Derek Brunson’s Unlikely Rise
By Jack Maher
At the back end of 2018, it seemed the career of Derek Brunson wasn’t going anywhere fast. Considered a veteran of the sport, Brunson was seeing himself overtaken by fresh faces in the division.
Spending the year on the wrong side of one-sided stoppages, the three-time NCAA Division II wrestler was showing up in highlight reels for undesirable purposes, and after suffering a TKO defeat at the hands of Israel Adesanya, it seemed Brunson would be best remembered by some for being the opponent in Adesanya’s coming out party.
After losing in such dominant fashion, Brunson needed to find the one thing he’d struggled to find in his UFC tenure: consistency. The American grappler began piecing his career back together in the unfortunate role of gatekeeper, instead of facing off with top contenders like Adesanya and Jacare Souza, Brunson instead became the measuring stick for up-and-coming middleweights.
After an uninspiring win over Elias Theodorou, Brunson was back in action three months later, aiming to break the five-fight win-streak of Ian Heinisch. In a competitive fight, Brunson enjoyed healthy volume on the feet and looked to be in control on the ground, giving him back-to-back wins for the first time in two years.
The former Strikeforce contender was back a year later, this time sporting a new blonde look. The North Carolina native was saddled with the undefeated Edmen Shahbazyan, a 22-year-old who was arguably the hottest prospect in the promotion at the time. Brunson battered his younger opponent with vicious ground and pound, and a visibly tired and broken Shahbazyan had to be saved by the referee in the third round.
The experienced 185 pounder was once again asked to play spoiler, this time against the rising Kevin Holland. Holland had recorded an impressive five wins in a calendar year but couldn’t maintain his momentum in the main event. Holland spent much of the fight pinned to the mat, as Brunson worked over his opponent with elbows from top position on the way to a decision victory.
With four consecutive wins under his belt, ‘Blonde Brunson’ had earned another crack at a big name. Darren Till would cross the Atlantic Ocean to meet Brunson in Vegas, the biggest challenge Brunson had faced since the night with Adesanya that left his career in tatters.
The Englishman attempted to control the fight on the feet, firing off powerful 1-2’s from the centre of the cage. In the second round Till tagged the 38-year-old with a left hand that put him on wobbly legs, causing Brunson to shoot in with a desperate double leg. Against the odds Brunson managed to bring the former welterweight to the ground, and once in mount, Brunson rained down ground and pound, forcing Till to give up his back and concede a rear-naked choke.
It hasn’t been an easy road back into contention for the grizzled southpaw, but after running the middleweight gauntlet Brunson has arguably put himself in the best position of his UFC career. If victorious against Jared Cannonier on Saturday at UFC 271, then the current #4 ranked middleweight may very well see a world title opportunity in his near future.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC