It was his third loss in nine UFC fights, and Burns knew instantly when the fight had ended that the days of trying to wring a few extra pounds out of his body so he could make lightweight were just about over.
He was a welterweight fighting at lightweight, and while that often seems like an advantage, he was malnourished and dehydrated and wasn’t fighting at his best.
Changing weight classes wasn’t the only switch Burns considered after that fight. Like many of his peers, Burns would frequently say he learned more from his losses than he did from his wins.
“I don’t say that any more,” said Burns, who will meet former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) at UFC Apex in his first main event. “I used to say that all the time, but I stopped.”
Burns, who is 18-3 overall and 11-3 in the UFC, would pore over the video of his losses repeatedly, looking for the smallest mistakes that he could correct for the next time out.
During one of those sessions, something dawned on him.
“I did a lot of little things in that Dan Hooker fight that aren’t that big individually, but together, you combine them, and they add up to a loss,” Burns said. “But I realized that to be the fighter that I can be, I couldn’t just learn from a loss. I needed to learn from every fight and get better.”
As a result, he does a thorough examination of each of his bouts, poring over his matches repeatedly looking for anything he could do better.
He’s coming off the biggest win of his career, a first-round knockout of Demian Maia at Brasilia, Brazil, in March in the first fight card the UFC held without fans. He knocked Maia out in 2:34 and earned his third Performance of the Night bonus.
It was expected to be a grappling match, as Burns and Maia are two of the most decorated grapplers in the UFC. But instead, one big punch ended the night early and boosted Burns into his first main event.
If you think he watched the bout a couple of times to enjoy his handiwork, you’re way off.
He said he’s watched it at least 50 times, and has gone through it in minute detail looking for things he could have done better.
“I watch my fights multiple times and I take notes on it from what I see,” Burns said. “The UFC is so competitive now and you have to do this to [get to the next level]. I’ve seen that Maia fight 50 times, or more than that, and each time, I’ll see something I didn’t notice before.”
He’s 3-0 since moving to welterweight and instituting his new film-watching process. He was successful at lightweight, but nothing the way he’s been at welterweight.
Despite the ups and downs, Burns said he never lost faith in himself and always believed he’d make it to the top one day.
“I always believed I had the ability to do this and do it at a very high level,” Burns said. “I knew my time would come eventually. You hope it comes quicker, but I had a couple of losses along the way. But there is value in those losses, because it’s part of the journey and it teaches you how to overcome. There is always going to be adversity and you have to know how to deal with it, because things aren’t always going to go perfectly smoothly.
“I’ve become a better person, more mature, and I’ve really focused on what is important. I never doubted I would get here because I knew I had talent and I knew there would never be anyone who would work harder than I do.”
In Woodley, he’ll be facing his most dangerous opponent to date, an elite wrestler with one-punch KO power.
Burns professes great respect for Woodley, but said there is a common denominator in all of his losses.
“When he fights a guy who really has only one style, he’s going to win,” Burns said. “When he fought Darren Till, he knew Till wasn’t going to take him down. He was going to strike with him. When he fought ‘Wonderboy’ [Stephen Thompson], he knew Wonderboy was only going to do karate and not try to get him to the ground and grapple with him.
“In all of his fights that he lost, it was against guys who mixed it up. Jakes Shields could shoot on him, but also hit him with some good punches. Rory MacDonald was that kind of a guy who would take you down, throw punches and kicks. He mixed it up well.
“Even back to the Nate Marquardt fight so long ago, that’s the kind of guy who beats him. If you fight him and you’re one-dimensional, you’ll have trouble. I know I can’t just wrestle. I can’t just rely on my jiu-jitsu. I can’t just strike. I have to mix it up and if I do that, I will be fine.”
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