Gilbert Burns says after watching ‘scary’ Damar Hamlin injury that MMA promotions need to provide better healthcare, benefits for fighters


Gilbert Burns understands the risks every time he sets foot inside the UFC octagon.

With 25 professional fights and possibly hundreds of grappling matches, the Brazilian knows that he’s always taking a chance with his health — both short and long term — whenever he competes but even he was left shaken after recently witnessing a terrifying incident in the NFL.

On Jan. 2 during a game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills, safety Damar Hamlin made what appeared to be a routine tackle but after getting back to his feet, he immediately collapsed back down to the field again. Team personnel and eventually paramedics rushed to the field where Hamlin received CPR and AED (automated external defibrillation) and it was later revealed that he had suffered cardiac arrest.

It was an harrowing experience for everyone on that field — although the game was ultimately cancelled — but it was for Burns a stark reminder of the dangers associated with contact sports, such as football and mixed martial arts.

” That was frightening, especially for a football match,” Burns stated to MMA Fighting. Sometimes I think MMA feels a bit fairer because of the contract. You will be up against one man in the same weight class and you can gauge the intensity of the other. The guy knows what he wants. But on the football field, it’s different.

” I’m running with my ball, and Francis Ngannou is following me. Because these guys are so big, it’s more unfair. You’re running and you get hit by the guy you don’t see coming. It was scary.”

While Hamlin was in critical condition for several days after he initially collapsed on the field, the 24-year-old former University of Pittsburgh standout eventually woke up and just over one week later he was able to return home to Buffalo.

As it stands, Hamlin still has a long road of recovery to travel just to return to full health much less addressing the chances that he’ll ever play football again.

Seeing the story unfold and realizing that Hamlin is probably forever altered by it reminded Burns of why he wants to see promotions like the UFC or the NFL offer more benefits for athletes.

” I hope MMA takes healthcare more seriously because we are willing to put our lives on the line,” Burns stated. “At the end of the day, we do that because first off, we like it. We know the dangers. We are aware of what we’re doing. That feeling that we could live or die, we accept that. I go into the fight knowing I could get hurt pretty bad. We still have to improve our financial situation.

“That guy [Damar Hamlin], I don’t know how much he makes but I bet that money, his kids will be taken care of, his family will be taken care of in case something happens. It is my hope that [NFL] and MMA will provide for his family in case something unfortunate happens to any of the fighters, or football players. I’d like to see the entire family taken care of, particularly if it happens .”

In his own personal experience, Burns has never witnessed anything quite like what happened to Hamlin but he has seen fighters suffer brutal knockouts to the point where he was left praying that he would watch them wake up again.

“I was cornering Vicente Luque and Jalin Turner took a fight on short notice,” Burns explained. “Vicente knocked him out and over two minutes [passed] before that guy woke up. Vicente beat him by knockout. I felt very happy at the time. We got Vicente a shirt and got him drinks. Then we noticed that the man was still there. Then we talked more and we celebrated a little bit more and then we looked and he was still down.

“Then I started praying. I beg God to bring that man back. I stopped celebrating and I was freaking out but then after like 30 more seconds, he finally woke up but he had no idea where he was.”

Burns wasn’t the only fighter who expressed a desire for UFC to provide better health care for fighters. The promotion offers insurance for injury sustained during fights, but not full health benefits.

In the past, UFC president Dana White has hinted at long-term benefits and perhaps even exploring the possibility of a pension fund for fighters but neither has been instituted yet.

Burns says that any catastrophic health event could have a devastating impact on his family’s well-being. This is why he believes combat sports promotion will do more to help athletes.

” The hardest thing for me is when something happens to my body. I can’t fight any more, but I have to make sure that they don’t go through the same. They still need me to care for them.” Burns stated.

“I think all the big MMA organizations, the NFL, and every big contact sport should provide more for the athletes and their families.”

It’s impossible to know if major promotions like the UFC or Bellator MMA, which is own by Paramount, will consider better healthcare benefits for athletes but Burns implores all of them to take a long look at what happened to Damar Hamlin and realize that could just as easily be a fighter left in that same dire situation.

“Please, the owners, the big organizations have got to step up a little bit more for the mental health and for the support for these guys for their families in case something happens,” Burns said.

” They have to take the initiative. Because we’re putting everything on the line. You have to get compensated for it long-term, even if you are putting everything on the line. Not short term but long term as well.”