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The fan who became a UFC fighter: 'I literally had dreams about this'

One of the stars of tonight’s UFC 220 card in Boston was an unknown newcomer just 13 months ago.

BURGOS_SHANE (1) UFC featherweight Shane Burgos. Source: UFC

LIKE ANY DEBUTING fighter on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts, Shane Burgos wanted to make his mark by showing the audience something they’d never seen before.

He succeeded.

Between the second and third round of his fight against Tiago Trator, Burgos was given a haircut in the octagon by a member of his corner team. A useful piece of information, should a question about the first mid-fight trim in UFC history ever feature in a pub quiz.

An unknown newcomer at the time, Burgos had his vision obscured by his ponytail for his first 10 minutes of life as a UFC fighter. His debut might initially have been remembered for that unusual incident, but Burgos has since given the MMA world more valid reasons to ensure that his name isn’t forgotten.

His unanimous-decision victory in December 2016 was the first of three UFC wins the 26-year-old accumulated in the space of little more than eight months. The man nicknamed ‘Hurricane’ has so far blown away his competition in the battle to break into the upper echelons of the UFC’s featherweight division.

Although he grew up in The Bronx, Burgos’ route into MMA didn’t originate with some clichéd tale of learning to fight in order to survive on the streets. His upbringing wasn’t a struggle, he says. The sport lured him in when, at the age of 15, he stumbled upon an episode of the second series of the UFC’s reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter.

After convincing his father to fork out for the UFC 66 pay-per-view card in December 2006, Burgos was hooked. Chuck Liddell’s third-round TKO of Tito Ortiz sparked the beginning of an obsession that has shaped his life ever since.

Shortly afterwards, he and his friends signed up at their local MMA gym. Just over a decade after he entered Tiger Schulmann’s Martial Arts school as a beginner, Burgos now works as one of its coaches when he’s not focusing on his own fighting career.

“Where we lived in The Bronx, it wasn’t the best neighbourhood,” he says. “But that never really affected me too much. We moved out of the projects when I was in sixth grade.

“I think it was probably something that was inside of me that led me to fighting. The first time I saw the sport it just clicked with me. Right away I said ‘that’s what I want to do’ — that was it. Since then it’s been my passion, my focus, my goal.”

The beginning of his love affair with MMA came at the expense of another athletic pursuit. In high school, Burgos excelled as a member of the diving team. At first his parents weren’t keen on such a sporting detour, particularly given the potential consequences for his education.

“I was probably going to get a scholarship to a good college if I kept doing it [diving]. But I didn’t have any interest in it anymore. I was so over it by the time I started training [in MMA]. I ended up getting kicked off, slash, quitting the team,” Burgos explains.

“After that, my parents saw how much passion I had for MMA. When I started doing tournaments and they saw how good I was, they’ve supported me completely ever since then. When I started working at the school [Tiger Schulmann's] it was actually my first job.

“I wasn’t drinking, doing drugs or anything I shouldn’t have been doing. I didn’t have a huge social life. It was pretty much just all about training and working in MMA. My parents saw that I was on a good track so they were behind me.”

Competing on the amateur circuit in New Jersey, Burgos was still undefeated by the time he turned professional in 2013. All the while, by his own admission, he remained a fan first and foremost.

On several occasions he travelled across the US to attend UFC events and fan expos, where he had photos taken alongside the fighters who were now his heroes. Each trip made him even more determined to work towards emulating them when he returned to the mats at Tiger Schulmann’s.

PA-30880229 Burgos in action against Charles Rosa at UFC 210. Source: Mike Mastrandrea

The winning run he embarked on as an amateur continued when Burgos was promoted to the paid ranks. With his professional record at 7-0, a place in the UFC felt tangible. He was on the radar, but at a time when the UFC was busy trimming an over-populated roster, Burgos needed a stroke of good fortune to get his foot in the door.

It came in November 2016. Every aspiring MMA fighter works towards that moment, but only a select few receive the coveted call from the UFC. Burgos got his break when the organisation needed a replacement on two weeks’ notice to fight Tiago Trator, whose original opponent, Zubaira Tukhugov, had been flagged for a doping violation.

“I was teaching a class and my manager called me, which was weird because he knew I was at work,” Burgos recalls. “So I knew something was up. When he told me the news — that I was going to fight in the UFC — I was there with all my students, so it was an awesome moment. It was just a whirlwind of emotion.”

Having idolised UFC fighters since he was in his teens, Shane Burgos became one of them in Albany on 9 December, 2016. Thirteen months later, he still occasionally has to suppress the instincts of the fan inside.

