If Josh Burkman had followed the opportunities he'd courted as a three-sport, all-state athlete in high school, we might have eventually seen him diving for pop flies or sprinting up the sidelines on our television sets. But if genetics tell us anything, it's that certain people are predisposed to certain tasks, and that's why we'll see the 32-year-old Burkman face off against Jon Fitch in their welterweight rematch at the World Series of Fighting 3 this Friday (NBC Sports Network, 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT).
In 2003, a 22-year-old Burkman walked away from a full-ride football scholarship to the University of Utah after entering and losing a local cage fight. He'd turned down a baseball scholarship two years before that, which made this game-changing choice even more of an insane gamble. But Burkman said he'd always felt an indescribable pull toward fighting.
"It's how that first fight made me feel," said Burkman, who took the bout with no previous training for some extra cash. "I was enthralled. Nothing had ever challenged me like that in my life. I remember sitting down between rounds, not being able to move, with just this smile inside."
Needless to say, Burkman's mechanic father and stay-at-home mother weren't as enthusiastic about their middle son's sudden decision.
"When I told them I wasn't going back to school and giving up football, my mom was heartbroken," Burkman said. "And my dad? I'd just had the best season of my life [Burkman had rushed for 1,389 yards and 13 touchdowns at Dixie State Junior College], so they weren't very excited about it. I think my parents had us in the sports they wanted us to be in and wanted us to channel our aggression and athletic abilities there."
Burkman's parents might have only been delaying the inevitable, as fighting is apparently imprinted in the family's DNA. Both of Burkman's grandfathers boxed, as did his great-grandfather, Gene "Kid" Pearce, who sparred for 111 rounds from 1937-1950, according to online records. But it's Burkman's great-great uncle, Arcade "Windmill" Pearce, who might have left the deepest footprint in pugilistic history, having fought 159 recorded bouts dating back to 1934.
According to Boxrec.com, Windmill's first opponent died from injuries suffered in their fight after getting knocked out in the fifth round. By many family accounts, Windmill was a colorful character.
"My grandmother told me that Arcade once knocked out a horse with one punch," Burkman said.
Still, it appears Windmill's talents lay more in him being able to take a punch, and not necessarily in doling them out.
"You will not see a polished boxer in 'Windmill' Pearce," wrote a journalist of the time. "He is a slugger of the old school and he will take unlimited punishment to get his one-two over."
Windmill was also noted as an occasional wrestler himself, who frequently fought on "mixed boxing/wrestling cards" in Provo, Utah, where discipline might be pitted against discipline in the ring some 60 years before the words ultimate, fighting and championship were ever muttered together. The irony of this isn't lost on Burkman, who enters his 35th professional "mixed" fight on Friday with a 25-9 record.
"My grandmother said Cade did all kinds of fighting. I've heard a lot of stories from my grandparents and learned a lot about myself from them," Burkman said. "I'm not an angry person. I'm not a violent person. It's just in my blood."
If the family albums were not enough, there were other indications that combative sports lied in Burkman's future. As a youngster, Burkman would dive from his bunk bed onto a makeshift mat and wrestle his pillows. After his first childhood scuffle, Burkman's father taught him to throw the first punch always, a pearl of wisdom that would serve him well in the coming years. In Salt Lake City, where Burkman was born and raised, it was common knowledge that if you ever needed a wingman, you could count on Burkman to enter the fray, no questions asked.
"People don't believe me when I tell them that I'd probably been in about 200 street fights before I even got into MMA, but ask anyone in Utah," Burkman said. "I don't ever remember starting a fight, but I also don't ever remember turning one down."
As a professional fighter, the natural made a fast rise. After the initial loss, Burkman won nine fights in a row and graduated up to name opponents in a year's time with limited training.
"The first year of my training was just showing up to fight," said Burkman, who relied heavily on his high-school wrestling skills and athleticism. "I had four fights before I walked into a jiu-jitsu gym."
For a short while, Burkman trained with his father and brother in their basement, before it was decided that he should seek out some professional tutelage. Burkman moved to Portland, Ore., to join Team Quest, then one of the noted MMA gyms and home to UFC veterans Randy Couture and Matt Lindland.
By 2004, Burkman touted a decent 13-3 record, and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Word had been put out that the UFC was looking for undiscovered talent to compete on a reality TV series called The Ultimate Fighter, and the winner would get a six-figure contract. A friend filmed Burkman's audition tape, and Couture, who would coach on the show, put in a good word. Burkman got the gig, which he'd quickly trade in for his first life lesson.
