying attention to. Rising strawweight prospect Mackenzie Dern is back when she takes on Hannah Cifers. Dern is coming off her first loss as a pro and looking to reestablish her position in the top 10 at 115 pounds. Plus, a pair of rising prospects meet at lightweight when Roosevelt Roberts takes on Brok Weaver. Let’s take a look at the rest of the main card.
Fight card, odds
- Tyron Woodley -180 vs. Gilbert Burns +155 — Welterweight
- Augusto Sakai -110 vs. Blagoy Ivanov -110 — Heavyweight
- Billy Quarantillo -140 vs. Spike Carlyle +120 — 150-pound catchweight
- Roosevelt Roberts -310 vs. Brok Weaver +250 — Lightweight
- Mackenzie Dern -410 vs. Hannah Cifers +320 — Women’s strawweight
Expect the smaller cage to produce action and an urgency from both fighters. The question is whether Burns has evolved enough as a striker to hang with Woodley’s pinpoint countering.
The more Burns amps up the pressure, the more dangerous Woodley might become provided he can avoid coming out flat like he did against Usman. The key for Woodley might ultimately be his takedown defense and whether he can keep the fight standing, where he holds advantages in technique.
Although Burns has looked great of late, Woodley represents a legitimate step up in competition and possesses the kind of elite striking that has given Burns issues in the past.
Pick: Woodley via TKO2