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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 5’s Derek Brunson

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Sean Porkorny-USA TODAY Sports

Veteran wrestler, Derek Brunson, will square off with fast-rising prospect, Edmen Shahbazyan, in the UFC Vegas 5 middleweight main event this Sat. night (Aug. 1, 2020) inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Brunson gets a lot of heat thrown his way for his occasionally reckless, face-first style of fighting. It’s true enough that he’s suffered some tough losses and settled into something of a gatekeeper role, but is that really so embarrassing? In the last six years, Brunson has only really lost to the division’s elite: Israel Adesanya, Robert Whittaker, and Ronaldo Souza — well, technically Anderson Silva as well, but that decision was bogus.

Either way, Brunson is a success! He wins far more often than not, and he’s dispatched some real tough guys over the years. He’s no walk in the park, and while his opponent may have more hype and momentum, Brunson has turned away some talented up-and-comers before.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Brunson is an either/or striker. He either charges his opponent and tries to knock them out in the first round — to an immediate result for better or worse — or he hangs back and stays technical, content to win on the strength of a few clean punches and takedowns.

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 often viable option, especially since he’s a hard man to take down or control in the clinch. If Brunson wants a fire fight, his opponent has little choice but to engage, and Brunson has come out ahead in many such wars.

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 toward 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 down his opponent. 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.

Brunson loves to charge his opponents with lunging lefts. He’s definitely open to counter punches, but that’s a risk he’s proven willing to take. If he can land at a 1:1 ratio with his opponent, odds are that his foe will fall first. Outside of the occasional reckless aggression, Brunson has made use of some different setups to land the left hand that allow him to quickly close distance.

For example, Brunson did a really great job of loading up his lunging left before releasing it against Uriah Hall. Brunson showed the left, using that moment of hesitation from Hall to bring his back left forward. In that position with all his weight over his left leg, the Southpaw could take another deep step with a wide swing and catch his foe circling (GIF).

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. Opposite a Southpaw in Anderson Silva, Brunson did a nice job of staying active at range by kicking Silva’s leg.

It’s true that Brunson is quite hittable. Even when Brunson is being patient, he relies more on distance and the threat of his left hand to quiet his opponent’s offense than head movement or slick defense. Meanwhile, any time Brunson gets wild and does lead with his head, the chance of running into a big counter shot rises significantly.

Wrestling

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 pushes straight through defenses, either smashing his opponent 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 re-shoot 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 movements 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 tested 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 largely denied his opponents, 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.

Brazilan Jiu-Jitsu

A brown belt, Brunson tends to keep it pretty simple on the mat. Whenever in top position, Brunson is looking to gain a dominant position and land a strangle.

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 overpowered or dropped his opponent, transitioned into back mount, and then squeezed the life from his foe. Brunson hasn’t actually attempted a submission since 2014 inside the Octagon, but it’s still risky to turn away from the wrestler.

Conclusion

There may not be a ton of mystery or sudden development to Brunson’s overall game, but he’s still a talented veteran. Only truly elite Middleweights have been able to make it look easy, so this bout will certainly tell us a lot about Edmen Shahbazyan.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 5 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the main card portion that also streams on ESPN+ at 9 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 5: “Brunson vs Shahbazyan” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.