Not so long ago, Dana White declared that nobody wanted a piece of Khabib Nurmagomedov, which was of course problematic. Nurmagomedov needed victims if he was going to make a run at the title. After a brief period, Rafael Dos Anjos finally raised his hand…only to see the Dagestani Nurmagomedov get his own hand raised three dominant rounds later. 

With Nurmagomedov recovering from ACL surgery and waiting for his shot at the lightweight title, the most intimidating guy that nobody wants to face at the close of 2014 has to be a 170-pound Hector Lombard. After knocking out Nate Marquardt in his welterweight debut, Lombard knocked Jake Shields clear out of the UFC. These feats made volunteers scarce.

Lombard was supposed to fight Dong Hyun Kim in August, but had to pull out due to an injury. When Tyron Woodley — who stood in for Lombard against Kim (and won) — was very publicly offered a fight against Lombard, he just as publicly turned it down.

Even after much needling from Lombard himself, and UFC president Dana White.

Just when it began to feel like Lombard was in a kind of matchmaking Catch-22, who should come around again other than Josh Burkman. Mr. Fearless himself returns, just as gallant as you please.

Burkman will take on Lombard at UFC 182 on Jan. 3 in Las Vegas. The last time he fought in the UFC was in 2008, when he lost to Pete Sell. Never mind what he’s done to find his way back to the UFC for a moment, which has been significant. It’s the task at hand that’s of more immediate importance. To be thrown against Lombard in his return fight? This comeback story is destined to have a sad ending.

Or, if you’re Burkman, you know…a story book one.

“I think these stories are the ones that books are made out of,” Burkman tells MMA Fighting. “It’s Rocky fighting the Russian. Real life stories are made out of this. Look at Cinderella Man [James Braddock]. That dude came back and beat people he was never supposed to beat. And he had more to fight for. They interviewed him and they said, ‘what’s the difference this time around?’ and he said, ‘Milk.’ Like, I gotta put milk on the table.”

Burkman is a changed man from the one that lost three in a row in 2008 to get his walking papers from the UFC. He he’s older (34), wiser (no more partying) and healthier (he can tell you stories about holistically healing his back).

The more compact version of Lombard may look like the monster he was tabbed to be when he came over from Bellator with a 25-fight unbeaten streak, but Burkman doesn’t mind going credential-to-credential with him.

“What I’ve been doing, I’ve just been doing it outside the UFC, and Hector Lombard’s been doing it inside the UFC now, and that’s a big difference on platforms, as far as what people are seeing,” he says. “I think, Gerald Harris…nobody had beat Gerald Harris in a decision when I faced him, and I went out there and took a decision from him. I finished a very game Aaron Simpson, and I beat Jon Fitch in a way he’d never been finished. And Tyler Stinson had never been knocked out and I knocked him out.

“So, I think I’ve definitely done the work to get in there and deserve this opportunity, but this is a big. It’s a big opportunity for me and I’m just grateful that I’m able to walk in and be able to take this fight.”

Burkman (27-10) has gone 9-2 since his first stint in the UFC, with runs in Showdown Fights and, more recently, the World Series of Fighting. He last appeared in March against Stinson, whom he put away in a little over two minutes.

Even as he gets set for his 38th pro fight, Burkman remains a little unpredictable. He was expected to lose to Fitch, but needed just 41 seconds to leave him unconscious after a guillotine choke. He was expected then to beat Steve Carl for the welterweight belt at WSOF 6, but got caught in a triangle choke.

Most of the time he’s been good, though. Sometimes very good. He’s a far cry from the guy who limped out of the UFC after UFC 90. 

“Did you see the Joe Riggs fight a couple of weeks ago when he slammed Ben Saunders?” he says. “That is exactly what happened to me against Dustin Hazelett [at the TUF 7 finale in 2008]. I slammed him, my arm went numb, and you can see me just lay there for 15 seconds, 20 seconds. Watching that took me back to that night. And then dealing with herniated discs and back problems…you can’t train like a professional fighter needs to train, so you’re not going to perform at the high level that you should be performing at. And that was my career — those last couple fights in the UFC.

“I’m just a different person than I was the first time around. I was 25 years old, I was in the UFC two years into my career and I was just kind of learning while I was in the UFC. And it was just me. All I had to worry about was myself. I could be a little bit more selfish and a little bit more reckless and that wasn’t always a benefit to my career.”

These days Burkman is married, and he and his wife have a child out in his native Utah. He’s at the “milk” portion of his career, and the best place to get milk is, was and always has been, the UFC. 

“The goal was definitely to get back into the UFC,” he says. “I was talking to my brother about this the other day. The UFC, it’s the show. It’s where the best fighters in the world are — where the best fighters in the world compete. And for me, I always knew I could compete with them, it was just a matter of getting healthy enough to compete at that level over and over. I proved to myself that I could do that outside of the UFC and then it was just a matter of timing. For me, the better the competition, and the more dangerous an opponent, the more it brings out of me, the better I perform. I feel like competing against the best in the world is going to bring out my true abilities.”

Hence the reason he never balked when matchmaker Joe Silva presented him a fight with Lombard — a 4-to-1 favorite, the guy that nobody wanted to face — in his return fight.

“Every time you go to the gym, and you’re facing a guy like Hector Lombard, there’s just a level of danger. There’s a challenge in that. So it brings out the best in you. And for me it’s just the way I prep for a fight. To me, this is just a great opportunity. It’s a great opportunity to walk into the UFC, and it’s a measuring stick. Do I belong with the top guys in the world? Can I compete at that level? Or am I just a good fighter?”

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http://www.mmafighting.com/2014/12/24/7424757/after-six-years-josh-burkman-returns-to-ufc-and-what-a-rude-welcoming