Johnson, Burns hope to erase memory of eye poke at rematch

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There are two things Anthony Johnson and Kevin Burns agree on when it comes to their first fight in July: 1) the eye poke from Burns that ended the fight in the third round was entirely unintentional, and 2) they are eager to put it behind them with a decisive finish in the rematch at Saturday's The Ultimate Fighter 8 Finale. On those two points, they are of one mind. On virtually everything else having to do with the first fight, however, each man has his own perspective.

For instance, Burns admits to one accidental eye poke in the fight. But if you ask Johnson, he'll tell you he was poked in the eye no less than three times over the course of the fight, with the worst one coming midway through the third round.

"When he did it one time, I just shook it off," Johnson said. "But then after two or three times, I realized he was just continually poking me in the eye, and [referee Steve] Mazzagatti wasn't saying anything at all. The last time he got me his fingers went deep into my eye. You can see how bad it was."

When the fingers of Burns' left hand plunged into Johnson's right eye during a pawing palm strike jab -- an unconventional striking method Burns said he was forced to use after breaking his hand three times in 16 months, leaving the hand too fragile to punch with a closed fist -- the reaction was almost immediate. Johnson cried out in pain and collapsed on the mat. But because the reaction came at roughly the same time as Burns' follow-up right uppercut, he didn't know what to make of it.

"I didn't even really feel my finger go into his eye at the time, to be honest," Burns said. "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."

Johnson, however, isn't completely buying that explanation.

"You can look at my reaction, how my head was going back. It wasn't because he was punching me, I can tell you that. I had my guard up and his hand slipped through my guard and poked me right in the eye. You can see it if you watch the tape. He can't just say he didn't know or that he just poked me once because when he poked me that last time, he knew he poked me. I don't know how he could say he didn't know he was poking me in the eye."

Johnson would later have surgery to repair a severely damaged retina and a laceration that went almost from one side of his eyeball to the other.

That, Johnson said, he can deal with. He knew the risks going into the fight. The surgery was a success and his vision is now better than ever. But the fact that the result remains as a loss on his record after his appeal was turned down by the Nevada State Athletic Commission due to "lack of remedy," is something he can't understand.

"I don't know what 'lack of remedy' even means," he said. "I know if I would have been popped for using an illegal substance they would have been all over that. But I think because I got my vision back and I can still fight they just say, 'OK, it's not serious, we don't need to do anything.'

"But I think if it had been one of the poster boys they would have been all over it. If I was Chuck Liddell, they would have overturned that so fast. It wasn't even a punch. I could see if I got punched in the eye and got hurt, hey, that happens. But I got poked in the eye. You don't give somebody a loss when you know they got poked in the eye and that's what ended the fight. That's disrespectful toward me."

Burns, who also went home unhappy with the result, is less adamant about seeing a win taken off his record.

"I can see why they did what they did," he said. "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."

One man who was willing to admit that he was wrong was referee Mazzagatti. When he saw Johnson at an EliteXC event the next weekend (he was wearing an eye bandage at the time), Mazzagatti wasted no time in apologizing for his mistake.

"He just told me he was sorry and he didn't see him poke me in the eye," Johnson said. "Mazzagatti's the referee but he's not going to see everything. He's not perfect."

For Burns, the incident threatens to stick to him like a brand. He knows there's very little sympathy for him from many MMA fans, but hopes that a decisive finish in the rematch might erase any ill will.

"I know people are going to have their opinions. They're entitled to them, I respect that. 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."

But for Johnson, the incident stands as a haunting reminder that his career could be on the line every time he steps into the Octagon, a fact he knows he can't dwell on.

"I know it could have ended my career, and things could have turned out really ugly, and thank God it didn't," he said. "I have to look at the positive side of it. I can't keep talking about what should have happened or what could have happened. I can't live off that."

All either man can do now is focus on Saturday night and hope to make the rematch as memorable as the first meeting -- but for the right reasons.