One of Middleweight’s most established contenders, Derek Brunson, will look to dispatch kickboxer, Darren Till, this Saturday (Sept. 4, 2021) at UFC Vegas 36 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Brunson has been there and done that. For about the last decade, Brunson has squared off with a majority of the best 185-pound fighters to compete. Sure, he lost a fair few of those match ups, but after years of toil against elite competition, Brunson has seemingly come out the other side better for it. At 37 years of age, Brunson is scoring big wins and showcasing a newfound maturity, one that perhaps can make the difference if he’s able to secure some high-profile rematches.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Historically, Brunson has two modes of kickboxing: he’s either wildly attempting to HULK SMASH opponents or patiently picking-and-moving on the outside. Lately, he’s been choosing when and where to explode without losing focus on the overall goal.
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 power, and he’s 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.
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 may always love 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 fair 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.
Opposite Edmen Shahbazyan, Brunson fought perhaps his smartest kickboxing fight yet. 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.
Against Kevin Holland, Brunson smartly relied on his wrestling as much as possible. While on the feet, however, he did well to keep Holland honest with his left hand, and whenever things got too crazy, the wrestler reverted to his takedowns rather than trade strikes with the knockout artist.
Even with all the above mentions of improvement, it remains 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.
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.
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).
Brunson’s wrestling was on full display vs. Holland, who simply could not keep the powerful veteran off his hips. Any time Brunson dropped down on a leg, he was able to build up his base and improve position. Sometimes, he started low on a single leg before moving up into tight doubles along the fence. Once Brunson was beneath Holland, he had relatively little difficult completing the shot (GIF) or shucking into the body lock clinch and finishing his takedown from there (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.
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.
Brunson has major physical gifts, a fairly well-rounded skill set, and the experience to best implement those tools. Is that enough to truly contend at 185 lbs? Saturday night’s main event should help us find out.
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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.