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A WILL TO WIN

Former Springstead High wrestler Gilbert Burgos adds martial arts to his skills in an effort to turn pro and join the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization.

Gilbert Burgos easily could have tapped out.

It was the quarterfinals of the Bonecrunch Fighting tournament in January, and Burgos' opponent had his arm pushed to the point of breaking. But rather than signaling for surrender, an emotionless Burgos calculated his maneuvers. Finally he was free.

Giving up wasn't an option. As far as the 29-year-old is concerned, it never has been.

That's why the Lutz resident spends his days cleaning pools and his nights training for his dream - joining Ultimate Fighting Championship. He trains to get there by working with the Tampa Terrors, a team in the Bonecrunch Fighting League. The group advanced to the semifinals, which should be held in April.

Those who know Burgos don't doubt his ability or desire to become a professional fighter.

This is the same tough kid who grew up without ever really knowing his parents. He lived with his grandmother in Spring Hill and got his first job - washing dishes - when he turned 14. When it came to school, he chose to be on time and bring his completed homework - most days.

But when he discovered wrestling as a freshman at Springstead High School, going to school became a much easier decision. He was all of 98 pounds, but it didn't take long for then-wrestling coach Bob Levija to see Burgos' natural talent.

His quickness on the mat made him tough to beat. As of this month, he plans to fight in the 135-pound category.

"He's like a cobra," said Levija, who is now the school's athletics director. "He's so fast. He's just lightning. That was his trademark in high school."

Burgos recorded more than 100 wins and finished top five in the state his sophomore through senior seasons - fourth as a sophomore, third as a junior and runnerup as a senior. Some say he was robbed of the state title, but Burgos doesn't let it bother him.

"No regrets" is his mantra. He'd rather focus on what he learned during that time. He'd rather give Levija credit for his success.

"He taught me how not to be that 16, 17-year-old punk," Burgos said. "My junior year he wore me out in the wrestling room."

And Burgos loved it. He qualified to wrestle in college, but instead opted to take a break and help take care of his now 13-year-old son Christian.

But Burgos couldn't leave wrestling alone for long. About eight years later, he went with some friends to a cage fight and immediately was attracted to this sport.

He decided to go to Gracie Tampa and give martial arts training a try.

After a few months of working out, he approached owner/chief instructor Rob Kahn about joining the Tampa Terrors team. Kahn, who had watched Burgos practice mixed martial arts in his studio, didn't really hesitate.

He knew Burgos had the wrestling skills. And his jujitsu was coming along nicely.

"What I didn't know is that he has an incredible will to win," Kahn said. "That's something you can't teach."

By September 2007, Burgos was entered in his first cage fight.

The rookie was going up against a guy who had been in at least five fights.

About an hour before his first match, his mind turned on him and started rolling fast through the logic.

What was he doing? Why had he agreed to get in here? This might not end well.

The thoughts assailed him one after another. Faster and faster.

And then nothing.

Then, it was quiet.

He was calm.

"Twenty minutes before, it all went away," Burgos said. "And I prevailed."

Goodbye nerves. Burgos now is 2-0 in cage fights, thanks mostly to his wrestling dominance and sheer determination.

Burgos believes in Kahn, who was the first American to get a black belt from Royce Gracie, because Kahn has put several fighters into the UFC - or simply "the show" among fighters. It's where the money is, and that's what Burgos is after. After all, he joked, he's been cleaning pools for 10 years and he's still broke.

So he trains six days a week in Tampa. When the day to fight arrives, he flips through Timothy and Philippians, letters of encouragement in the Bible. Then he prays.

He won't forget where he came from. And he's not giving up.

"I try to make something out of nothing," Burgos said, "because I never had nothing."

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