Derek Brunson may currently be in pole position for the next middleweight title shot after the rematch between UFC champion Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker goes down in early 2022, but that doesn’t mean Brunson is resting on his laurels.
Rather than sitting out and waiting, Brunson is jumping back into action and putting his five-fight win streak on the line against Jared Cannonier on Jan. 22 at UFC 270. The matchup has all the makings of a legitimate No. 1 contender fight, and for Brunson, the 37-year-old veteran felt it was important to stay busy and force the UFC’s hand while the title picture shakes out rather than sit back and merely hope for an opportunity to be thrown his way.
“I’m confident. I’m confident in the fight for a title fight. I’m confident in the fight against Cannonier,” Brunson explained recently on The MMA Hour.
“So [the fight] was on the table, and you know what? Instead of sitting, waiting — potentially, let’s say Cannonier sits, I sit, I’m kind of in the driver’s seat, and let’s say the winner of [Marvin] Vettori and [Paulo] Costa fights Cannonier. They probably will jump me just if I’ve being sitting, waiting. You never know what’s going to happen in these title fights. Somebody might get a big injury. So [staying] active was the best thing to me.”
Brunson has surprised many with his latest push toward contention. He’s rattled off five straight victories over a variety of top prospects and contenders since his 2018 loss to Adesanya, a run highlighted by dominant showings over Darren Till and Kevin Holland. It’s propelled Brunson into a No. 5 ranking on MMA Fighting’s global MMA middleweight rankings, and Brunson admitted on The MMA Hour that his loss to Adesanya and his desire for a second chance at the UFC middleweight king was his “whole motivation” for the streak.
“There’s things in that fight that I know wasn’t me,” Brunson said. “I didn’t prepare properly. It doesn’t matter. None of that stuff matters. The only thing is he came up with the win and now this is time for the rematch, for the get-back, and we’re going to change it up. I got one more and then we’re back to that fight. And that’s if he gets past Whittaker, you know?”
There’s little doubt that Brunson was in a much different place in his career the first time he fought Adesanya at UFC 230. The bout happened before Brunson made his move to train with the star-studded team in southern Florida at Sanford MMA. Instead, Brunson prepared for Adesanya at his own local gym in North Carolina, and he went into the matchup in the midst of a career slump after losing three of his previous five fights.
Brunson ultimately suffered a first-round knockout loss to Adesanya, who went on to capture the UFC middleweight title less than a year later.
“I was pissed off right when I went back to the locker room [at UFC 230],” Brunson said. “I was just like, ‘Man, I can’t believe that happened.’ I was just so mad that I was able to get in so easy — like, I had him body-locked, and bro, those are easy finishes for me, when I grab somebody that well. I just felt like I squandered the opportunity. I kind of took him lightly, I would say. I underestimated him. I was like, ‘I’m going to squash this guy easily.’
“When I say I underestimate people, I don’t disrespect people, I just feel like I got their number. So I’m like, ‘I’ve got this guy’s number, no problem.’ So I kind of underestimated where I needed to be and my cardio wasn’t up there. I was training at home with soccer moms, soccer dads, firemen, police officers and stuff like that, so those were my training partners — the guys who weren’t full-time martial artists. So I’m up here smoking these guys in the gym, and I go into the fight and I’m not ready for this high-level guy that’s in front of me who’s got a lot of feints, a good style that’s going to be scrambling.”
In retrospect, the level of Brunson’s training partners cannot be understated. Brunson essentially ran his own camps at that stage of his career, and frankly, it’s remarkable that he managed to be as successful as he was considering the pieces in place around him.
“I was training with soccer dads, firemen, police officers, janitors,” Brunson said. “Like, that was who my training partners were. One UFC fight, I had a homeless guy I was training with. He used to be like an amateur boxer — a homeless guy. I tried to go find him after my fight and give him money, but I couldn’t find him. Nobody could find him.”
In the end, Brunson knows that if he wants his shot at revenge against Adesanya, all roads will first need to go through Cannonier at UFC 270.
Cannonier has won four of his five fights since dropping down to middleweight in 2018. Most recently, he outpointed Kelvin Gastelum to win a unanimous decision in August.
But Brunson is up for the challenge.
“I think this can be one of the best middleweight fights in history,” Brunson said of a potential Adesanya rematch.
“So that’s up to me to run through Jared and get to that.”