One dream, two jobs, many long days for UFC welterweight Burns
During, perhaps, one of the most arduous periods in his life, Kevin Burns held three full-time positions: by day, a sales rep for Wells Fargo in Des Moines; by night, a business and marketing undergraduate student at William Penn University and by every other spare minute during his waking hours, a professional mixed martial artist.
His daily schedule looks something like this: wake up, gym, work, gym, work, school/gym, sleep, repeat.
For an athlete competing at the highest level of his sport, such a schedule seems ridiculous. Unnecessary. Unheard of, even. Right?
Wrong. In the world of MMA, fighters earn anywhere from a few grand after each fight to a few hundred grand. And for those on the low end of the spectrum, endorsements, name recognition and the ability to train nonstop without the hassles of balancing a work-life aren't included.
Burns is one of those. A former college football player and highly recruited baseball player out of high school, the Iowa-bred fighter always told himself it was all or nothing -- professional or bust -- regardless of what it took.
When he was 5 years old, Burns watched his beloved Chicago Bears destroy the New England Patriots 46-10 Super Bowl XX. Quarterback Jim McMahon made football history as he rushed for two touchdowns in the title rout.
"After watching that game, I knew that's what I wanted to do," Burns said. "I never really lost that dream."
I was looking for something to stay competitive. I still had that in my blood.
Thanks to some nagging injuries, the former strong safety for the University of South Dakota had to live through two agonizing years void of high-level, organized competition -- something he had grown accustomed to since grade school. It had spawned his lifelong goal of becoming a professional athlete, namely an NFL player.
When Burns decided to hang up his cleats after his freshman year as a Coyote, he also said farewell to the school. Following another stint of schooling at Simpson College, he decided to give the sport that had caught his eye a shot before Dana White and the Ultimate Fighting Championship had truly gained a mainstream foothold.
Having been introduced to taekwondo and Muay Thai at an earlier age through his sister, who took classes at a local martial arts school, Kevin was in the loop of events around the area. He had heard of some amateur fights going down at a a venue, eh hem, a bar, and thought he'd give it a try. After all, a few cuts and bruises couldn't amount to the pain he'd endured without sports.
"I was the uninformed person, honestly, going up to the amateur events to do it," Kevin said. "Nobody would take a fight that was in my weight class and I said, 'Why not, let's do it.' And I found out later who I had fought and I was like, 'Well, I'm glad I won.'
The man he had fought -- twice -- was Josh Neer, the Xtreme Kage Kombat welterweight champion. In their second bout, Neer avenged his loss, but Burns' early success fueled his campaign platform. He had a starting point for his professional MMA sales pitch. Now, he had to convince his wife.
Originally, when I first said I want to do this professionally, she thought that I had anger issues and that it was a barbaric sport. She was like, 'Why would you want to do that?' It was the same sell for my mom. She was like, 'Oh I can't believe you're doing that, you weren't angry as a child.'
Cindy Burns, a certified public accountant, needed three-and-a-half years of convincing before she would actually give her husband the green light.
"I hadn't really seen anything like it -- I never saw it on TV, there was no EliteXC on CBS -- so I didn't know anything about it," she said. "And he was fighting amateur and fighting in a bar. He just randomly went one night, 'Honey, I think I'm going to fight tonight,' and it was just like, 'Oh my god.'"
And so began the pitch. Following numerous trips to local amateur events, hours spent watching pay-per-view events and various attempts at coaching her through the moves, Cindy mustered the courage to say, 'Just once.'
On August 19, 2006, Kevin made his professional debut against the then 7-2 Demi Deeds at Greensparks Full Contact Fighting 1 in Clive, Iowa. Kevin won by TKO after three minutes, 58 seconds in the first round.
Cindy sat in the front row, but didn't see any of it. With the referee's starting signal, she was engulfed in tears. She did, however, see the sparkle in her husband's bruised eye and the almost drunken smile he beamed as he exited the cage.
"I looked at my wife afterward and just said, 'I'm not done,'" Kevin said. "She kinda looked at me weird that day, but realized that I might actually be able to do it at a higher level. By the second fight she was able to watch and was behind me actually supporting me. [Now], she's 100 percent behind me. She, more so now than ever, understands the sport and that there are rules. And that I don't have anger issues."
I'll obviously do whatever I have to do outside of normal business hours to make up for the difference, whatever it might be. I'm in a sales role at Wells Fargo -- as long as I'm hitting my numbers and such, then everything's pretty much square.
Kevin was a computer-science major who intended on sticking with his degree and its training. Then, the job market for technology took a nose dive at the turn of the century and Y2K scares became the next War of the World. Like he left his football life at South Dakota, he also left his computer training there. In 2001, Burns called it quits and went straight to work for Wells Fargo, where he's now a territory sales manager for the bank's financial leasing unit.
"I reevaluated things and held back to see what the market would do," he said. "After a few years I was given a position in finance where I thought I was probably going to be.
With his career on the right track, he went back to school in 2005 to finish his degree -- this time in business and marketing -- at William Penn. But while his career in business was blooming, so was his career in fighting. A year after starting school, he made his professional start against Deeds, fought five more times that year, attended four-hour Monday-evening classes and worked from 7 a.m.-4 p.m daily.
Now, nothing's changed too drastically, even though he's graduated. After two years of competing professionally and racking up a 7-1 record and even earning a championship -- he won the welterweight title at the Victory Fighting Championships -- Burns still heads into Wells Fargo every morning, and his routine still appears strikingly similar to that one a year ago.
He still gets up for strength and conditioning training at the crack of dawn, and still heads to the office at 7. He still tests his Muay Thai and ground-and-pound skills instead of grabbing a sandwich at lunch. He still returns to banking just minutes after grappling, still heads back to the gym for some more jiu-jitsu and wrestling action. He still holds a 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. workout on Saturdays and still sandwiches church in between two workouts on Sundays.
In fact, the only difference nowadays is those Monday evenings are used for more sparring, not studying.
I've never competed in anything long term just to compete unless I truly felt I had the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible and make it, something I could do possibly full-time -- that's really the only reason I would do it.
In his nine-day leeway time before jetting over to London for UFC 85, Burns told his wrestling coach, Grant Turner, that he wanted to shock the world. He wanted to show everyone else what he's been working for. He wanted to defeat American Top Team member and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Roan Carneiro.
"I told him, 'You can shock them, but you're not going to shock us,'" Turner said. "The biggest thing for Kevin is being mentally prepared for anyone he faces. I think that was one of the greatest moments I've had with him so far -- just his ability to go on short notice, show up, perform, dominate and then come home."
Burns won by triangle choke in the second round, and his name was quickly added on to the promotion's July 19th card in Las Vegas, where he'll take on Anthony Johnson in front of millions as it airs live on Spike TV.
His dream of becoming a full-time professional athlete appears to be within reach, and the ensuing possibility of living off his earnings just as close (especially after his UFC 85 "submission of the night" bonus of $50,000).
Sure, Burns often toys with the idea of moving closer to Vegas as a step toward making fighting his sole focus. But, for now, he's sticking to his routine.