Derek Brunson believes he can still contend in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s middleweight division, despite suffering back-to-back knockout losses to Ronaldo Souza and Israel Adesanya in 2018.
“I’ve been in the game for a while,” Brunson told Sherdog.com. “If I look back, have I achieved all the things I wanted to? I’d have to say no.”
The North Carolina native’s career includes pivotal highs and disappointing lows. His November loss to Adesanya falls in the latter category. Brunson feels he has pinpointed the cause of this recent letdown, but it may not be what some suspect. Ahead of the bout, the two fighters exchanged barbs on social media and in the press. In one such interview on The MMA Hour, Adesanya made a brash claim: “I’m already in his head.” Despite losing by technical knockout in the first round, Brunson claims the trash talk had zero effect on his performance in the cage.
“Nobody can ever get in my head,” Brunson said. “Whatever somebody says doesn’t bother me at all. It was comments like that that made me want to fight him. I was scheduled to fight [Antonio Carlos Jr.], and I actually got a lot of flack from the guy that I was supposed to fight because I got out of that to fight [Adesanya]. I’m just one of those guys that loves to fight. He wasn’t in my head at all. I keep beating myself. I’m not getting beat by guys that are way better than me.”
Going into the match, wrestling seemed to be an area where the Strikeforce veteran had advantages. In the early going, he tested that theory, but the results were not what he expected.
“I was disgusted,” Brunson said. “I was in so many times on body locks [and] single legs. I finish those like 95 to 99 percent of the time.”
However, he does not feel it was Adesanya’s takedown defense that thwarted his plans. Instead, Brunson points to a loss in overall strength from changes he made to his training in recent years.
“I went two years without lifting, and that’s one of my biggest things,” he said. “I’m a power wrestler. If I grab somebody, they’re going down.”
Earlier in his career, Brunson made weightlifting a key facet of his training. However, as his status rose in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and more five-round main event opportunities came his way, he saw a need to improve his cardio and move away from lifting. The shift in strength-and-conditioning strategy was helpful, but he believes it diminished the notable abilities that brought him relevancy in the first place. It started long before the fight with Adesanya. In his February 2017 bout with Anderson Silva, he claims there were signs of diminished horsepower, as the former middleweight champion managed to stuff takedown attempts Brunson had previously secured against other opponents, including Yoel Romero -- a silver medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
“Finishing is like the easiest part,” he said. “I was getting in, and I wasn’t finishing.”
Inconsistency followed, as the loss of power forced him to retain certain positions longer than he intended, giving opponents better opportunities to defend themselves.
“When I was so big starting out my career, I would either run somebody over or I would go to a decision,” Brunson said. “I can’t hang out in positions. I’ve got to go get these takedowns.”
Going forward, he plans to make strength training a primary focus in camps once again. While he may not see Adesanya as the superior fighter, he has no problem giving him credit.
“Kudos to him,” Brunson said. “I can’t even really say much. We had a fight lined up, we went in to fight [and], ultimately, he came out the winner, so at this point, I can’t even really talk trash [about his abilities].”
Since his defeat, Brunson has had time to reflect on his nine years in the sport, including his failed encounters with Romero, Adesanya, Silva and current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.
“I look at these fights like I beat myself,” he said. “[The] Romero fight I should have won. Whittaker, I was inches from knocking him out. I mean I caught him with some good punches, [and] he was breathing heavy. Adesanya fight, I should have got those takedowns. Anderson Silva fight, I should have got that decision. It’s just a lot of, ugh, beat myself [with] poor decisions, but it’s OK, because I still have a lot of time. I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak yet. I’m coming right into my prime. You’re going to see some of my better fights.”
Despite the losing streak and reaching an age that often signals the end of an athlete’s prime, Brunson sounds like a man ready to make moves at 185 pounds.
“I’m willing to make that climb,” he said. “It’s funny. My whole career has always been a struggle of getting fights lined up. I’ll be left with those fights where it’s only top guys. That’s kind of where I’m at, trying to get a fight lined up and just working for that next one.”
Brunson mentioned Elias Theodorou as a potential opponent in an interview with MMAJunkie.com and described the Canadian as someone “who needs to fight a formidable guy to get in the Top 10.” The UFC’s latest middleweight rankings have Brunson at No. 8 and Theodorou at No. 14. None of Theodorou’s last three opponents -- Eryk Anders, Trevor Smith and Daniel Kelly -- was ranked among the promotion’s Top 15 fighters at 185 pounds.
“These guys have to understand, you can keep getting paid $30,000 [to show] and $30,000 [to win] or $40,000 and $40,000, [but if] you want to make more, you’ve got to step out there and you’ve got to fight these fights,” Brunson said. “You can’t try to fight guys not ranked.”
Following this line of thinking, Brunson was not opposed to the idea of Adesanya being next in line for the winner of the forthcoming title fight between Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234, provided “The Last Stylebender” can defeat Silva at the same event. Brunson believes it is only fair for the UFC to reward fighters who stay active and welcome difficult challenges.
“Why not?” Brunson asked. “[Adesanya is], what, 3-0 in the UFC? Guys can’t hang around and wait and be on a one- or two-fight win streak [to get a title fight]. It’s kind of good, in the fact that the UFC is going to reward guys on winning streaks who want to fight [and are] not turning down fights to get those championship fights.”