Kamaru Usman vs Gilbert Burns breakdown: Clash of Classmates

At the start of 2015, Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns were both new to the UFC. Burns was 7-0, having just notched a couple…

By: Connor Ruebusch | 2 years ago
Kamaru Usman vs Gilbert Burns breakdown: Clash of Classmates
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

At the start of 2015, Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns were both new to the UFC. Burns was 7-0, having just notched a couple of wins in the Octagon, and Usman, 5-1 with two exhibition wins on The Ultimate Fighter, was poised to earn his first. Both had already accomplished a great deal in other combat sports: Burns boasted four gold medals in three different World Jiu-Jitsu Championships, and Usman was a gold medalist and three-time All American in NCAA Division II wrestling.

When it came to that other aspect of MMA, though, the part with all the punching and kicking fans can’t get enough of, neither of them really knew what they were doing.

They were also teammates.

Blackzilians. Hard Knocks 365. Sanford MMA. However many times the name of the team changed, one thing remained constant: Henri Hooft, head striking coach. From 2011 on, Hooft has guided the hands, elbows, knees, and shins of some three dozen elite martial artists, and had a transformative effect on many of them. Hooft’s technical, systematic approach to training found fertile ground in Usman and Burns alike; both stellar athletes, both equipped with tremendous grappling skills, both willing and eager to learn. Both needing to learn, if their respective championship dreams were to ever become reality.

And now those dreams come head-to-head in the main event of UFC 258.

The Basics

As mentioned, Hooft takes a systematic approach to the whole face-punching thing. So there are a lot of similarities between the various fighters he cultivates. Hooft guys maintain a good boxing guard. They learn to punch after kicking and to kick after punching. They work the head, the body, and the legs in almost equal measure. And for the most part (no technique exists in a vacuum), they do all of these things with good balance and measure.

When it comes to technique, Hooft doesn’t like shortcuts—no matter how deftly super-athletes like Usman and Burns might employ them. He wants his fighters to do things correctly, and that means the learning process can be a little awkward.

For Usman and Burns, neither of whom came to MMA even knowing how to stand properly (forget how to slip or throw a solid punch-kick combination), Hooft’s system took a few years to set in. Until about 2018, the strict fundamentals were as much an encumbrance as they were a benefit. Both men had a tendency of freezing up, hesitating as the mechanisms of Hooft’s system labored within them. They could repeat the combos Hooft had drilled into them, but fitting the pieces smoothly together was a struggle. For a while, both men did a lot of overthinking in the cage.

And then, as if overnight (though you and Hooft both know it was a process of years), it clicked. And as each man finally got his hands around the craft of striking, their styles diverged.

Stance is the foundation on which every other technique is built. Before you can punch, you need to learn how to move, and before you learn how to move, you need to know how to stand. All of Hooft’s fighters do an excellent job of staying over their feet, but the particulars of stance will always vary according to their individual gifts and shortcomings.

We can learn a lot about Kamaru Usman and GIlbert Burns simply by looking at their stances.

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The main difference here is in weight distribution. Burns, on the left, is heavier on his front foot, whereas Usman carries his weight a little further back. This leads to a difference in posture. Burns’ head, you will notice, is farther forward, perhaps four inches from the invisible line extending up from his own knee (made somewhat more visible via the magic of MS Paint). In contrast, Usman’s back-weighted stance puts a space of about ten inches between his chin and the knee-line. Burns’ back foot tends to drag behind him a little, whereas Usman sits over his right heel like a man half-perched on a bar stool.

It may seem like a small distinction, but in a game of inches such differences matter. When advancing, Burns’ head enters range not long after his front foot, putting his chin in the line of fire. Usman, however, can more easily inch his way forward, probing his opponent’s striking range without immediately offering up his chin.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, between the two of them, Usman is by far the more consistent pressure fighter. You could count the number of backward steps Kamaru took against Colby Covington on two hands, and you could do it wearing boxing gloves. Meanwhile, Burns managed to get chased around the cage by the terminally low-output Alexey Kunchenko.

Different stances may also encourage different approaches toward counter punching. With his head nearer the opponent, Burns is more likely to shell up with a tight high guard, and in recent fights we have seen him use this one-size-fits-all defense as a trigger; the moment a punch connects with his guard, Gilbert is apt to rip powerful hooks without a moment’s thought or hesitation. The heavier front foot gives Burns a pre-loaded left hook, and we saw how devastating that shot can be when Burns slept Demian Maia with a single blow.

