One of the Middleweight division’s heaviest hitters, Derek Brunson, will throw down with Karate specialist, Lyoto Machida, this Saturday (Oct. 28, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 119 inside Ginasio do Ibirapuera in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
A five-fight win streak saw Brunson rise to his first main event slot opposite a fellow up-and-comer, Robert Whittaker. Brunson tasted defeat in that loss — an absolute war that only lasted one round — but it’s a bit more forgivable now that Whittaker has climbed the Middleweight mountain and earned interim gold. Afterward, Brunson toned back his aggression a bit, which allowed him to maneuver past Anderson Silva even if he officially lost the decision. Then, a quick knockout brought him back to the win column, ready to take on a top fighter like Machida.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
For much of his career, Brunson used the size and strength advantage he held over most foes to dominate them on the mat. It’s only in the last couple years that he developed real confidence in his power, which led to a string of knockout victories.
As a physical fighter with some great attributes, Brunson very often looks to overwhelm his foe with raw aggression. He’s large and powerful enough that it’s a viable option, especially since he’s a hard man to take down or control on the clinch. If Brunson wants a fire fight, his opponent has little choice but to engage, and Brunson has come out ahead in every slugfest aside from his bout with Whittaker.
In one of the easiest examples, Brunson drove Sam Alvey into the fence without much trouble. From there, he took a step back and began whipping left hands towards his opponent like he was throwing fastballs. With his back to the fence, Alvey couldn’t retreat effectively (though he tried), nor could he take his opponent down. With few other options remaining, Alvey tried to stand his ground and trust in his beloved right hook counter. Alvey hits hard, but Brunson had momentum on his side, and his punches proved far more damaging (content removed).
Brunson loves to charge his opponents with lunging lefts. He’s definitely open to counter punches, but that’s a risk he’s willing to take. If he can land at a one-to-one ratio with his opponent, odds are that his foe will fall first.
Outside of the reckless aggression, Brunson has made use of some different setups to land the left hand, which are the subject of his technique analysis.
Aside from his ability to brutally maul his foe from the clinch or leap into left hands, Brunson does have a pretty strong kicking game. Since he is facing mostly Orthodox opponents, the opening for a hard kick to the body or head is almost always available. He badly rocked Brian Houston with a high kick, and he also landed clean on Yoel Romero (GIF). Opposite a Southpaw in Anderson Silva, Brunson did a nice job of staying active at range by kicking Silva’s leg.
Like his stand up attack, Brunson has both subtle techniques to his wrestling game and the complete opposite. Either way, the three-time Division II All-American has proven to be a very effective wrestler on both offense and defense.
Brunson has the type of powerful double-leg takedown that overpowers opponents, either smashing them to the mat or allowing him to lift against the fence. For that reason, he's often able to finish the shot without much of a set up, and he's willing to dive into the takedown despite the risk of it being stopped. He's also able to hide the shot behind his left, as the forward movement/lunge goes right into the shot. Even when Brunson’s shot is sprawled on, he’s often able to continue to drive and reshoot until he takes top position anyway.
Opposite Yoel Romero, Brunson showcased likely the most impressive wrestling of his career. Brunson found more success than anyone else against the Olympian, controlling the first two rounds with strong takedowns.
In the first round, it was Brunson's powerful clinch game that helped him control the Cuban. Romero attempted to land his excellent inside trip a couple times, but Brunson was able to stand tall and continue digging for underhooks. Eventually, he was able to secure the back clinch and slam Romero to the mat.
Brunson's double dragged Romero to the mat in the second. Romero likes to utilize odd, awkward or slow movement to lull his opponents into a false sense of security, but it allowed Brunson get in deep on the hips as Romero lackadaisically backed away from a punch. Brunson's shots and punches can cover a surprising amount of distance, and that surprise found Romero completely out of position to defend or sprawl.
Opposite Lorenz Larkin, Brunson found success by chaining takedown attempts together. Larkin's range control and athleticism make him a difficult man to drag down with just a single shot, but more extended wrestling exchanges test his technical skill.
For example, Brunson landed his first shot by transitioning into a single leg as Larkin sprawled out. As Larkin shot his hips back, he failed to recognize that Brunson was changing position and direction. Similarly, Brunson's double leg failed him in the third round, but he immediately transitioned into the clinch and tripped his opponent to the mat.
Defensively, Brunson has proven extremely difficult to take down, as he's one of those difficult fighters who's both an experienced technical wrestler and physical powerhouse. Most of the time, a shot opposite Brunson has a similar result to running face-first into a brick wall.
A purple belt, Brunson has some pretty solid "wrestler jiu-jitsu." In short, that means Brunson is unlikely to pull off a butterfly sweep or armbar from his back from what we’ve seen, but he's tough as hell to submit and will snatch a neck given the slightest opportunity.
Case in point, all three of Brunson's submission victories came via rear-naked choke. There's not a ton to analyze in this situation: Brunson overpower or dropped his opponent, transitioned into back mount, and then squeezed the life out of his foe.
In a more recent example, Brunson showcased a nice blend of wrestling and jiu-jitsu to force Larkin to the mat. After failing on a couple takedowns in the clinch, Brunson snapped Larkin down with a front headlock. Instead of just controlling his foe's head, Brunson switched to a guillotine choke, forcing Larkin to drop to his back to avoid the submission.
It’s becoming difficult to predict Derek Brunson’s fights largely because we don’t know what to expect. Will he lunge recklessly after Machida? Maybe, and it might work. Would a technical mix of strikes and takedowns find him more success? It’s also hard to say. Raw aggression or no, Brunson needs this victory to reinsert himself in the title picture.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.