Three events made up of 35 fights, and that is before you look beyond the UFC’s output throughout International Fight Week. Every fight fans’ favourite seven days of the year is packed with so much great action that a number of talented fighters get overlooked in the build-up to the premiere celebration of all things mixed martial arts.
One such talent is three-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Gilbert Burns, who will face Lukasz Sajewski at UFC Fight Night 90. The event is the first full UFC card of the week, taking place Thursday, July 7, and headlined by the lightweight title bout between Rafael dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez. That main event should serve as the motivation for Burns, a fighter who might not have one eye on the 155-pound championship just yet, but who seems destined to later in his still young career.
The Brazilian grappler made the transition to MMA following his 2011 World Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships win. In little more than two years, he ploughed through eight opponents, building a perfect 8-0 record with none of his opponents making it out of the first round. Already earmarked as one of the sport’s most exciting prospects, Burns signed with the UFC in 2014 and made his debut against Andreas Stahl, an opponent he defeated by unanimous decision.
Three straight wins inside the octagon improved the fighter’s record to 11-0, but the step up in competition saw Burns pushed to his developing limit. Notably, against Alex Oliveira in March 2015, Burns started slowly, struggling through the first two rounds before going back to what brought him to the dance in the first place. His world-class grappling ability was the enabler as he found a fight-ending armbar with less than a minute left in the bout.
To many it sent alarm bells ringing, and tempered their opinion of Burns as a prospect. What was overlooked was the intangible refusal to know when he was beaten. It takes more than incredible technique to find a submission so late in a fight that is being lost, the ability to overcome in-fight adversity that night every bit as impressive as Burns’ performance through the first two rounds was disappointing.
With the Brazilian suffering the first defeat of his professional MMA career last time out, against Rashid Magomedov in Sao Paulo in November 2015, the fight with Sajewski on Thursday night is another opportunity for Burns to prove that he can overcome adversity and get back into the win column. That will tell us plenty about his upside as a prospect.
Prospect is a word used often in this piece and really is the key at this point. In the victory against Oliveira, and defeat against Magomedov, Burns looked like a fighter still making his way down the long path to becoming the finished article. A world class grappler with an incredible top game, who is still learning the intricacies of UFC-level striking, and developing his ability to take the fight where he wants it to go. Only four years into his professional mixed martial arts career, that’s where Burns should be.
BJJ standouts, true elite BJJ players the level of Burns before he turned to MMA, are often held to higher standards but you only have to look at the careers of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Damien Maia to gain some perspective on how much more should be to come from the talented 29-year-old.
Four years into his pro career, Jacare was still developing his skills in Brazil. As for Maia, he went almost nine years from professional debut to challenging for the UFC middleweight title, and that at a level of all-round ability far below the one he progressed to later on in his career. Now, at 36 and 38-years-old respectively, we are seeing both compete in the best form of their careers. Neither has been any better than they are now. Neither can be ruled out as future UFC champions in their respective divisions.
The road to achieving similar levels of success continues for Burns on Thursday against Lukasz Sajewski. As a still-developing talent, improvements should be seen with each passing fight. Expect to see that manifest when the octagon door closes behind Gilbert Burns on Thursday night.
Hey, Reminder, Aaron Pico is Fighting Again Tonight
In case you missed it, the so-called “greatest prospect in MMA history” Aaron Pico is fighting tonight, and it seems as if nobody is talking about his second MMA bout.
Pico made his MMA debut back on June 24th, at Bellator NYC and we all know what happened there.
His debut could not have gone any worse, and that’s putting it lightly. Pico was a -600 favorite and his opponent, Zach Freeman, was dubbed a journeyman who also had a second job as a window salesman. Nobody, and I mean nobody gave Freeman a chance to beat Pico. Yet 24 seconds later, the MMA world was left in shock.
Bellator NYC was the promotion’s biggest card they put on to date and that was largely in part due to the hype behind Pico. Analysts and experts had deemed him the greatest prospect of all time. No matter how great of a prospect he is, that’s still quite the title to give to a 20-year-old making his MMA debut. Yes, Pico is an accomplished wrestler and boxer, but is it crazy to think that the pressure was just too much for Pico in his first professional bout?
