For UFC 160's Nah-Shon Burrell, a sophomoric appearance inside the UFC's legendary Octagon against Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson represents the realization of a dream—a dream that just five months ago he was prepared to discard.
As a standout welterweight in Strikeforce, Burrell amassed an impressive 3-1 record, showing exceptional athleticism and natural power during his run with the promotion. His spot on the roster felt safe, a rarity in the rapidly changing, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately MMA landscape.
With the announcement of Strikeforce's closure, however, this security vanished, and Burrell—along with approximately 80 other high-level mixed martial artists—faced an uncertain future.
"I wasn't going to call it quits right then, but I really didn't know what I was going to do," Burrell said. "It felt terrible...I felt like my days were numbered."
Burrell was planning to box on the local Philadelphia circuit to stay in shape, but his UFC dream slowly faded as Strikeforce's collapse rapidly approached. Strikeforce champions like Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier and Luke Rockhold were assured spots on the UFC roster, but developing contenders like Burrell were afforded no such guarantee.
"I had no idea what I was going to do," Burrell said. "They didn't tell us anything."
Thankfully for Burrell, the sport of mixed martial arts is defined by its unpredictability both inside and outside of the cage, and a call to participate at UFC 157 on short notice changed the course of his career.
"I was relieved, but at the same time, I knew this was my chance," Burrell said. "It was a gift, it motivated me, and I didn't want to waste that opportunity."
After three closely contested rounds of nonstop action against fellow Strikeforce import Yuri Villefort at UFC 157, Burrell saw his hand raised high, cementing the biggest win of his career.
"That feeling—it's just hard to describe," Burrell said. "It definitely felt good, but it also just made me look forward to the future and where I'm going. Now, each fight becomes more and more important."
His journey continues against Thompson, a lauded kickboxer and striking sensation.
While Burrell is recognized as an explosive striker with significant finishing power, Thompson represents the pinnacle of MMA striking—the result of a lifetime of practice and dedication to the violent craft of punching and kicking.
Fighting since the age of three, Thompson accumulated an outstanding professional kickboxing record of 20-0 before stepping into the Octagon, where he subsequently scored a hellacious head-kick knockout of Dan Stittgen in Round 1.
Burrell, on the other hand, trained less than five years before working his way to the big show—a testament to his natural ability and talent.
"I think Travis Lutter vs. Anderson Silva was the first fight I saw, and that just got me hooked," Burrell said. "Actually, I'm pretty sure when I watched that it was a re-run, so it was even after that that I really started training."
Their backgrounds and training histories differ on almost all fronts, but when the cage door closes, a steel bolt locking them in battle, Burrell and Thompson will stand as equals.
And while many expect Burrell to exploit Thompson's undeveloped ground game, the Philadelphia native has other plans.
"The fans want to see a fight, and that's exactly what they're going to get," Burrell said. "I feel like I can stand with anybody, and he is no exception. I want to stand and bang with him and give the fans their money's worth."
Burrell’s career is defined by a list of complications—short-notice fights, the collapse of an organization, inexperience.
All are obstacles on Burrell's path to the top of the UFC's welterweight division, and all are met with zeal and eagerness.
Three out of four challenges down, Burrell looks to check off that final point Saturday, May 25 at UFC 160.
Should Burrell find a way to rise from the rubble and emerge as the night’s winner at UFC 160, he will stand accomplished and triumphant, a victor forged through struggle.
*All quotes were obtained firsthand.
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