If you take a glance at the current middleweight rankings, the opportunity that sits before Derek Brunson in advance of his co-main event assignment this weekend in Pittsburgh is evident.
Last year ended with the dawn of Luke Rockhold’s reign atop the 185-pound ranks and former champion Chris Weidman remains stationed at No. 1. Outside of that, however, there are plenty of chances for the 32-year-old currently riding a three-fight winning streak to use 2016 as the year he works his way up the divisional ladder.
“I think for sure in the top five; I think that’s realistic,” Brunson said of where he anticipates standing at the end of the year. “I figure if I get three fights in before the end of the year, one is going to have to be against somebody in the top five and that puts me right there, potentially looking at a title shot at the beginning of the year.”
Currently stationed at No. 13, there are plenty of question marks standing between Brunson and a place inside the top five and a strong performance Sunday at Consol Energy Center against Roan Carneiro should help him take another step forward toward that goal.
In a division where big, established names dominate the conversations, Brunson has been sneaky-good and making steady progress. He’s 5-1 in the UFC and has collected consecutive victories over Lorenz Larkin, Ed Herman and Sam Alvey, the final two of those being stoppage wins inside the first five minutes.
Despite his current run of success, he’s failed to make major waves, something he hopes to rectify this weekend.
“I feel I have a lot to offer,” Brunson said of his place in the pecking order. “I’m in a good place in the division – I have three wins in a row, two finishes. Out of my five wins in the UFC, I have three first-round finishes, so I feel I’m in a good spot and I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and work towards a title shot.”
One of the things Brunson is considering is a permanent change of address.
Right now, the up-and-coming middleweight spends most of his time at home in North Carolina, but a month prior to fight night, he packs his bags and decamps for the Jackson-Wink MMA Academy, where he works with the elite team of coaches and training partners in Albuquerque.
Leaving home is always hard and making decisions about uprooting family are real life situations fighters encounter on the regular. Brunson looks to be headed down that road.
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“I go down to Albuquerque about four weeks before a fight,” explained Brunson, who was a three-time Division II All-American at UNC-Pembroke and began his career 9-0 before losing a short notice fight to UFC vet Kendall Grove and running into Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in his final Strikeforce appearance before matriculating to the Octagon.
“Back in North Carolina, I have a great mix of things – I have some good jiu-jitsu guys, good wrestlers. I actually had a couple guys move down that really helped my training, including UFC vet John Salter, so I have a few guys that push me. I have a great boxing coach, but obviously, when I’m in Albuquerque, that’s where I get the best training.
“Life is about balance, so I’m trying to find that balance and make the decisions that will be best for me and my family in the long run. After this fight, I’m going to re-evaluate and figure out what I need to do to get that title shot moving forward.”
Before pondering a move, Brunson has to make the trip to Pittsburgh for an underrated, but certainly important, matchup with Carneiro, a 37-year-old veteran in the midst of the best run of success of his career.
A winner of six straight, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt returned to the Octagon for the first time in six-plus years last February to pick up a first-round submission victory over Mark Munoz and enters the Octagon looking for his first two-fight UFC winning streak.
But Brunson has no intention of letting that happen.
“No tricks, just keep doing what I’ve been doing – moving around, finding my opening and exploiting it,” Brunson said of how he gets it done on Sunday. “I’m looking to get guys out of the cage. My hands are getting better, I have power and any time I can put my hands on anybody it’s going to end great.”