Given how hard he worked to get there, Burgos could have been forgiven if he felt shackled by the magnitude of the occasion. Yet there was little evidence of debut jitters as he defied his lack of preparation time — and an obtrusive ponytail! — to dominate the striking exchanges and earn the win by decision.

“At first I was like ‘oh my God, I’m backstage at a UFC event!’ but I kind of had to remind myself that I’m allowed to be here now,” he says. “I remember sneaking backstage to a couple of UFC events as a fan. It’s becoming a lot more normal now. But the first couple of fights were definitely weird like that.”

He adds: “I felt so comfortable in that fight. It was probably the most relaxed I’ve been for a fight. It just felt like where I was supposed to be. I was meant to be there. I wasn’t just there to show up. I was so confident.”

For his second UFC outing, Burgos had to perform a difficult balancing act. He had time for a full training camp ahead of his clash with Charles Rosa at UFC 210 back in April, but his preparations coincided with the birth of his first child.

“That was so hard,” he admits. “My wife was recovering from just having our daughter and I wasn’t able to help much because I was so tired from training. But my wife — she’s perfect — she completely understood the situation.”

UFC 210: Cormier vs. Johnson 2 Burgos celebrates after his victory over Charles Rosa last April. Source: Mike Mastrandrea

With his daughter’s arrival providing an added incentive, Burgos — who was scheduled to earn $12,000 to fight and another $12,00 to win — produced a performance that significantly boosted his income when his young family needed it. He defeated Rosa via third-round TKO and both fighters were awarded additional $50,000 cheques as a ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus.

Three months later he took his professional record to 10-0 by seeing off the challenge of Godofredo Pepey with another impressive display over three rounds. Tonight, he aims to move a step closer to cracking the rankings in the 145-pound division by staying undefeated and securing his fourth UFC win in Boston — his pay-per-view debut.

Don’t allow his unblemished MMA record to convince you that Burgos is not familiar with overcoming setbacks, by the way. Not long after he took up fighting, his career almost came to an end. At 16, he underwent surgery and had two steel rods and 18 screws inserted into his back. Scoliosis had caused a 49-degree curve in his spine.

But after refusing to give up on his goal, Burgos is now earning plenty of admirers in the UFC. The organisation’s faith in him is perhaps evidenced by where his bout against hometown favourite Calvin Kattar (1-0 UFC, 17-2 MMA) features on the UFC 220 card.

The pair will meet in the last non-title fight of the night, before light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic make their respective defences against Volkan Oezdemir and Francis Ngannou.

He has made significant progress in a short space of time — to put it in context, he hadn’t even been signed by the UFC when Conor McGregor last appeared in the octagon — yet Burgos is eager to test himself against the best featherweights in the world. Competing with the likes of reigning champion Max Holloway is something he feels capable of.

For now, however, he’s not looking beyond Calvin Kattar. The hope is that a big win tonight can be the final piece in the jigsaw as he and his wife seek to put a deposit on a house. The UFC’s recent decision to hand him a new and improved contract has pushed them closer to achieving that objective.

“I’ve been living like I’m broke for the last couple of months,” Burgos says ahead of tonight’s fight. “I’m just trying to save enough money so we can move out of here. We live in a one-bedroom apartment still. My daughter has taken it over — her toys and clothes are everywhere. She needs her own room, we need a house!”

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 15.29.29 Source: Instagram/Shane Burgos

He adds: “Actually being on a pay-per-view card is insane. That’s historic for me. Whatever happens after this fight, this is something I’ll never forget. This still all feels surreal sometimes. I literally had dreams about this. I tried to envision what it would be like. Now I’m living it and I really love my life.

“The fact that I had a vision and went after it, there’s a great sense of pride in that. The reality for most people when they’re 14 or 15 years old is that they have those dreams but they eventually fade out when they become adults and they get the pressure of having to pay the bills. Keeping my goals strong and then achieving them is something that means a lot to me.

“I definitely want to win the title — who doesn’t? — but more importantly I want to make sure my family is set for life. I want to give them the financial stability where they don’t have to worry about anything. If they need something, they have it.

“But I always want to make sure that my children will appreciate the value of hard work. I didn’t get here by sitting on my ass. Titles and winning means stuff, but the priority all the time is family. If they’re set until the day I die, that’s my number one mission accomplished.”

Like most Saturday nights, this one revolves around a UFC event for Shane Burgos. It’s been that way for years. But this is one pay-per-view card he won’t be buying. Tonight, he’s one of the star attractions.

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