01/01/2015 01:13 EST | Updated 03/03/2015 05:59 EST

Josh Burkman happy to be back in UFC despite tough opponent in Hector Lombard

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Josh (The People's Warrior) Burkman returns to the UFC as a heavy underdog against a beast of a welterweight in sixth-ranked Hector (Showeather) Lombard.

Some may see it as a case of be careful of what you wish for.

The five-foot-nine Lombard, a slab of muscle who holds a black belt in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, has lost just two of his last 30 fights — most at middleweight. He has defeated Jake Shields and Nate Marquardt since dropping to 170 pounds, prompting one bookie to list the 2000 judo Olympian as a 10-1 favourite to beat Burkman on Saturday at UFC 182.

But for the 34-year-old Burkman, the tough matchup is a chance to excel.

"Me coming back to the UFC is just not giving up on yourself, believing in yourself, following your dream really," he said in a recent interview. "This is a dream come true to get back and I'm just really grateful and excited for the opportunity. And I think the fans are going to see a better version of me than they've ever seen before."

Lombard (34-4-1 with one no contest) marks Burkman's first fight in the UFC since October 2008 when he lost a unanimous decision to Pete Sell at UFC 90, which saw then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva dispatch Montreal's Patrick Cote in the main event.

Burkman (27-10) has gone 9-2 since, with a 4-1 record in the World Series of Fighting that included avenging a 2006 loss to former UFC welterweight contender Jon Fitch.

Burkman has had to rehab and relearn his body since his last stint in the UFC, which ended in consecutive 2008 losses to Mike (Quick) Swick, Dustin Hazelett and Sell after a 5-2 run in the organization.

The Salt Lake City native says his body simply broke down that year, perhaps with an assist from the fighter himself.

A former tailback at junior college who gave up a scholarship at Utah State to pursue MMA, Burkman believes the constant contact in football affected his neck and back.

Burkman suffered a bulging disk in his back while snowboarding before his training camp for Swick. Next time out, he sustained a herniated disk when he slammed Hazelett to the ground.

His preparation for Sell was limited due to the injuries.

"I couldn't train hard. I couldn't grapple, I couldn't wrestle. My career, my body was deteriorating."

He failed to make weight for the fight, saying he simply wasn't in good enough shape to shed the pounds.

"I went out there and fought my ass off but that doesn't mean that I was doing the right things in training. And I knew that." he said. "I knew I was just going out there to fight and pick up cheques, because I couldn't train like a professional fighter in the UFC needed to be training at that time."

After having an MRI on his back and neck, a surgeon told Burkman an operation was needed. Burkman balked, also resisting the offer of cortisone shots and pain pills.

"That was probably one of the hardest things I've had to go through — at 29 years old, for a doctor to tell you your career's over, that you need to get surgery," he said.

"So I sat there and I reflected on what I'd been doing and why I was where I was at. And I just got on my knees and I just said a really long prayer. And I just asked God to help me and guide the right people into my life to help me get my career and my life back really."

The next day, he went to a yoga session and a friend put him in touch with an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine and was willing to help. That led to a meeting with a doctor who had worked as a physical therapist on the PGA Tour.

Burkman turned to yoga, massage and chiropractic help as well as eating a raw food diet and living clean.

He returned to action in November 2009 against Brandon Melendez, winning by first-round KO after a six-week camp limited to footwork and hitting pads. Two fights later, he was able to hold a full camp before defeating then-unbeaten Jordan Smith in September 2010.

He continues to have back flare-ups, admitting he avoided sparring for weeks in the buildup to Lombard so that he'd avoid further complications.

"For me, no training camp is ever perfect," he said. "It's managing those back injuries and managing those things so I can just step in there on fight night. Because if I can get in there on fight night, I've got a chance."

Burkman has climbed more than a few mountains in the past.

He missed Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV show after failing a drug test. He cleaned up his act and made it on Season 2.

Then there were the injuries.

"When they say one step at a time, it's a journey — that's absolutely what it's been for me. It's been a lot of perseverance and persistence, and just continuing to believe in myself and think that I can overcome things. I think that was also part of the battle, just overcoming myself early on. I was very reckless. I just wasn't that focused. I enjoyed life, but I wasn't very disciplined. Maybe I enjoyed my time in the UFC a little bit too much at first."

Burkman's goal was not just to get back into the UFC. It's to rise up the rankings.

"I really believe I can come in and compete with the best welterweights in the world," he said. "And there's no better way to prove than to come in and fight a guy like Hector Lombard who people don't want to fight.

"He's very dangerous and (I) absolutely believe that I'm going to go in there and have the performance of my career."

UFC president Dana White said unlike other fighters, Burkman didn't balk when he was offered Lombard.

"He's a vet, he's been around. It's a big opportunity for him," White said of Burkman. "And nobody else wants to fight Lombard."

Whatever happens against the 36-year-old Lombard on Saturday, there is good news in Burkman's future.

A brother to his two-year-old son is expected Jan. 10.

"A hell of a way to start off 2015," he said.


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