Who knows what led to Aaron Pico’s crash and burn debut, but Pico has reportedly simplified his approach in preparation for his second MMA bout. Tonight, he has the chance to redeem himself, and prove he is a legit prospect to all the doubters who relished in his defeat. Pico is facing Justin Linn (7-3) at Bellator 183 this evening, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the adversity he has faced so far.
Pico is a junior Golden Gloves champion and national champion in wrestling, the skill is inevitably there. If he ever wants to make it in this brutal sport he has to put his debut behind him, and display a dominant performance at Bellator 183.
Bellator 183 takes place at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. The main card starts at 6 pm PT. Aaron Pico vs. Justin Linn is the first fight on the main card.
The humble beginnings of the Korean Zombie
The featherweight division has become one of the most exciting in the UFC in the last few years. With the arrival of Conor McGregor, and an influx of exciting talent, new life has been breathed into a division that was suffering due to Jose Aldo’s dominance.
A notable absentee during this rise has been “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, who returns for the first time in three years against Dennis Bermudez on Saturday. The fight features as the main event of UFC Fight Night 104, and Jung is making his long awaited return after serving his mandatory military service duty for the South Korean Army.
With the fight with Bermudez fast approaching, the buzz for Jung’s return is noticeable throughout the MMA community. With a return of this magnitude, it is always fun to look back at the career of the fighter and relive the moments in his career that make the fan in all of us excited for his return.
The humble beginnings of the Korean Zombie
Chan Sung Jung was widely considered to be one of the best prospects to emerge from the far east when he was signed by WEC to face Cub Swanson in 2010. An injury forced Swanson out of the contest and Leonard Garcia stepped in as a replacement.
The fight between the two would take place on the preliminary card of Jose Aldo Jr. vs. Urijah Faber for the WEC featherweight championship. The event was the first and only WEC pay-per-view card and with Zuffa on board, the event was treated as such with Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan on commentary.
That night, MMA fans were treated to one of the greatest fights in mixed martial arts history and widely regarded as the best fight ever in the lighter weight classes. Many fans call a fight “a war” in an exciting contest between two fighters, but the fight between the Zombie and Garcia was more like a demolition derby.
Both men threw their strikes with wreckless intent and dropped each other on numerous occasions. The fight went to a split decision with Garcia getting the nod from the judges. Many considered Jung the winner, but the fight received praise from every media outlet in the days following the card. Dana White would wear a shirt with the now famous “Korean Zombie” logo at the following UFC PPV weigh ins in support of the epic fight.
Jung returned to the cage to face George Roop in his next outing in the WEC and lost the fight by a vicious head kick. This would be his final fight in WEC as the UFC went on to absorb the WEC’s featherweight and bantamweight divisions and bring both into the UFC.
Jung was scheduled to make his promotional debut for the UFC against Rani Yahya at UFC Fight Night 23, but was forced out of the fight with an injury. Ironically Leonard Garcia’s opponent Nam Phan would suffer an injury before their scheduled fight. It seemed like fate that Jung and Garcia would do battle once more. The Korean Zombie came in as a late replacement for the injured Phan. The rematch between the two was highly anticipated and the UFC was promoting the fight as the rematch to the greatest fight ever.
The fight was set as the opener to the main card for UFC Fight Night 24. What came next was history in the making. Both fighters were tentative in the early exchanges in the fight and didn’t have the same enthusiasm to brawl as the previous encounter, but in the final few minutes of the opening round, Jung took the back of Garcia.
In an unorthodox position on the ground, Rogan said on the desk, “Looks like he is setting up for a twister”. The twister was not seen in the UFC at this point and with the clock ticking, Jung stretched Garcia in a position where his spine was turned into a pretzel and Garcia tapped. Jung stated in the post-fight interview with Rogan that he had learned how to do the submission watching videos of Eddie Bravo doing the move. The win won multiple awards for submission of the year.
After that win, Chan Sung Jung was set to face Mark Hominick at UFC 140 in Toronto. Hominick, who fought Aldo for the title at UFC 129 in his hometown, came into the fight as the underdog, but in seven seconds that all changed. Jung cracked Hominick, tying the record for the second fastest knockout in UFC history. A win over a former title challenger launched the South Korean into title contention.
