Whether it’s Anderson Silva knocking out contenders or Georges St. Pierre wowing fans with his athleticism, they are the sport’s biggest currency.
But in small gyms around the world, there are others working, waiting for their chance at glory. Others like Kevin Burns.
Far from the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip or the bright lights of filled arenas, the 28-year-old toiled determinedly at his Des Moines, Iowa home base, training his body to supply and withstand beatings, winning fights without making headlines and hoping to get the call to the American big leagues of MMA, the UFC.
Just a day before the calendar turned to June, an opportunity arose. Ryo Chonan dropped out of his scheduled UFC 85 match with an injury, and matchmaker Joe Silva needed a replacement to face Roan Carneiro. The former University of South Dakota football player received the call. Now, he had to decide if he could answer it.
There were more than a few factors at play in the decision:
In his mind, however, the obstacles were meant to be conquered, like any opponent standing in his way to victory.
“I knew when I got the call, it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “There’s no way I would’ve turned it down. I told my manager, ‘When the UFC calls, I’ll fight anybody, anywhere, I don’t care if it’s GSP.’ You have to take that opportunity when it comes. Too many of those don’t pass your doorstep in your life, so take it, embrace it and go forward.”
Burns can remember the exact day when pro MMA became a real option for him. It was September 24, 2004. At the time, the only martial art he had ever studied was tae kwon do.
“I liked it,” he says, “but I was looking for something with a little more contact.”
He had been eying the website of a local jiu-jitsu and muay thai school, and they announced they would be moving closer to him. He quit tae kwon do cold turkey, walked into Des Moines Jiu-Jitsu and signed up for a year, telling the front-desk clerk that he’d be coming in seven days a week for the next year.
The clerk chuckled at his grand statement of dedication. Nobody comes in every day of the year, not even the owner.
To the shock of everyone there, he indeed followed through on his promise. In fact, Burns would on some days come to the gym three times a day, waking up at 5 am to train before heading off to work at Wells-Fargo, going in during his lunch break, and going again when he finished his work day.
It became an obsession, and he knew he wanted to take it further, maybe fight as a pro. But that would also entail convincing his wife.
After working on her for a couple years – he is nothing if not persistent – he got her OK.
“OK, just do it once, to quiet the noise,” his wife Cindy told him.
In August 2006, he made his debut and knocked out an experienced fighter named Demi Deeds in the first round.
“I looked at my wife,” he says, “and I told her, ‘Honey, I don’t think I’m done.”
A golden opportunity
Only after dealing with the logistics of taking time off and travel issues could Burns really begin formulating a game plan for his opponent, Roan Carneiro.
To say he faced a daunting challenge is an understatement. Carneiro is a UFC veteran whose pro MMA career dates back to 2000, four years before Burns even began training. He holds a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and has been locked in battles against Anderson Silva, Ryo Chonan and Jon Fitch, among others.
Burns, meanwhile, was a blue belt – the second lowest rank in jiu-jitsu – and had only six pro fights under his belt, most coming in his home state of Iowa.
On paper, it was a rather profound mismatch.
But Burns was coming off an impressive win against Bobby Voelker just a few weeks earlier, and was in excellent shape.
“I didn’t go to London for any other reason than to win,” he said. “Some would just go in, hope to do the best they can and enjoy the experience. Not me. When I turned pro, I told my wife I want to compete for a world title. That’s my goal and what I’m going to go after.”
Burns showed that kind of heart early. In a scramble just after the opening bell, Burns found himself on top of Carneiro in full mount. Though Carneiro later escaped, it sent an early message.
“It was a big confidence booster for the early seconds,” he says, “And it turned things for him; it might’ve rattled him a bit. He thought he was going to crush me.”
Burns credits his Iowa roots with his success in the scramble. Though he didn’t grow up as a wrestler, he has spent plenty of time in the trenches with locals who grew up in what is unofficially the state sport, and has made many 30-mile drives north to Ames, to work with Iowa State wrestlers.
Carneiro brought Burns to the mat 50 seconds into the first round. Most observers probably believed it would soon be over. How could a blue belt truly defend against a black, right?
But Carneiro could muster little offense. One time after the next, his guard passes failed, and Burns stayed busy from the bottom, until Carneiro earned the mount with about 1:30 left in the round. But even then, Carneiro couldn’t finish. He tried an arm triangle, then ground and pound from the top, and Burns snuck out and back to guard.
With that, Burns could sense Carneiro fading away, the man called “The Fire” burning his opponent’s will to win.
“I could tell from the look on his face he was frustrated,” he says. “He fully expected to pass my guard like butter and sub me. As the fight went on, he was questioning how he was going to win the fight and it gave me confidence to see that demeanor change in him.”
Video: MMA from NBC Sports
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