The Kamaru Usman-Gilbert Burns collision course was years in the making

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LAS VEGAS — Ali Abdelaziz manages both welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and challenger Gilbert Burns, who meet for the title on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at Apex in the main event of UFC 258. It will be the third time in the UFC that two Abdelaziz-managed fighters meet for a title.

First was Henry Cejudo and Marlon Moraes for the bantamweight title at UFC 238 in Chicago. Then it was lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov against interim champion Justin Gaethje last year.

Abdelaziz has long felt that Usman and Burns were destined to meet, and his prediction has finally come true.

But long before he started to manage Usman, Abdelaziz would occasionally train with him in New York. It was long before Usman’s career took off, but Abdelaziz hasn’t forgotten those sessions.

“How good was he?” Abdelaziz was asked.

“Nobody I would ever want to fight,” he said.

There was a pause, waiting for the laugh that never came. Abdelaziz was deadly serious.

Usman was always one of those guys you didn’t want to fight unless you had to.

“He was just an extremely, extremely tough guy,” Abdelaziz said. “Back then, there was no reward to fighting him. He didn’t have a name or a belt or anything, but everyone knew how good he was. He was a high-risk, low-reward guy.”

Usman remains a high-risk kind of guy, but the reward for taking that risk now is a world title.

And though he and Burns are friends and former teammates who have sparred more than 200 rounds together, Usman could foresee the Burns fight coming.

He left the gym at Sanford MMA in Florida to go to Denver to train under Trevor Wittman in anticipation of one day having to fight Burns. That day is just about to arrive, and while Abdelaziz said he expects a handshake and an embrace no matter which of the two wins, Usman isn’t planning to smile until the final bell.

UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will face former training partner Gilbert Burns at UFC 258 on Saturday, Feb. 13 in Las Vegas.

UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will face former training partner Gilbert Burns at UFC 258 on Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP)

He’s coming off a series of grudge-match fights — victories over Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal — in which there were bad feelings between all of them.

Such is not the case with Burns, but Usman will pretend as if it’s Covington or Masvidal at least for the duration of the bout.

“It doesn’t change anything when it comes time to fight time,” Usman said. “By the time I get in there, I see no face and I don’t care about [friendship]. In a sense, it’s different than the last two or three fights, but in a different way, it’s similar. By the time we get in there, it’ll be similar but there is just a different driving, motivating factor in this fight.”

Burns will essentially try, as Usman said several times, to take food off of his table by lifting the title from him. Burns was a successful lightweight but he was never the dominant force he’s become since moving up in weight.

Usman said he always respected Burns and considered him a good fighter, even in his lightweight days, but said Burns was able to see what had made him successful and seized upon it.

“When you’re in the gym with someone and they see everything you’re doing, and they see you becoming successful, they tend to mimic that,” Usman said. “They go, ‘Oh, that’s what that guy is doing to be successful. I need to do that.’ I did that. Tons of people have done it.

“When you’ve got a champion in the gym and you’re watching what the champion is doing, and the champion is telling you, ‘Do this, this and this and it will help you improve in this way,’ and you start to see small improvements and then overall improvements, yeah, of course you’re going to buy into that.”

So when it was suggested to Usman that he was saying he taught Burns everything Burns knows but not everything he, Usman, knows, the champion grinned broadly.

“You said that,” he said, laughing.

But it was all about mindset. Usman has been as dedicated a fighter as there has been in this sport and pushes himself like few others.

His example set the tone and at the very least helped send Burns down the path to this collision.

On Saturday, they’ll exchange kicks, punches and knees, and try to slam each other to the mat.

When it ends, they’ll hug it out and the winner will congratulate the loser.

It’s something Abdelaziz won’t see, even though the Apex is just a short ride from his home.

“I love these guys,” he said. “Both of them. Forget about talking about them as fighters. They’re world-class people. I don’t need to be there to see them [fight each other]. These guys are both such great men, it’s going to be hard to see one’s dream be [shattered].”

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