Usman, on the other hand, is a more “visual” counter puncher. With a few extra inches of precious space to see strikes coming, Usman is more likely to pull or take a short step back before shooting a straight punch back at his advancing foe. The final punch of his war with Colby Covington was just such a shot: a short, straight right hand, deliberately sighted and carefully aimed.

Closing Distance

We have already noted the way that stance affects a fighter’s ability to close distance safely. Perhaps this is why, between the two of them, Burns is the far more active kicker. With his weight forward, advancing behind punches can feel awfully risky. But kicks can be thrown from longer range, where head position matters a lot less. As with the left hook, Burns weighted front foot makes the left round kick a perfectly natural weapon, and Buns throws it quick with little telegraph.

Burns bedeviled Tyron Woodley with this very kick throughout his five-round domination of the former champion. The warier of this weapon Woodley became, the more chances Burns got to show the new depth of his striking arsenal. Here he is using the threat to execute a classic Muay Thai entry.

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1. Woodley corners himself. Burns puts himself between the former champion and freedom, just outside of striking distance.

2. Burns inches forward and raises his lead leg, showing Woodley the left kick which has troubled him throughout the fight.

3. But this is merely a feint. leg still lifted, Burns uses it to cover a sliding step into boxing range. Note the distance his right foot moves toward the black line between frames 2 and 3.

4. Still frozen by the threat of the kick, Woodley swats desperately at the left hook Burns uncorks as soon as he is close enough…

5. …and that leaves Woodley wide open for the crushing right hand that follows.

6. Next Burns continues the combination with a left hook—note the slight pivot that comes with this punch.

7. Another left hook, and the angle they’re coming from leaves Woodley only one path of escape. He scuttles clockwise along the fence.

8. Anticipating the movement, Burns tries to meet Woodley halfway with another right hand, but it misses the mark.

9. The next one doesn’t.

10. And Woodley goes down.

Punch-kick combinations are a staple of Dutch kickboxing, one of the two kickfighting styles with which Hooft familiarized himself during his combat career. They are also quite common in MMA, a sport whose gyms and training camps play host to no small number of Dutch kickboxers. Kick-punch combinations, on the other hand, are a little more rare in MMA.

But Gilbert Burns likes to lead with kicks, so punching off of them has become almost second nature. In this case, however, we see a subtler variation of this idea. A feinted lead leg kick makes excellent cover for the “planted” foot to come unplanted, hopping or sliding Burns into range. Once there, Burns can unleash the ferocious, full-power punches for which he has recently become known.

Kamaru Usman is more of a jabber than a kicker. At 76 inches, Usman’s reach is a full five inches longer than that of Burns, and a cursory eyeball test tells us that Usman’s wingspan comprises a greater proportion of arm-length, as opposed to Burns, who is about 90 percent shoulders.

Usman’s stance also emphasizes the jab as an entry weapon. A back-weighted stance protects the head without diminishing the lead hand’s reach, and even makes it easier to pick up the front foot and step forward without compromising balance.

To Think or Not to Think

But we aren’t just here to talk about stances and the techniques they encourage. Above, I mentioned that Usman and Burns were both prone to overthinking while Hooft’s lessons were still in the process of sinking in. This, I believe, is one of the most interesting ways in which the two men’s fighting styles have diverged over the last few years.

In 2015, Burns had the misfortune of fighting Rashid Magomedov. The worst kind of opponent, Magomedov is both a terribly effective counter striker, and also kind of boring. Fighters who beat him rarely look good in the process, and those who lose often suffer profound humiliation in the process. For a young Gilbert, not yet four years into his pro MMA career, it was a match made in hell. Magomedov kept him at distance, peppered him with downright obnoxious kicks, and then, when a frustrated Burns had no choice but to lunge after him, smacked him around with sniper’s precision.

After a round of this mistreatment, Burns returned to the corner for some sage advice from Professor Hooft. “Hey,” Henri told him, “You cannot go half-way, half action; he’s going to counter it. Commit to it!”

Hooft had picked up on Burns’ overthinking, and recognized that it was a result of anxiety induced by counters. The proposed solution? Stop overthinking. Stop worrying about counters, and trust in the speed and power of your attacks. Magomedov might counter a hard punch, but at least a hard punch might land with some effect. A hesitant attack would offer all of the same drawbacks without any of the advantages.

