Derek Brunson is interested in UFC 271”s outcome, but not as much as his future.
As Brunson seeks to win his sixth consecutive victory against Jared Cannonier, on Saturday’s main card which will also feature Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya battling it out for the UFC Middleweight title — Brunson doesn’t care who wins the fight — so long as Brunson understands Brunson’s position as next in line.
” “It doesn’t matter to me,” Brunson said when asked by MMA Fighting for a prediction. “I’ve got a reason to beat both of them. I’ve fought both of the guys and it doesn’t matter to me.
“I want to see a great fight. I want to see them beat each other up and I get the winner.”
After beating Darren Till in September, the 38-year-old Strikeforce veteran actually felt as if he could already be next up to fight for the title; however, delays in booking Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2 left Brunson in limbo. That’s why he ultimately decided to accept the fight with Cannonier, who was essentially the only other man standing in the race to be No. 1 contender.
Brunson had been originally scheduled to take on Cannonier in January. However, the UFC contacted them soon after with a request.
” The UFC reached out to me, saying, “Hey, we’re switching the fight,” so I asked Brunson. Brunson replied, “They said, ‘We need to have a backup fight for the title fight.’ Okay, let’s go ahead.
” They didn’t say “*” Jared or me, but they did mention that I was the best man for the job. I’ve been training for five rounds from the beginning. If somebody falls out, I’m ready to step up.”
When the fight was shifted to UFC 271, Brunson wasn’t explicitly told that a win would earn him a title shot. That also played a part in accepting a bout with Cannonier, because Brunson is well aware that nothing is guaranteed until contracts are signed.
“There’s no certainty,” Brunson said. Brunson said that it wasn’t stated, “You’re going for the next title shot.” It makes sense, considering my streak, where I am in the division and the places of other fighters and the last fights. But it’s thing where momentum [matters] and you’ve got to stay fighting.
“It was an opportunity to stay on the same card or be around the same timeline as the title fight, so it made perfect sense.”
For most of his career, both in the UFC and previously in Strikeforce, Brunson has always been considered a threat to the best fighters in the middleweight division, but also someone who constantly ends up on the outside looking in, in regards to title contention.
Brunson was often his worst enemy.
Take, for instance, his previous five-fight win streak he put together in the UFC from 2014-16. After knocking out four opponents, Brunson was almost unstoppable. During that run, he largely abandoned his wrestling, which had always arguably been his strongest weapon after he was a three-time NCAA Division II All-American in college.
When Brunson was looking for a sixth consecutive victory and fifth straight knockout win, he came out swinging the sledgehammers against Whittaker. But this time, he was faced with someone who could match Whittaker punch-for-punch. Although he was able to subdue Whittaker in an initial exchange, Brunson delivered a brutal combination which ended Brunson’s night with a first round KO.
That began a 2-4 run for Brunson — the worst stretch of his career — but he was able to turn things around after realizing that he needed to make some necessary changes if he was ever going to get back to the top of the middleweight division.
Brunson stopped holding his training camps at home in North Carolina and instead turned himself over to the coaches at Sanford MMA in Florida. He began to focus more on his grappling, which helped him rise into the top 10 in UFC Middleweight History for takedowns and control time.
“Everybody knew my capabilities,” Brunson said. Brunson said, “They’ve noticed me having trouble keeping it all together at times and just jumping in to fights. Recently, however, they’ve seen me putting together good fights instead of rushing.
” People know my strengths. If Derek’s focus and calculated, that’s going to be one of the toughest fights in the division. This is how I fight .”
Brunson has also started to find satisfaction in a different way of winning, one that doesn’t always involve a highlight-reel finish.
Knockouts are nice, but Brunson has learned to love methodically mauling his opponents. For him, there’s a certain kind of satisfaction in those kinds of victories.
“That is the best and most enjoyable way to fight,” Brunson stated. “Just to go and break a guy down. Put them where they’re bad, get them tired, put them in bad spots and force their hand. Make them give up. Tell them to quit. It’s like playing chess in MMA.
” I take great joy in outsmarting men and beating them up, breaking their bones and taking their will. It’s a lot of fun .”
While Brunson has never lacked confidence ahead of his fights, he has a different aura around him these days.
Perhaps that’s because Brunson is starting to convince even those who have always doubted him that a championship reign could potentially be in his future.
“That is why I have been so dedicated these last couple of years,” Brunson stated. “Changed camps, really invested, really dedicating my time. We’re definitely looking at ‘Blonde Brunson,’ champion in 2022.”