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Jim Range | Knuckle Junkies

Road to Dynamite : Burns vs Stevens

By Jeremy Hall | Special for Knuckle Junkies

After running from things in his life for many years, Lee Burns is finally sprinting toward his life purpose.

The 31-year-old St. Louisan was kicked out of high school before playing football at a college in California, then another in Tennessee. Each scenario included the dark cloud of his father's death hanging just above - and inside - his head.

"Dad got sick when I was 17 and passed away," said Burns, who will fight fellow heavyweight Byron Stevens in this Friday's Bellator: Dynamite 2 at the Scotttrade Center.

Ultimately, it was Burns' father who locked his son into a head-first dive into mixed martial arts. In a matter of perfect time and place, Burns found himself perfectly meshed with the memory of his father's lifelong advice and open-arm welcome from local promoter/gym owner Jesse Finney.

Finney and his crew saw potential in Burns but were not willing to lay down a red carpet.

"They told me right away, 'hey look, if you don't train every day, if you're not accountable, you don't belong here.' They were pretty cut and dry about it. I knew that was kind of my house."

The moment coincided with Burns' decision to stop avoiding some of the difficult challenges in his life and instead sprint full-steam toward his new opportunity and challenge in mixed martial arts. His late father's words sealed the deal and cemented Burns' commitment to MMA.

"He always said 'if you're going to do something, don't do it half-ass;" Burns said.

Burns certainly heeded the advice, perhaps to a fault. Rather than growing through the amateur ranks, he rushed into pro status with a bit of deceit.

"I had one amateur fight," he said. "I lied to Shamrock and told them I'd been training for a year when in reality it had only been a couple weeks." He later admitted his "fib" to those fooled by him and fences have been mended.

In fact, Burns had his first two pro fights within a short period of time and is 2-0. He has yet to see a second round and has logged only one minute, 43 seconds as a professional. His first fight an Shamrock Xtreme Fight 8 lasted only 23 seconds before Burns won by knockout against Matt Matteson.

Shortly after that, Burns plowed through his second fight, overcoming a point deduction for an elbow to the head against Marc Godecker and rebounding to finish the fight with a knockout one minute, 10 seconds into the fight.

"I won my first fight not knowing what I was doing," he admitted. "It's not my fault. I hit people; they fall."

Burns took a bit of heat when an announcer of the Godecker fight said he had been told by Burns that the new pro had no respect for any fighter willing to step into the ring with him.

Burns clarified the statement, admitting it came across as arrogant. Yet he stuck to his guns to a degree.

"I obviously respect anyone who wants to get in the cage, especially with me," he said. "But I am in there to hurt you, to beat you. You're trying to take my money. When you sign up to get in the ring with me I do not respect you {when we fight}.

Burns is not the only professional athlete in his family. His uncle, Fred Burns, spent a handful of years on the verge of making Major League Baseball teams, while his cousin, Xavier Nady, has spent 13 seasons in the big leagues, winning World Series rings with both the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants as an outfielder.

While Burns rushed to the pro ranks, Stevens took the path of running the amateur gauntlet in MMA, boxing and kickboxing to season himself for Friday's professional debut.

"The Slim Reaper" - a nickname chosen by Stevens due to his stature (5-foot, 11 inches and 254 pouds) because he "didn't want to pick something that was cliche or generic" - ran up a 9-1 record in the amateur scene; in addition to that MMA amateur record, Stevens tallied a 2-1 boxing record and a 1-1 kicboxing record before choosing to enter the pro stage in MMA.

Stevens, a 2011 graduate of Normany High School, was easily tantalized by the allure of MMA fighting while watching UFC and other contact sports as a child.

"I've always been a fan of fighting," he said. "Once I found the gym, it was time to go."

At Modern Combat Systems, Stevens' path begun to unfold in front of him.

But it was not easy.

"Jared (Daniels-Block) got me going. It was different because I hadn't been training much," said Stevens. "It was intense. They beat me up pretty good."

A young man who played freshman and sophomore football at Normandy quickly learned of the demands required for his newfound involvement in the sport he has loved his entire life.

The result was a push through the amateur ranks that saw Stevens win most of his fights in the first round and develop a reputation as a professional-ready fighter within the regional scene.

