(Photo courtesy of NBC Sports.)
The first meeting between Kevin Burns and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson was marred by an accidental eye poke that halted the bout midway through the third round. It was an unsatisfying end for both men, as Johnson would need surgery for a damaged retina and Burns found himself with a victory that he couldn’t really enjoy.
As the two prepare for a rematch to settle the score at Saturday night’s "Ultimate Fighter Finale," Burns talks with us about his decision to fight with the injured hand, his perspective on the eye pokes, and what he thinks of the attention the strange bout has brought upon himself and Johnson.
Check back later today for an interview with Johnson, who gives his often very different perspective on the events of that night.
CagePotato.com: Thanks for talking with me, Kevin. Coming into this rematch, how do you mentally approach a fight like this, under these strange circumstances?
Mentally I’m approaching it like I would any other fight. I’ve been in the cage with Anthony so I kind of know what to expect, I know what he’s going to bring to the table. Other than from a game plan prospective, I’m not approaching it any differently. Now I can utilize all of my standup skills. Now that my hand’s 100% I can actually throw a left jab, a left hook, things that I haven’t been able to do. That may make things a little different for him, but it will be good for me.
Tell me about the situation with the hand. What happened to it?
I broke my hand three times in sixteen months. The bone wasn’t completely fused, but if it was any other person doing normal things, not doing what we do, you probably wouldn’t notice it. I can lift weights, I can do pretty much anything, with the exception of hitting something solid. If I had hit something solid at that point, I had about a 95% chance that the bone would have fractured back through and I would have been back to square one.
So instead of delaying my fighting career I decided to take a page out of Bas Rutten’s book in the old Pancrase days in Japan and use palm strikes. They did it successfully, so I figured why can’t I? I threw a lot of successful palm strikes earlier in the fight. I couldn’t throw a closed jab, so I had to use that. Unfortunately my finger went into his eye in that last palm strike that I threw in the third round.
The one in the third round ended it, but it seemed like there were several other pokes leading up to that one. Where you aware of those, and did you feel it when it happened the last time?
I didn’t even really feel my finger go into his eye at the time, to be honest. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if the uppercut had landed. The ones earlier in the fight that I threw that landed were all solid palm strikes. There weren’t any fingers in his eye that I saw when I watched the film back. The one that ended it definitely went into his eye, unfortunately. But the others were legitimate palm strikes. I think they caught him off guard because there’s no pad there. It’s completely different when you get hit with a palm strike than with a closed fist. It feels completely weird if you’re not used to it.
At any point before this fight did you ever think, maybe I shouldn’t take this fight with my hand the way it is? Maybe I should wait and let it heal?
No, never crossed my mind, really. It had been that way for months and I knew I could fight around it and do it legally, which I did. It was unfortunate the way it ended, but I’ve seen multiple people throw punches with closed fists where the thumb goes into the eye, so a fight can be stopped that way too. It was absolutely inadvertent, but I’d seen multiple people throw successful palm strikes and I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t either.
After the fight, when you learned his eye was seriously injured and he had to have surgery, what went through your mind?
I felt bad for him. You never want to see someone go through something like that. I’ve actually had the same thing happen to me in practice and I went through everything that he went through. It’s definitely not a fun time. I felt bad the way that it ended and what he had to go through. But that’s unfortunately the risk that we run when we get in the cage. I understand he had a very good recovery, so I’m glad to hear that, and I look forward to competing against him again.
He appealed the decision, trying to get the loss on his record overturned, and it was denied. Do you think the result should stand as a TKO victory for you?
I guess that’s up to the referee and the Nevada State Athletic Commission. I can see why they did what they did. If they started overturning decisions on appeal, there would be an influx of appeals across the board of people trying to get results overturned. I guess that’s why the ref and the judges are there. It’s not for me to say what they should have done. I left that night disappointed with how it ended and I haven’t thought too much about it since, to be completely honest.
Are you aware of the attention that the first bout brought, and do you ever wonder about many fans who saw you for the first time that night who might just think of you as the guy who poked another guy in the eye?
I’m aware. But I honestly read very little of the blogs and the underground stuff and all the different news attached to it. I know people are going to have their opinions. They’re entitled to them, I respect that, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. But I can’t let that affect me as a fighter or a person. I know some people might look at me as ‘the eye-poke guy,’ but after this fight they’re going to look at me and have no choice but to say that I won convincingly.
You say your hand is fine now, did you have to have surgery or did it just take time to heal?
It’s just time. There’s always the chance of reinjuring your hand or your joints or anything, but I’m willing to assume that risk. I feel like the chances of reinjuring it are about the same as the chances of breaking your hand in any fight. I can’t think about it too much, just assume that risk and move on. Is there a possibility that it can be broken again? Absolutely. Do I let that linger in my mind? No.
Now that you’ve fought Anthony once, what are you expecting from him in the rematch and what do you think you have to watch out for?
He’s very quick. He thinks intelligently in the cage. He’s a tough kid. We went three pretty hard-fought rounds and I think coming into this fight he’s going to expect more of the same. I think he was surprised that I stood with him last time. Coming into this fight I’m betting that he’s going to try and take me down. I really don’t think he wants to stand with me.
So you think he’ll avoid the standup as much as he can this time around?
I think he will. Especially after he feels power in both of my hands, he’s not going to like that. He’s going to look for where he feels more comfortable. His real background is in wrestling. I know he’s got a couple of flashy knockouts, but his background is in the ground. He took me there last time when he didn’t want to stand with me, and I think he’ll try to do it again.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Kevin. Anything else you’d like to add?
I want to thank Ricky Lundell, who’s a two time champ in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who’s been working with me. And I want to thank the Iowa State wrestling team for what they’ve done it bringing my ground skills to a completely new level. I appreciate all the support.