Following another historic win, Chan Sung Jung was now set to take part in his first ever main event against rising star Dustin Poirier with the winner receiving a title shot against UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo at a later date.
Jung went on to put on another fight of the year that night. The one-man zombie horde overwhelmed Poirier in the early rounds with his aggressive style. Numerous submission attempts and transitions by Jung frustrated Poirier. As Poirier became more aggressive and careless in the fight, Jung launched a flying knee in the third round and rocked his opponent. Poirier attempted to take Jung down, but the Zombie caught Poirier in a D’Arce choke in the third round to get the win.
Multiple injuries, and scheduled title fights between Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar; and Aldo and Anthony Pettis, delayed Jung’s title shot. After Pettis was forced out of the title fight with Aldo because of an injury, Jung was called up as a late replacement and finally get the title shot he earned by defeating Poirier a year earlier.
The fight would take place in Brazil and was surprisingly lacklustre. Both fighters were sizing each other up for the majority of the contest. Jung suffered an injury during the fight when he dislocated his shoulder and in typical zombie fashion, Jung attempted to put his own shoulder back in place. Aldo used this time to attack, winning the title fight by TKO.
This would be the last time we saw the zombie in the cage as he would be drafted by the South Korean Army to do his two-year mandatory military service. Jung has not fought in three and a half years.
Now the burning question is how will the Korean zombie look after such a long absence. One thing is sure though, fans are extremely excited to see his return and on Saturday, The Zombie Apocalypse could be on the cards if the South Korean comes out of the cage with a win.
Q&A: Bellator 171’s Chidi Njokuani
Fresh off a 20-second KO win on December 3rd, Chidi “Bang Bang” Njokuani is ready to get back in the Bellator Cage and take on MMA veteran “The Young Assassin” Melvin Guillard in his first ever main event bout with the promotion.
Njokuani took some time out of his training schedule to talk with another Texan, Kevin Jones from MMALatestNews.com and The Main Event on Double T 97.3 FM in Lubbock, Texas. Just two guys from the Lonestar State talking wins, weight cuts, and wings.
Kevin Jones: Tell me about growing up in Dallas. Do you still carry that “Lonestar Pride” even though you are no longer living in the state?
Chidi Njokuani: Yeah 100% man, that is my titty…it’s cool man, I love Dallas. That is where my heart is.
Your last fight was in Thackerville, OK (about any hour North of the Dallas/Fort Worth area), how did it feel getting to fight closer to home for that fight?
It felt good man. I get to have the home crowd and all that. All my fans cheering for me. I don’t always get to have that since I never really fight in Texas anymore. It is good to have family out there.
Did y’all go out after the fight?
Yeah, we drove back to Dallas. We did not go out we just kicked it at one of my boy’s houses. We just chilled and had a few drinks. Nothing crazy. I had a flight to catch in the morning.
Tell me about you Nigerian background. Do you feel like you are fighting for Texas and Nigeria when you get in there?
Nigeria not as much, because I was was not really born there and I still have not had a chance to visit. But I do understand where I came from and I do absorb my family’s culture. It was dope to grow up in the environment that I grew up in, like with my parents being full blooded Nigerian and all of my aunts and uncles always around, and seeing how the culture was with them. It is just dope. I wish someday I will get to represent Nigeria in some sort of way. I can definitely get down for that.
Being a big fight fan my whole life, when I think of Nigeria I automatically think of Samuel Peters “the Nigerian Nightmare.” Do you have any favorite fighters that you look up to whether they are Nigerian or not? Who did you look up to when you growing up?
I can’t really say…maybe the Roy Jones Juniors and Alis and people like that and of course the people that I train with, my coach Saekson, my brother. I more looked up to the people around me, that were guiding me in the right direction.
You started in Muay Thai at pretty a young age but you took some time off to do some skateboarding. Do you think that helped you at fighting? What are your thoughts on kids that are trying to get into combat sport having outlets in other sports that could help them in their future in the fight game?
