“A lot of people were forgetting about me, saying ‘He’s never going to get a title shot, blah blah blah,’” says Derek Brunson, recounting the arc of his career over the last few years. “Now it’s starting to change a little bit.”
It’s something of a conundrum that Brunson would ever fall into the category of “forgotten.” Across his 18 UFC appearances dating back to 2012, the only five men to defeat him are a veritable who’s who of middleweights. There was the four-time title challenger Yoel Romero, two men who would go on to be champion in Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya, former champion / MMA legend Anderson Silva and former Strikeforce champion Jacare Souza. The term “murderers row” gets tossed around a lot in sports, but that list might be the textbook definition.
Perhaps after his back-to-back 2018 losses to Souza and Adesanya there was a sentiment that Brunson’s best days might be behind him. He was entering his mid-thirties and father time, as they say, is undefeated. Brunson responded to lazy analysis in the most Brunson way possible: by rattling off four straight wins, including two of the division’s potential future stars in Edmen Shahbazyan and Kevin Holland. They were satisfying wins, too.
“Beating Edmen—a young guy with a lot of hype—it was definitely fulfilling to get that win. Beating Holland, it was great to just shut somebody down. That’s someone that’s potentially going to talk trash.”
So what about this weekend’s Vegas main event opponent Darren Till? He’s known to have a bit of a sharp tongue himself, not to mention a lethal social media game.
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“Till, he’s more of a funny guy,” Brunson smiles. “He’s a meme-ster. You’ve got to be careful with Till, he might make you a meme for two years, so I definitely got to get a win over him also.”
He credits his commendable run in a notoriously difficult division to his adopted home at Sanford MMA. Henri Hooft and Greg Jones’ gym has only produced wins for the North Carolina native.
“Been here two and a half years, four fights and 4-0. And I’m going to keep going up. I said if I’m going to come down here for four to five weeks away from my family, to sacrifice, I need it to pay off,” he says of the decision.
“I applied myself. I got to work. I was committed,” he says proudly. “That’s a part of the game. You apply yourself. You lock in, recommit, rededicate and then things happen.”
Things have certainly happened for Brunson ever since and he’s eager to test his latest incarnation against Liverpool’s Till.
“I see myself getting my hand raised. I do respect Till, I think he’s a great fighter. He’s very scrappy, good striking, very confident. He comes out there and brings it, you know? The guy can bang. He’s a southpaw, has a good left hand. Very tricky on the feet. It’s matchup that will be challenging, but it can catapult me to bigger things.”
The bigger things are a poorly kept secret: Brunson would love another crack at the champion, Israel Adesanya.
“Definitely the goal and the focus is on this fight. Take care of Till and then for sure get that rematch with Izzy.
“My preparation is a lot different from when I fought Izzy the first time. I kind of underestimated his skills a little bit. I got into positions that I wouldn’t dream to get into in a fight. I wasn’t able to finish or put him on the ground and punish him like I wanted to. So kudos to him, but I’ve made those adjustments and I know it would be a lot different in a rematch,” he says, again alluding to his time at Sanford.
“It’s all small things that are very improvable, and that’s what I’ve been working on these past three or four years. I have. And it has been showing in my fights.”
Saturday’s UFC APEX event was originally slated to take place in London in front of a capacity crowd that likely would have favored Till and his many UK brethren on the card. But if he feels a momentum shift in moving the show back to the US, Brunson isn’t letting on.
“I’m a fighter, it doesn’t matter to me. I just focus on the fight. Whether it’s in London, whether it’s here, once those Octagon doors close, it’s me versus a person. No excuses. No cornermen. Nobody can help anyone. You’ve got to go out there and act, have your instinct and awareness on point and get the fight done.”
Don't miss Derek Brunson this Saturday at UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs Till. Please note the special broadcast time: Prelims begin 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT and the Main Card kicks off at 4pm ET/1pm PT on ESPN+.