Derek Brunson knows how hard it can be to land matchups with higher ranked fighters as you work your way into title contention.
That’s why the veteran middleweight didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge of Ian Heinisch when he called for a fight against him following his win over Antonio Carlos Junior earlier this year.
Heinisch is only two fights into his UFC career after earning his contract on Dana White’s Contender Series but he already managed to crack the top-15 rankings. That win led to Heinisch calling out Brunson and it took the former Division-II All-American wrestler a matter of moments to accept.
Brunson has seen it time and time again when fighters finally earn a number next to their name and then suddenly start discounting potential opponents who are ranked lower than them.
“There’s no easy fights in the UFC. There’s no easy fights. Everybody is game, everybody is trying to elevate their career,” Brunson explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Unless you’re the champion or you’re an established guy like an Alistair Overeem or [Donald] “Cowboy” Cerrone that have these bigger contracts, everybody is trying to work towards that title shot, trying to establish themselves.
“So if you’re not champion, anybody in that top-15 is game.”
It didn’t matter much to Brunson that Heinisch wasn’t ranked higher than him when he heard his name being called for a fight.
He only saw it as a challenge, which is something he’s always more than happy to accept.
“It’s funny because everybody looks to elevate their career and everybody looks for who can I get in the top-10? Who’s available? I heard him calling out a lot of wrestlers. For a guy who called me out, I like the fight,” Brunson said.
“He’s like 5-foot-11, 6-foot-tall at best, 71- or 72-inch reach. I’ve got a 78-inch reach. He’s a wrestler per se, I’ve never been taken down in a fight. I take everybody down. I’ve got guys that I wrestle with everyday that I know are better than him. So for him to feel like he has the better wrestling, I’m like OK that’s another challenge.”
The fight will also serve as Brunson’s second opportunity to show what he’s learned while working with the coaches and fighters out of Hard Knocks 365 in Florida.
Brunson teamed up with the gym prior to his last fight against Elias Theodorou where he’s now working under coaches like Henri Hooft and Greg Jones and training alongside fighters such as Kamaru Usman, Luke Rockhold, and Vicente Luque.
“I went in there kind of lackadaisical and the guys really took it to me. It was what I needed,” Brunson said about his first experience at the gym.
“That’s what I needed. It’s just no other way to do this game. You have to be sharp, you have to be ready. You have to have guys that can push you in terms of these high-level fights or otherwise you’re going to get out to these fights and your opponent has been pushed and they are ready to compete. If you have not been pushed and you’re not ready, you can’t just turn that switch on that night.”
Brunson had previously worked with head coach Greg Jackson and the Jackson-Winkeljohn team in New Mexico but the cross country travel that kept him away from his family forced him to stay closer to his native North Carolina.
At Hard Knocks 365, Brunson feels like he gets the best of all worlds with high-level training and he’s never more than a quick flight away from being home with his family.
“Greg Jackson is the man, I still talk to him. I’ve been meaning to try to get him to my hometown so we could work on some ground and pound protocols. I mean the guy has overwhelming amount of knowledge but those guys down at Hard Knocks get it,” Brunson said.
“Henri Hooft is a master on the feet when it comes to striking. He’s good at implementing the things that are needed in MMA. Greg Jones, you don’t get any better than that when it comes to wrestling. I actually looked up to him when I was in college.”
Now two fight camps into his time at the new gym, Brunson is ready to show off what he’s learned while simultaneously proving to Heinisch that calling for this fight out may not have been in his best interest.
“The funny part about it is I think it’s a good fight but me personally, I like every fight. I see myself beating everybody,” Brunson said. “I see myself breaking everybody down but he thinks it’s a good fight for him.
“That’s what makes for a great fight. He’s going to be motivated and amped. I’m going to be motivated and amped. I get up for every fight.”