What do you live for? What’s your sense of purpose? What’s the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning? Most of us have it, to one extent or another, but sometimes we lose focus on living in the moment. When you look back on your life, do you think you will be happy?
The Ultimate Fighter reality show debuted in January 2005, almost exactly four years after brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the UFC with the intent to turn the flailing promotion around. It was a brand-new era of mixed martial arts that helped shape what the sport is today. The first season of TUF was a huge hit that helped launch the UFC into the spotlight, handing out life-changing contracts to some very lucky fighters.
When TUF 2 rolled around in August of the same year, there was a ton of hype. UFC legends Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin served as the coaches, and a chunk of the roster ended up becoming longtime veterans of the promotion. Rashad Evans. Keith Jardine. Melvin Guillard. Joe Stevenson. They were all involved. So was Josh Burkman, who eventually became a 19-fight UFC veteran.
Burkman won his first fight after getting into the TUF house with a decision over the aforementioned Guillard on the third episode. Unfortunately, he broke his arm and was forced to leave the show. Devastating at the time, it turned out to be only a minor setback that led to one of the best moments of his long and storied career.
“After The Ultimate Fighter, I thought I could have won The Ultimate Fighter, and I didn’t know what was next,” Burkman told Combat Press. “Then, they gave me the opportunity to fight Sam Morgan, and if I went out and beat Sam Morgan, I was going to get the nine-fight contract. I went out in the TUF 2 Finale, and I beat Sam Morgan in 21 seconds. For me, that kind of launched my platform in the UFC for the last 10 years. That was a big moment, and was probably the biggest moment of my career.”
A moment to remember, indeed, and a career launcher, for sure. After TUF 2, Burkman finished out those nine fights by winning some, losing some, and fighting some of the top welterweights of the era. His first UFC release came in 2008.He had a run on the regional circuit before getting picked up by the World Series of Fighting. After back-to-back wins at that promotion’s first two shows, Burkman got a chance to redeem a prior UFC loss when he faced Jon Fitch at WSOF 3 in March 2013. It proved to be the second biggest highlight of his career.
“The most satisfaction is when I got to rematch Jon Fitch in the World Series of Fighting, and I choked him out in 41 seconds,” Burkman recalled. “Those are two moments I can hang my hat on. Life is about moments and being able to celebrate those things.”
Burkman is now 38 years old and has 46 fights under his belt. He has not fought in the cage since last year. In February 2018, he suffered the last of five consecutive losses, all of which came during his second UFC run. His body was broken down pretty badly. He didn’t want to end on that note, but he didn’t really have much choice.
“I pretty much retired in February,” said the Utah native. “I had my last UFC fight in February. I went in to have neck surgery. I had disc replacement on my C-5, C-6, C-7. My disc was pressing back on my spinal cord. Before surgery, my right arm was starting to atrophy. I was having bad headaches for about six months. I didn’t know if I had CTE or what was going on with my body. Until I got the MRI, I didn’t know what was going on. I was cutting weight a lot, and I got dropped in my last couple fights. It was a shitty experience and way to end my career, after I had a pretty good career. Surgery was in May 2018, and I pretty much thought I was done.”
Burkman was in a weird place. However, through the darkness comes the light, and the grizzled vet had a unique opportunity come along that gave him one more spark.
“This grappling tournament came up, and I was asked if I wanted to compete in this grappling tournament against Sean Powers for Proving Grounds,” Burkman explained. “So, I trained for that, and I was teaching classes and just kept doing my routine. And, at that competition, I just felt really good. I felt good in competing. I felt good in the lead-up. I was like, ‘Man, if I can grapple, I bet I can fight again.’ I just started putting that out there. I started picking up my training and doing a little light sparring and grappling harder.”
His last three losses in the UFC might seem like low points — he was finished by Michel Prazeres, Drew Dober and Alex Morono — but they were certainly not the lowest he’s been in his career.
“Oh man, I’ll tell you, the fight against Hector Lombard [was one of the worst],” Burkman said. “I tore my ligaments in my ankle, I popped a rib, herniated a disc in my mid-back, and then a week and a half out from the fight, my kids and my wife got bronchitis. Then, I got bronchitis five days before heading out to Vegas, and I should’ve just dropped out of the fight. I felt terrible going into it. I didn’t feel great in the cage. It was just that whole experience leading up to Hector Lombard, and then he tested positive for steroids, and it ended up being a no-contest, like it didn’t happen anyway. It was probably one of the moments in my career I had to persevere the most, when I should have not been so tough and just backed out of the fight. Coming back to the UFC and having that whole thing happen was one of them I’d like to forget altogether.”
The Lombard fight took place in January 2015. It was the first bout in Burkman’s second UFC run. A lot had happened since then, including submission losses to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts Prazeres and Morono. When Burkman faced Powers at the Proving Grounds Invitational last January, the tables turned — Burkman got the tap about three minutes into their no-gi match. He immediately went over to hug his four- and six-year-old sons before he even got a chance to have his hand raised. It was another moment to remember, and also a reminder of why he does what he does.
