Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker believes fellow contender Derek Brunson has always been as good as his recent results suggest.
This time three years ago, not many would have expected or predicted Brunson to be in position for a title eliminator in 2022. But that is exactly the spot the veteran has placed himself in. He’s set to face Jared Cannonier at UFC 271 next month, with the winner expected to challenge for gold later in the year.
To get to this spot, Brunson has built a five-fight win streak that has firmly broken him beyond the status of gatekeeper and into the elite at 185 pounds. After going 0-2 in 2018, Brunson rebounded with unanimous decision victories over Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch.
Then, “Blonde Brunson” arrived.
In a main event against the then-unbeaten Edmen Shahbazyan, Brunson showed his quality. He dominated and beat up the youngster on his way to a third-round TKO.
In 2021, the North Carolina native turned things up a notch, first by dominating rising contender and 5-0 2020 fighter Kevin Holland, and then by submitting former welterweight title challenger Darren Till in his third consecutive headliner.
Whittaker: Brunson Seems More Experienced Now
Now sitting at #4 in the middleweight rankings, Brunson has firmly exceeded expectations and made a late surge towards the title. But while most are surprised by his resurgence, one of his former opponents isn’t.
During an interview with LowKick MMA, Whittaker, who defeated Brunson via first-round TKO in 2016, suggested not much has changed in Brunson’s approach for him to find his recent success. “The Reaper” said that the middleweight mainstay has always been this good, but has simply faced tough opposition.
“He kind of fights the same way (as before) doesn’t he? [LAUGHS] He gets in your face, then he grinds you up against the fence, and then takes you down and makes your life a living hell,” said Whittaker. “I think he was always that good, it’s just he fought some good opponents and had some bad nights. He definitely seems more experienced and (is) making smarter decisions.”
Brunson’s strength of schedule is certainly up there with the best at 185 pounds. His five UFC defeats came against powerhouse and former title challenger Yoel Romero, legendary former champion and GOAT contender Anderson Silva, Brazilian grappling great Ronaldo Souza, current middleweight king Israel Adesanya, and former titleholder and now-top contender Whittaker.
Brunson will hope to avoid adding Cannonier’s name to that list when they collide in February. Discussing that matchup, Whittaker said the key for Brunson will be taking “The Killa Gorilla” to the ground and keeping him there.
“Brunson’s a good fighter. You can see, the only guys he’s really lost to have been previous champs, really,” added Whittaker. “I think Cannonier’s a tough guy to beat though. I think to get this win, (Brunson) takes him down and holds him down and makes him uncomfortable and just grinds him out there for three rounds. But Cannonier is very hard to hold down. And he hits like a truck. His standup striking is very technical, very textbook. It’s an interesting fight.”
As well as Brunson’s likely title eliminator against Cannonier, UFC 271 will also see another crucial middleweight contest go down. In the main event, Whittaker will look to exact revenge on Adesanya in their rematch and regain his spot on the 185-pound throne.
How do you think Robert Whittaker and Derek Brunson will fare in their respective matchups at UFC 271?