With both fighters rising through the ranks in St. Louis, each anticipate an enthusiastic atmosphere in what will easily be the largest venue in which either has fought.

The 31-year-old Burns will enter the fight at 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 265 pounds. He is excited about performing in front of his hometown fans, friends and family.

"A lot of people think I deserve it," he said. "But you know what? I've taken advantage of every opportunity anyone has put in front of me. I'm in the process of proving I am where I am. At some point I will demand respect. But now it's just talk."
"I expect it to be an intense atmosphere," added Stevens. If you put on a show, you will be seen by a lot of people."

Bellator 157: Dynamite 2 airs on Spike TV at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT. The preliminary draw will stream on Bellator.com beginning at approximately 6:30 ET/5:30 CT. The event is headlined by a heavyweight bout between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Satoshi Ishii.

Stevens also will have a pack of fans in his corner. But he says once the fight starts, he will face a lonely battle.

"Fans are not really what's most important, in my opinion," he said. "They're nice to have in your corner but at the end of the day they're not the ones getting their heads smacked."

Like Burns, Stevens has mostly been accustomed to ending his fights early with overwhelming power. He said, despite that track record, he is ready for a more grueling fight with more than punches, knees and kicks.

"I think I'm going to push myself harder than ever," he said. "I try to take everything one step at a time. But I feel once we get going, I can finish. You're supposed to fight for the future. I've never trained to finish somebody in the first round.

Burns differed in his opinion. Both he and Stevens claim to have tools yet to be shown due to their quick finishes. But, while it could be that neither fighter chooses to feel out his foe before launching a tirade, the more seasoned pro of the two is confident in his ability to quickly expose Stevens.

"I don't even think the fight is going to be close," he said. "I just think him against me is not going to work out well for him."

Burns believes MMA has offered him the meaning in life he has sought for three decades.

"I think this is the perfect time, the perfect venue and the perfect opportunity for me," he said. "I'm putting all my eggs in one basket."

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Tickets for Bellator 157: Dynamite 2, which start at just $30, are on sale now on Ticketmaster.com and at the Ford Box Office at Scottrade Center. Doors for the event open at 5:00 p.m. CT local time, and the first contest takes place shortly after.

Bellator 157: Dynamite 2 airs live on Spike at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT, while preliminary bouts will stream on Spike.com at 7 p.m. ET.

Full card: (Subject to change)

Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (36-11) vs Satoshi Ishii (14-5-1)
Michael Chandler (14-3) vs Pitbull Freire (16-7) - Bellator Lightweight Title
Matt Mitrione (9-5) vs Carl Seumantuafa (10-6)
Kickboxing: Kevin Ross (31-9) vs Justin Houghton (7-2)
Kickboxing: Denise Kieholtz (44-2) vs Gloria Peritore (10-1-1)
Rebecca Ruth (6-1) vs Ilima-Lei Macfarlance (3-0)

Kickboxing: Joe Schilling (19-8) vs Hisaki Kato
Kickboxing: Raymond Daniels (7-3) vs TBA
Kickboxing: Keri Taylor-Melendez (3-1) vs Sarah Howell

Undercard fights:
Jason Christenson (1-0) vs Jarrod Thomas (0-0)
Michelle Royer (1-0) vs Katy Collins (3-1)
Joaquin Buckley (5-0) vs Chris Heatherly (9-3-1)
Jordan Howard (9-3) vs Justin Robbins (14-17-1)
Ashley Cummins (3-3) vs Nikki Smith (1-0)
Kevin Engel (5-0) vs. Chel Erwin-Davis (3-1)
Brad Jones (5-4) vs Tyler Claussen (2-2)
Justin Lawrence (8-3) vs Isao Kobayashi (18-3-4)
Steve Mann (11-4) vs Mike Estus (7-4)
Garrett Mueller (2-1) vs Rashard Lovelace (3-0)
Jordan Dowdy (3-1) vs Guilherme Vasconcelos (7-3)
Lee Burns (2-0) vs. Byron Stevens (0-0)

Kickboxing: Elmir Kulosman (3-0) vs. Darryl Cobb (2-1)
Amateur Kickboxing : Tara Walker (4-3-1) vs. Mimi Kutzin (3-2)

Photos courtesy of Jimmy Range Photography

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