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UFC Fight Night: Brunson v Shahbazyan Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 22’s Derek Brunson

Middleweight power puncher, Derek Brunson, will square off with rising contender, Kevin Holland, this Saturday (March 20, 2021) at UFC Vegas 22 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Brunson has lost to several of the division’s top contenders and champions over the years, often paying for his aggression in the form of power punches. As a result, he entered 2019 rather firmly established as a gatekeeper to the Top 10, and at 35 years of age, that appeared to be the story of Derek Brunson.

Maybe not?

The veteran has since turned away three straight prospects, showing greater composure and more skill than ever. He seems to have turned a corner, and perhaps the No. 7th-ranked Middleweight contender still has rungs to climb before hitting his ceiling.

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

Striking

After roughly a decade of fighting stiff competition, Brunson seems to have finally learned how to manage his aggression. Historically, Brunson would either charge immediately in pursuit of the knockout (for better or worse) or patiently look to win at range with potshots. Against Edmen Shahbazyan, Brunson did both, exploding at smart moments.

As a physical fighter with some great attributes, trying to overwhelm opponents with raw aggression is a viable strategy for Brunson. He’s a big Middleweight with real powerful, as well as nearly impossible 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.

UFC Fight Night: Brunson v Alvey Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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.

UFC Fight Night: Brunson v Shahbazyan Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Back to the Shahbazyan performance: Brunson fought rather smart at range. Shahbazyan was a technically superior boxer, so Brunson didn’t engage him in that range. Instead, he poked at his foe with left round and snap kicks, occasionally lunging in with the left hand. The left was not ultra technical, but Brunson waited to burst with multi-punch combinations until his opponent’s back was toward the fence.

Speaking of the fence, Brunson made great use of the clinch. After throwing his homerun left hand, Brunson would dive towards the legs or clinch. Regardless of how he got there, Brunson would move into the upper body clinch with great head position, allowing him to break with more left hands/elbows.

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.

UFC Fight Night - Romero v Brunson

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.

UFC 177: Larkin v Brunson Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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.

Against Shahbazyan, Brunson twice landed an ultra slick foot sweep to plant his foe from the back clinch. As Shahbazyan kept his base wide to avoid the slam, Brunson blocked the far angle while rotating his foe, sitting his butt to the canvas (GIF).

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.

Brazilian 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.

UFC Fight For the Troops - Brunson v Houston Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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

Brunson has always had the physical tools to become an elite contender. Historically, it’s the technical and mental aspects that have held him back. I don’t want to imply that Brunson has developed into a technical kickboxing specialist, but he’s developed his style considerably, and grown far more effective as a result.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 22 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN2 “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 22: “Brunson vs. Holland” 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.

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