“I would’ve been able to walk away after those fights in the UFC,” Burkman said. “I would’ve been very happy — no regrets, no resentment. The last 16 or 17 years, I’ve lived a dream, being able to fight in the UFC, travel the world, and just be a martial artist. I lived my dream. I wasn’t always the most disciplined, and I always just fought people, because I liked to fight. I was happy, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“It’s in my blood. My grandpa was a professional boxer. His grandpa was a professional boxer. Some of us just have that warrior-style personality. I’m not a merchant. I’m not a salesman. I don’t want to sell technology. I feel like being a fighter for 16 years gave me a lot of freedom, and I did it because I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”
Burkman put the word out. He was ready to return. The timing turned out to be perfect, because a top regional promotion was coming to town.
“[Legacy Fighting Alliance CEO] Ed Soares hit me up and said LFA was coming to Utah, and [he] asked me if I would like to fight in it,” said the Salt Lake City resident. “That was probably like five or six weeks ago, and since then, I picked up my training. I kind of thought I was done competing, but it turns out I have one or maybe a couple more left in me. I’m really excited about it.”
Burkman teaches martial arts at Ultimate Combat Training Center. He also trains at The Pit SLC alongside fellow UFC veteran Ramsey Nijem. Burkman fights at LFA 66 on Friday night in the co-main event opposite Brazil’s William Macário, a 9-4 pro who also spent some time in the UFC. After winning his first two post-UFC outings, Macário suffered a loss in his most recent fight at LFA 47.
“I wanted a good opponent, and I didn’t know a lot about him,” Burkman admitted. “I watched his fights, and he’s definitely an aggressive fighter, and he’s got a little bit of power in his hands. We seem similar. We seem like similar fighters, where we like to be on top and we like to throw. He’s in that place where I was in 2009, where he’s trying to prove he deserves to be among the best in the world. For me, I’m just excited that my body is able to go through this again, that I’m able to fight in my hometown, and I’m able to bring together my people one more time.”
Burkman is not coming out of retirement because he has to. He’s doing it because he wants to. For the first time in a long time, he feels good physically. Will this be his last fight? Maybe. However, you can never discount the lifelong drive of a true warrior.
“I’ve seen everything,” Burkman said. “Nothing is going to surprise me. The big thing that drew me to this fight is the fact that it is [in Utah]. I didn’t get to finish my career the way I wanted to in the UFC. I want to finish my career at home in front of my fans and friends and family. That’s what this is about. And the training camp went better than I expected. There’s a good chance this is my last fight, but if it goes well, that might get me fired up to make one more run, maybe in [the Professional Fighters League] or Bellator. Who knows? I have no plans after Friday night.
“Jon’s getting a chance to compete for the world title in Bellator, and I was thinking, if I go beat somebody up in Bellator, maybe Jon Fitch and I could do number three.”
Burkman came to a realization in the last year and as a result of his match against Powers. He figured out what motivates him. He found his “why.” Sometimes, when people are grinding for so long, living the life they think they love, they forget the reason they are even doing it. It took less than a year for that to all come screaming back to the longtime veteran.
“The thing that I missed most during the time off is, it’s nice to have that purpose and something to train for,” Burkman said. “The opponents bring out the best in us. When I watch somebody fight, I want to see how good they are. It brings out the best in me. It’s nice to fine-tune my diet and just turn myself into the best athlete and the best martial artist I can [be]. Sometimes that’s hard to do without the opponent and without the fight.”
Burkman’s drive to compete again also stems from some unfinished business on the family front. He no longer lives with the mother of his two boys, but they raise their sons together and have a very amicable relationship. Burkman knows his boys look up to him. He wants them to see at least one time why he did what he did for so long.
“I love being a dad,” Burkman admitted. “I kind of feel like I got to live my life and do all the things I wanted to do, and now it’s their turn. I’m just supporting them and the things they want to do. I’m trying to be a good dad.
“They’ve been in there for training camp with me and they’re at the gym with me. They know what’s going on this time. I’m glad that they get to see that before I hang it up. They end up giving me a lot of energy. I learn a lot from them. I feel like they showed up to protect me, as much as I’m here to guide them.”
Burkman will be back in action for the first time in over a year on Friday night. It might be the last time fans see him in the cage. However, when he looks back over his career and life, there are no regrets. He was able to live a life some only dream about. Win or lose, he would not change a thing.
“We should never give up on our bodies,” said Burkman. “Doctors are telling us not to do this, and I know a lot of people who’ve had disc issues and back issues, and got hooked on pain pills. Movement is medicine. The martial arts and the yoga and the mobility has just healed my back and helped me rehab. I’m 39 years old, and I’m going to go out there and perform well. My message to everybody is to keep moving. Movement is medicine.”