I am sure that it helped me. Maybe it is the reason why I kick so hard, all that pushing haha. Actually I really I have never put two and two together but I am sure that it did [help] a lot. When I skated too, I always switched from regular stance to goofy stance. Just like switching orthodox to southpaw. And so I think that kind of helped me out with fighting too. Yeah, I am open for people having other hobbies outside of fighting. The only reason that I stopped skating was because I would get hurt so much, and then I would have to pull out of fights. Other than that I think it is good for people to have other hobbies and not just focus the ones [they are] fighting [in].
A guy that you fought, Joe Schilling, goes back and forth between MMA and Kickboxing. We saw Hisaki Kato go over there and beat him at his own game in kickboxing. If we did see you back in another discipline, would a rematch with Joe be something that would interest you?
Fighting Joe? Nah I am over that. At one point back in the day, I did want to get that rematch because he whooped my ass and I was trying to get back at him. Now Joe and I are cool. I don’t care to fight him in any kind of way.
This fight is at a catchweight of 175 lbs. Your last fight was also at that catchweight. How are you doing with your weight right now? Have you ever considered moving up a division? Those weight cuts can be tough and you are a big guy with some heavy hands for 170 lbs.
As of right now, I am planning on staying at 170. This one is at a catchweight because it was short notice for me. 175, I can make that in my sleep. It is those last 4 pounds that kill me. I am staying at 70 for now. I kind of f***ed up my last camp with the weight cut, so I am trying to fix that issue now. I think I am still growing into my body. I am still developing. Eventually, maybe in a couple years or so, I might be forced to go to 185, but for now, I am going to stick with 70.
Your opponent Melvin Guillard has been around for a long time and has fought all over the place. What are your thoughts on your opponent and how do you see the fight going?
He is not bad, man. He is real athletic, he’s explosive. For a smaller guy, he has heavy hands. He has a lot of knockout power. I look at it as a fight like, stick to my game. Stick to what I am good at doing and we can take him out. I am not looking past him in any kind of way. I don’t care how small he is. He could be coming up from 135 and I would still take him as if he was one of the biggest threats that I have ever had. If I stick to my game plan and do what I do best, I will win this fight.
Do you think Melvin might be looking past you a little bit? He has a fight scheduled in Korea not too long after this one, or do you think he might be trying to maximize his money making ability in 2017?
Maybe he is trying to get his money, but, who knows? I think he was actually scheduled to fight somebody else and maybe that person dropped out, so they called me. So maybe he already had his next fight in Korea lined up before he knew he was fighting me. I don’t know. If he is looking past me that is his bad. If not, then good on him. I just don’t care what goes on in that dude’s head. I just know what I need to go out there and do.
I felt like your last fight against Andre Fialho was going to be one of the best fights on the card. Turns out that you had other plans and got him out of there in about 20 seconds. This is a quick turnaround for you. If you can get Melvin out of there quick, do you think there is a chance we will get to see you again on the next Thackerville card March 3rd? I know the people in Oklahoma would love to see you fight again.
I would be down for it. It does not sound like a problem to me. It just depends on how this fight goes. I did not expect to knock out Andre Fialho in 20 seconds either. So that surprised me. But however this fight goes, I would be down to hop on that card.
Bellator is putting on more and more international cards. You fought once in Guatemala city. If you had a bucket list of countries to fight in which ones would be on your list?
Honestly, anywhere tropical haha. Anywhere with some good weather. I would be down to fight like somewhere in Nigeria maybe. That would be dope. I could kind of represent where my family is from.
So let’s say you get Guillard out of there in under a minute, no more worrying about your weight for a while. What is the ideal post fight meal for Mr. Njokuani?
Haha, probably chicken. You know I am black, brother. You know n***as love chicken haha! Maybe some wings or something. I love having some wings after I fight.
Do you like the hottest sauce you can get? Where is your spice level at?
I am not too bold. I mean I am cool with spices bro, but I am not crazy like that. Maybe mild or hot, those are cool with me. Either one. Fried is cool with me too, I will eat anything. Any type of chicken haha.
Bellator 171 takes place January 27th at the Kansas Star Arean in Mulvane, Kansas and will be broadcast Live on Spike TV at 8:00 PM CST.
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