"[The producers] called me up as I was on the way to the airport and told me I didn't pass my [drug] test," Burkman said. "It might have been for marijuana. It might have been for steroids, or both. I'd told a guy at the gym that I was going to be fighting bigger guys and I was out of shape. Basically, I was trying to cheat, just trying to get through it all."
Producers told Burkman to clean up his act and try out again if the show was picked up for a second season.
"It was embarrassing and it was a bad thing, but it was one of best things to happen to me," Burkman recalled. "It made me start to live somewhat of a healthier lifestyle, looking at my diet and starting to do things the right way."
When the second season came around, Burkman again made the list. He won his first fight during the second episode, but broke his arm in the process and was asked to leave the competition. Still, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva gave Burkman a slot on the show's live finale and he knocked out housemate Sammy Morgan (18-11) with a stunning 21-second slam.
Before his first bout against Fitch, Burkman broke his foot three weeks out, but fought anyway. He tapped out to a rear-naked choke with three seconds left in the second round.
From there, Burkman's career path became a rollercoaster of wins and losses. The overnight popularity of The Ultimate Fighter had brought Burkman and his castmates a certain level of fame with all its perks, and that can be an intoxicating aphrodisiac. Burkman became a part-time martial artist.
"When I'd find out I had a fight, I'd get very focused. I'd have a strict diet. I wouldn't drink," said Burkman, who'd balloon up to 205 pounds between assignments. "After the fight, I would live the opposite lifestyle, enjoying the parties, traveling around, living in hotels. Living in those extremes, it made my life go up and down, and my career followed that pattern. When you're focused half the time, you win half the time."
In early 2008, Burkman fell on his back during a snowboarding accident at a Utah resort. When he fought Dustin Hazelett five months later, Burkman slammed the submission specialist to the canvas, but his arm went numb mid-fight. An MRI revealed multiple herniated and bulging discs, the culmination of years of sports duress. Three back-to-back defeats quickly accumulated as a result, and Burkman was released from the UFC in late 2008. Just like that, he fell off the MMA map.
For the next two-and-a-half years, Burkman bounced between regional promotions and fight camps before settling in Las Vegas. Thoughts of surgery loomed, but every athlete avoids that route if they can help it. Instead, Burkman signed up for Bikram yoga classes.
It was a yoga friend who referred Burkman to the Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute of Las Vegas, what the fighter views as the springboard for a second chance at his career. The director, Dr. Randa Bascharon, introduced a holistic approach to his injuries that included a raw food diet and yoga. Along with the guidance of Dr. Robert Donatelli, Ph. D., a rehabilitation and performance specialist who'd worked with athletes in Major League Baseball and on the PGA Tour, Burkman was able to avoid neck and back surgeries. Burkman also began working with a sports psychologist to re-program healthier habits into his lifestyle. The injuries also spurred him on to reconnect with his spirituality, said Burkman, who'd been baptized as a Latter Day Saint at age 11. With maturation and self-reflection, the former star athlete came to some realizations.
"I was given a lot of athletic gifts, so I was able to not work as hard as others and get by," Burkman said. "I wasn't making the best of my gifts and abilities, and if I were going to make it back to this sport, I knew now what I needed to do."
In 2012, Burkman moved back to Utah full time, where he lives today with his wife, Brandy, a 2010 Bikram yoga world champion, and their baby son, Legend -- both of whom he credits as the inspiration for his recent back-to-back victories in the WSOF and what's shaping up to be a promising comeback.
Gone are the days of drifting from camp to camp; Burkman travels to Orem a few times a week to train at The Pit Elevated, an off-shoot of John Hackleman's famous training compound in central California. Included among his training partners are TUF 11 winner Court McGee, TUF 13 veteran Ramsey Nijem, Bellator MMA's Rad Martinez, and UFC veterans Steven Siler and Brock Jardine.
"He's the veteran with really great suggestions," said McGee of Burkman's role at the gym that sits 4,700 feet above sea level.
"Having fought nine or ten years now, he has a wealth of knowledge and he helps out the younger guys."
In a journey that began a decade ago, Burkman believes he's finally come into his own. He enters the cage in a Zen state and isn't as quick to throw the first punch like he used to. The spirit of Windmill is in there with him, along with the confidence that he's right where he's supposed to be.
"I don't have to fight like these other guys and get all amped up," Burkman said. "I really believe I've found my own mellow style. I love to do this. It's in my blood. I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."