Derek Brunson understands that losses are part of competition, but some defeats are just tougher to swallow.
The perfect example is Brunson’s 2018 loss to future UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya but not because he necessarily has some personal grudge against “The Last Stylebender.”
Instead, he looks at his own performance that night and all the shortcomings that led to a first-round knockout loss, which made the setback that much harder to accept.
“In the first fight, a lot of my coaches were like, ‘Are you OK? Were you injured? What was going on cause I’ve never seen get body locked on somebody so many times and not take them down,’” Brunson explained in an interview with MMA Fighting. “Like I had Izzy gripped up, body locked, clinched up like maybe four or five times and had single leg [takedowns] and he would just squirm out. That was just on me in terms of my preparation.
“I had a hurricane I was dealing with, I didn’t train for two weeks. That was the first phase where I went from being really strong and I stopped lifting weights for like two years. That was a trial and error period in my career, especially when I was fighting Izzy. I was like I don’t need to lift weights, I’m fighting Izzy so really I can try this out. So I was getting to my positions, I just wasn’t able to finish. It was a combination of a lot of things, which are no excuses, but we look back now like OK, that’s why we didn’t react so properly.”
To ensure that he’s not lambasted for revealing the issues he had leading into that fight, Brunson is quick to pay homage to Adesanya on a job well done that night.
Three years later, Brunson just wants his chance at revenge.
“Small things make a difference in these big fights,” Brunson said. “Kudos to him, he took advantage of it. But I know in a rematch, I know what I can do.”
Lately, Brunson has looked better than ever before while racking up five wins in a row including a third-round submission victory over Darren Till in his most recent outing.
Prior to their fight, Till was already engaged in a war of words with Adesanya after both athletes expressed interest in facing each other in the future. Following Brunson’s dominant win over Till, he called out Adesanya, which earned him a response from the champion saying “calm down, boy, you still a bum, son.”
None of that really bothered Brunson because all that means is Adesanya is paying attention, which is exactly what he wants as he pursues a rematch with UFC gold on the line this time.
“Even before the fight, he said something like ‘I gave you guys a blueprint.’ That was even before the fight, he had a picture or video of him kicking me. If we get back to who started this, whenever we get deep into it, we know that Izzy started this. I’m a responder. I know my abilities.
“In a rematch, we’re very confident in what we can do and we know the threat that we pose.”
The best example of the changes Brunson has made during his recent win streak is the way he’s started to really rely on his wrestling to dominate the competition.
While he’s always leaned towards grappling as his best weapon, Brunson acknowledges that a couple of highlight reel knockouts during a previous five-fight win streak had him head hunting instead of using his striking to set up takedowns.
Lately, the former three-time NCAA Division II All-American wrestler has been putting his opponents on the ground and rarely letting them get back up again. Brunson is more than confident that he can do the same to Adesanya, especially after watching him spend so much time stuck underneath UFC light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz in their fight back in March.
“I know given the chance on the ground, I’m looking to do mass damage,” Brunson said. “I’m looking to finish the fight. I’m looking to get him out of there. He’s going to be tested like he’s never been tested before where he fought Jan Blachowicz — Blachowicz was just content with controlling him. I’m going to be looking to finish.”
Of course, even if Blachowicz wrote the blueprint on how to beat Adesanya on the ground, Brunson understands that he’s got to get him there first, which is where he came up so woefully short in their first encounter.
“I was just so mad and frustrated after the first fight,” Brunson said. “As soon as I go back to the locker room, it’s like we didn’t execute. We just blew a lot of moments. I know when I grab people, they don’t get away. I know I can chain attacks together. I didn’t do that in that fight and it was all solely on my preparation.
“That’s why that was the last training camp I spent at home in the comfort of my dad and with my family and everything is super nice. I had to go grind so that I could be ready for these big fights.”
Following his win over Till last weekend, Brunson made it clear that he’s willing to sit and wait for a title shot with Adesanya expected to clash with Robert Whittaker in early 2022.
While fellow contenders such as Jared Cannonier have argued that he should have to take another fight before that, Brunson counters with the resume he’s put together since losing to Adesanya and how that compares with two other fighters who have already earned rematches.
“I know I’m deserving of a title shot,” Brunson said. “I’ve won five in a row. I haven’t lost in like three years. The last fight was Izzy. Marvin Vettori lost to Izzy, won some fights, got the fight back. Whittaker lost to Adesanya, won two fights, got the fight back. It’s how I’m looking.
“I’ve won five fights. More than anybody’s won to get back to the opportunity. So I’m looking at this — this is my opportunity, my chance, I’ve earned it so I don’t want to squander anything. I want to wait and see when the fight gets booked and know exactly what’s going on before making any decisions.”