Of course, we already know that lessons rarely take hold that quickly. Burns came out for round two, and promptly got his ass kicked. That was a part of the lesson, too, and it was one Burns needed to learn the hard way—and more than once.

Now, however, Burns has all but completely solved his overthinking problem. He commits hard to virtually everything he throws, and it turns out that he’s kind of a dynamite puncher. Tyron Woodley had ideas about countering, but Gilbert changed his mind with a single exchange of punches in the first minute of the first round. For Gilbert Burns, overthinking is a thing of the past. Now, he hardly thinks at all; he just does.

Usman’s development has taken a different tack. His progression has arguably been more awkward than Gilbert’s, largely because Usman never shied away from thinking through his moves. Instead, consciously or otherwise, Usman has molded himself into a better thinker. Or perhaps, now that Hooft’s system is ingrained on the muscular level, he is free to think about more pertinent things, like tactics.

The final minutes of Usman’s fight with Colby Covington contained the sharpest, smartest combinations of his entire MMA career. Take a look.

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1. Usman advances on Covington, initiating with a jab feint.

2. Next, Usman suggests a right hand, loading weight onto his left leg.

3. Covington sees the left hook coming, beginning to step back and load a hook of his own…

4. …but Usman has simply thrown the shot away, using the threat to bring his feet into range. Covington’s half-baked counter hook goes wide as he scuttles backward—

5. —too slowly to avoid Usman’s piston of a right hand.

6. Moments later, Usman backs Covington into the cage.

7. This time, he feints the right. Covington now has good reason to worry about this punch, and he begins another attempted counter.

8. Which is promptly aborted by Usman’s left hook, this one deliberate and well aimed.

What you see here is a fighter thinking in layers. Not merely anticipating the beginning of an exchange, as Burns still seems to do, but looking past the first move, thinking two, three steps into the future. Burns rarely throws combinations of more than two punches in sequence, but even when he does, they tend to be the kind of powerful, committed punches we discussed above. He is not the type to throw a punch away in order to land a follow-up more effectively.

Note, in particular, the way that Usman uses his throwaway punches to gather his feet and advance on Covington in a sound position. Not only does this make him less liable to get hurt on the way in—a solid stance makes for superior shock absorption—it also means the punches he does commit to connect with the full power of his legs behind them. Since Burns is the more likely of the two to retreat from an attack, Usman may be able to set him up for some terrific punches as the fight goes on.

No style is without its limitations. Usman’s stance gives him more time to see and react to incoming attacks, but it can also make the transition to his fearsome wrestling game a little more awkward. Usman’s upper body has more distance to travel to connect on a shot takedown, whereas Burns’ front-weighted stance—ironically more akin to a wrestler’s stance than the one Usman has adopted—has turned him into an increasingly effective shot takedown artist.

Then again, Burns’ predilection for kicks makes him susceptible to straight counter punches. A kick is not only slower to throw than a punch, but slower to retract. And if a solid stance makes for good shock absorption, then a man standing on one leg has little hope of eating a clean punch without taking most of the force on the chin.

Usman left Sanford MMA sometime in 2020, moving to Colorado to train with tbe maestro of boxing-for-MMA, Trevor Wittman. Wittman is another trainer who insists on proper fundamentals, and like Hooft, his fighters tend to take a little while adjusting to his method. Did we see some of Usman’s overthinking return in his fight with Jorge Masvidal? Usman dominated the fight, pinning Masvidal to the cage again and again, but he also struggled with Jorge’s lightning quick left hand counters. Burns seems likely to let Usman pressure him, but Usman could find himself walking into an increasingly confident wood chipper. Maybe Gilbert’s counters are less thoughtful, but they are fast, powerful, and thrown without restraint.

Whatever the result, UFC 258’s main event presents a rare and fascinating opportunity to see two interpretations of the same system pitted against one another. Kamaru Usman seemed destined for gold from the earliest stages of his UFC career. He followed a long, straight path through the ranks, and now he’s here. But Gilbert Burns seemed to come out of nowhere as a welterweight contender, and his rapid rise has been marked by a ferocity the decision artist Usman lacks.

It’s Usman versus Burns, but it’s also Henri Hooft versus Henri Hooft. Maybe it’s for the best that the man himself won’t be in the building to see firsthand what his two prize pupils do to one another.

For more on Usman-Burns and the rest of UFC 258, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.

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Connor Ruebusch
Connor Ruebusch

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