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Nah-Shon Burrell, Philly’s first UFC fighter, writing his own Rocky story

As Overbrook native Nah-Shon Burrell climbs his way up the UFC ladder, more and more Philadelphians will turn to the sport not just to cheer on Burrell, but their city as well.

Toughness comes in many shapes and sizes, but no matter the geometry, it is a quality that borders on tangible in Philadelphia, and one that will earn the respect of those that call this city home.

Despite producing some of the greatest champion fighters of all time - including Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins, and even the Broad Street Bullies - Philadelphia's best-known fighter remains a fictional character, Rocky Balboa.

He is beloved because he embodies all the characteristics of this blue-collar city: blind loyalty, unrelenting toughness, the unwillingness to back down in the face of overwhelming adversity, and a work ethic that is second to none. Most importantly, he is relatable. He is from Philadelphia. He is Philadelphia.

That, more than anything else, is why he has a special place in the hearts and minds of the people who love this city and take pride in those that represent it.

Through the years, many world-class boxers have played that role in Philadelphia, one after another, each generation guiding the one that follows in order the to ensure the city's survival in the sport.

In March, Hopkins, 48, defeated Tavoris Cloud to become the oldest fighter to win a title and is already planning to defend his title later this year against 29-year-old Karo Murat of Germany.

Danny Garcia, the current world light welterweight champion and Juniata Park native, successfully defended his title for a third time in April when he beat former champ Zab Judah by unanimous decision. Locally, many consider Garcia, 25, to be the guy that will take over for Hopkins as the face of boxing in Philadelphia, much like Hopkins did when Frazier retired and began training Easton-native Larry Holmes.

But the climate is changing. Gone are the glory days of boxing. Mixed martial arts, namely Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC, is quickly gaining popularity, especially among younger fans, and could soon overtake traditional boxing.

While the city has hosted major fights in UFC 101 and UFC 133, there hasn't been a big-name fighter for Philadelphians to call their own -- no one for the city to rally behind, something that is paramount in a place this territorially protective. The closest local fighter has been Frankie Edgar, a New Jersey native that fights out of Toms River.

But just as the landscape of professional fighting has undergone a seismic shift, soon too will this city's relationship with UFC.

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Trying to make a name for himself in UFC, Nah-Shon "The Rock-N-Rolla" Burrell has had a rapid rise through the ranks, and is poised to burst onto the scene.

Less than three years after his first professional fight, the 23-year-old from Overbrook made his UFC debut in February at UFC 157, earning a win over Yuri Villefort by unanimous decision. Now, he is scheduled to fight Stephen Thompson at UFC 160 on Saturday. Thompson was originally supposed to face Amir Sadollah, but an injury forced Sadollah to withdraw, opening the door for Burrell.

"It's exciting to get a second fight so quickly," Burrell said. "It's another opportunity to prove myself."

That's something Burrell knows quite a bit about. While attending Overbrook High School, he admits that he was far from the tough guy, but that didn't stop him from getting into trouble.

"I had a big mouth. I wasn't tough at all, but I started plenty of fights," Burrell said with a laugh, as if anyone could believe in a time when this man, who now makes his living beating up some of the most intimidating men on the planet, wasn't feared.

"I wasn't tough when I started, but every time I ran my mouth to the wrong person, I'd get beat up … and I usually deserved it. But I never backed down, and those beatings toughened me up over time."

So how did Burrell go from receiving beatings to handing them out?

"I played other sports, like football and track [in high school], but I never really stuck with them. I was good, but I never liked taking orders," admitted Burrell.

While that may have been enough to cause Burrell abandon traditional sports, it was another UFC fighter that caught his eye and drew him away from boxing and into the world of mixed martial arts: Anderson Silva. Burrell can even remember the specific fight.

"Anderson Silva vs. [Thales] Leites got me," Burrell said without hesitation. "I've looked up to [Silva] ever since."

Considered by most the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Silva has held the UFC middleweight title since 2006, successfully defending it a record 10 times. That's quite an aspiration for Burrell, or any young fighter.

"You gotta do your job in the gym, and always want more. You can never be happy with what you have," said Burrell.

Despite having just one UFC fight under his belt - he is 9-2 in his professional career overall - Burrell believes that he is close to reaching the top of his sport.

"I'm not far at all [from getting a title shot]," Burrell said, trying not to sound too confident. "[If I win at 160] I think I'm only another three or four fights away."

A local fighter going for the title may be just the thing to make this city fall in love with UFC, even though it already stacks up well when compared to other cities, according to UFC President Dana White.

"Philly has always been a great fight town and it's been a great market for the UFC," White said. "We've been to the Wells Fargo Center twice and I love the energy that Philly fans bring to the arena. It's a town that has a rich tradition in the fight game and we're excited to see what Nah-Shon Burrell can do in his UFC career. He had an impressive win in his debut and now faces another hot prospect, Stephen Thompson, at UFC 160."

Furthermore, of the top 25 metro areas, Philadelphia has ranked in the top 10 for page visits to for five out of the last six events aired live on FOX, according to UFC.

More interesting is how local interest in UFC compares to local interest in boxing, and you don't need to look very far to see evidence of a shift away from the standard.

Hopkins, one of the city's greatest champions, was critical of mixed martial arts and UFC in its infancy, but has come full circle, so much so that he has sparred and trained with Burrell. But practice can only take a fighter so far. It's when the bright lights shine on the octagon that careers are made and broken.

With a victory on Saturday at UFC 160, Burrell can take the next step towards his goal of becoming a champion.

Facing a stand-up fighter in Thompson, it promises to be quite an exciting tilt - you can watch it for free on UFC's Facebook page. And while he wouldn't go as far as to predict a victory, Burrell did suggest that fans tune in early, because "win or lose, it won't go three rounds."

So as Burrell climbs his way up the UFC ladder, more and more Philadelphians will turn to the sport not just to cheer on Burrell, but their city as well.

And although he admits to having never seen Rocky, Burrell has the same qualities. That unmatched toughness. That unwavering loyalty. That unwillingness to back down. That unrelenting work ethic. All those qualities that make Rocky so beloved. And yes, he is a Philadelphian.

He is Philadelphia.

UPDATE (1:25 p.m.)

Reader Jim pointed out to me in a email that Eddie Alvarez, a 29-year-old Kensington native and North Catholic grad, has had a stellar MMA career, boasting a 24-3 (14 KO) record. He must put on a hell of a show, considering only three of his 27 fights have gone to decision.

Alvarez, who has been fighting professionally since 2003, is also a champion, as he held the Bellator lightweight title from June 2009 until November 2011. According to Sherdog, he ranks just outside the top 10law in the world among lightweights.

Burrell remains the city's first UFC fighter, however, as Bellator invoked a clause in Alvarez's contract and matched an offer from UFC, forcing him to remain with Bellator (think of him as a restricted free agent). Alvarez and his management have filed two lawsuits against Bellator. Things are getting ugly.

Unlike Burrell, who remains in Philadelphia, Alvarez now fights out of Boca Raton, Fla. and lives in Miami.

Matt Mullin is the sports editor at and can be reached on Twitter and by email.