Why Josh Burkman is so calm before the storm
Many fighters understandably loathe doing interviews the week of a fight. After all, they’re usually worn out from a draining camp with lots on their minds and on the verge of or in the midst of a grueling weight cut.
Speaking with UFC welterweight Josh Burkman while he’s at his Utah home the day before he leaves for Saskatoon, Canada, for his fight Sunday against Patrick Cote, however, provides a stark contrast to the tension usually found inside a fighter’s cam.
On the cusp of one of the most important contests of his professional life, "The People’s Champion" is relaxed. Like "waking up from a long nap on a Caribbean beach" relaxed.
We apologize for the intrusion into his life, thank him for his time and he sounds more like a chill surfer than one of the most dangerous men in the world, shortly before heading into battle.
"Naw, man, it’s ok. I’m not doing anything. I’m just relaxing," he says.
"At this point, the hard work is done. It is just time for visualization, hydrating and resting. I know I’m ready for this fight."
Burkman is a veteran of nearly 50 professional fights, so his calm and confidence could be due to experience. That isn’t completely it, though.
Burkman entered his most recent fight like a rusty tin man — stiff, injured and underprepared.
For the sake of brevity, here’s a list of just some recent injuries that forced Burkman to severely cut back — and by that we’re talking Burkman doing yoga and mitts because his body was too beat up to do anything else — on his training before his fights with top contenders Hector Lombard and Dong Hyun Kim: busted ribs, sprained ankle tendons and ligaments, a torn quad, and a torn joint in his knee.
And, oh yeah, on top of all that, he and his entire family got bronchitis the week of his fight with Kim. And, his wife was pregnant and due the day after that fight.
That isn’t an injury, but it sure must have weighed on his mind leading up to the bout. It’s no wonder that he sat in his house before that fight with a much different attitude than he has now.
"I was sitting here about to go drive to Vegas for the fight, injured, sick, and my wife comes over and asks what’s wrong. I said, ‘I don’t want to go do this. I’m going to, but I don’t want to.’ That’s the worst I’ve ever felt going into a fight."
Burkman returned to the UFC after nearly seven years out of the organization. During that time, he went 9-2 and put together an impressive list of victories over top opponents.
So, he got his shot back at the big-time. And he was eager to make the most of it and give himself and his career one last chance at reaching the top.
"My return to the UFC has been tough on my body and on me," he says.
"When I got back in the UFC I really wanted to try and take my training to another level. I wanted to push it so I could compete with the best guys in the world. So, I started to wrestle again and get back on the mat a little more."
Burkman had to get back on the mat because, though he’d never stopped fighting and winning, he’s suffered through such bad spinal disc injuries that he’s often gone entire camps with little to no grappling or sparring.
The idea being that his body could not hold up to that type of training. So, he let his body heal as much as it could before letting it all go during the fight.
You’d think it would occur to someone not healthy enough to wrestle or roll that they should not get into a high-level MMA fight. The gutsy mentality of a fighter doesn’t have much in common with those of civilians, however.
So in any case, Burkman got back into hard training to get ready for his UFC return. And, that’s when things started to go downhill, physically.
"I sprained my ankle six weeks out from the Lombard fight. I hurt some ligaments and tore two tendons. I spent the next three weeks managing that injury and after that I started to spar again. I went down to Vegas and I think in the third round of sparring, Evan Dunham body-locks me and pops my ribs. I tore a ligament that connects two lower ribs. And then I tore cartilage that goes up through the obliques. Any one of those injuries would make anyone else drop out of the fight. I think my ribs were probably worse than [Jose] Aldo’s," he says.
Still, the mental strength/sickness that is characteristic of fighters wouldn’t let Burkman pull out of the fight with the top-five opponent. "It was a huge opportunity to be able to fight Hector Lombard," he explains.
"I knew that if I could just get in the cage I had a chance. I knew it would be a fight more than a performance, but I did the best I could do against Hector. I was not in the kind of shape you are when you have an actual working camp. I just wanted to give myself a chance to win in there. Then, Hector tested positive for all sorts of stuff. It was like the worst situation I could have gotten myself into (laughs).
Because Lombard had banned PED’s in his system during the fight, his decision win was turned into a no contest. Still, Burkman didn’t get away scott-free.
"Hector landed a bunch of mean leg kicks that turned my leg purple. I got an MRI afterwards, and I had a partially torn meniscus and a torn quad, and a torn tendon in my knee," he remembers.
Burkman rested, got some platelet-rich plasma treatment done and began to feel better. He asked UFC matchmaker Joe Silva for another fight with a top-10 fighter, and hoped to fight by the summer.
Instead, he got a date in May, against Kim. Burkman was in Hawaii when he got the offer, and he jumped right in.
"I got back on the mat with about eight weeks to go before the fight. I didn’t get to grappler or wrestle, though. I just tried to get in shape with my coach holding pads and doing bag work. Going through camps with those types of injuries meant I didn’t get into shape and that bred insecurity, not confidence. That’s why I looked so tight against Kim. I’m usually real light, bouncing around. I didn’t even follow a game plan. My concern was just staying healthy."
Burkman lost, and paid for his willingness to jump in against top competition, badly injured. Still, he can’t say it wasn’t the right thing to do.
"My excitement to be in the UFC, again, and to fight top-10 guys probably hurt me," he admits.
"Then again, if I had let the injuries heal, I might have gone a year with no fights, so…"
That’s the fighter’s dilemma. Do what you love in search of personal satisfaction and professional glory, but do it injured, or take care of your body and miss out on doing what you love and accomplishing your goals.
There’s no perfect answer and no guarantees in fighting. Burkman is fine with that, and seems content with his decisions.
He is happy to have had a much different training camp than his prior two, however. That, it turns out, is the reason for his present and almost unnerving serenity.
"It feels so good now to have had a good training camp," he reveals.
"If I can’t do well against Patrick Cote, I’m going to have to think about if I’ll continue fighting, because I feel very good now. I feel as though I should be able to dominate this fight. Training well like this gives me confidence."
When it comes to mileage, Burkman has significantly more than the average 34 year old. Still, he’s wanted to reach the 50-fight mark in his career, and sure wouldn’t mind ending his career with a few UFC wins in a row.
Eventually, however, he’ll listen to what his body is telling him. Win or lose, he’ll likely not regret any of the shots and chances he took.
When asked, he won’t go so far as to say that losing gamely while fighting through injury is ultimately as much of a victory as, well, a win. Still, he knows it says something about him.
Ultimately, it all does what martial arts training is supposed to — build not just skills, but character, and to cultivate an inner strength that you can one day reveal to yourself.
"I know that I’m a tough son of a bitch," he chuckles.
"I can keep moving forward through it all and when I look back, I know it has helped me become a stronger man and helped my life outside of the cage slow down. Life is so simple and so peaceful, now. It helps me in all my struggles, and I know it helps me be a better husband and a better father."