January 9, 2017
Fighting out of Wilmington, 33-year-old Derek Brunson has climbed the UFC rankings to the #8 spot in the middleweight division, winning 9 of his last 12 fights and coming off back-to-back first round knockouts, the most recent against former champ Lyoto Machida. Later this month, Brunson is headlining the main event for UFC Fight Night here in Charlotte in a rematch with the #4 middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a dangerous fighter who defeated him back in 2012. We caught up with Brunson to find out a little more about the North Carolina native and his upcoming fight.
CLTure: How did you get started in mixed martial arts coming out of Wilmington?
Derek Brunson: I wrestled in high school and went on to wrestle in college and was pretty successful as a two-time All-American. After college, I was working as an in-home therapist and I got the urge to keep competing so I went to a gym where there were a lot of former college wrestlers who were amateur MMA fighters. So I started rolling around with those guys and they were like, “Hey, you should fight.” Then eventually I started training in some of the other martial arts, boxing and muay thai, and I was picking it up really fast and just made the transition into MMA.
CLTure: Years ago jiu jitsu seemed to sort of trump every other style of fighting if executed well, but recently we’ve seen a lot of wrestlers rising in the rankings. In your opinion, is there one aspect of MMA fighting that trumps the rest?
DB: Back in the old UFC days, jiu jitsu was something that not everyone practiced and it was a way for smaller guys to compete against heavier guys back before they had weight classes but now everybody studies everything. If you have somebody who’s a traditional jiu jitsu guy and you’re able to stop the takedown, it shuts down their whole game. The UFC has the best fighters in the world and everybody trains in everything so it’s just a matter of making every aspect a strength.
CLTure: A lot of fighters “walk around” a lot heavier than the weight limit at which they fight. Do you have to cut a lot of weight to get to [the middleweight limit of] 185 pounds? What’s your walking-around weight?
DB: I don’t have too much to cut. I walk around at about 200 or 202, so when I start picking up my workouts and more intense running and long rides, I’m able to burn some fat and trim down a little bit, but the rest is just water weight.
CLTure: What does it mean to you to compete here in your home state knowing you’ll be the fan favorite? Does that add pressure or do you like knowing you’ll have the home crowd advantage?
DB: Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve been bugging [UFC President] Dana White for the last two or three years about getting a fight back in North Carolina. I haven’t fought here since 2010. When I first started fighting, I had my first four fights in North Carolina and then it was tough to get fights around here so I had to venture out to Rhode Island and Florida. Then I was able to get signed by a big promotion and it was all across the U.S. in big cities, so now to get an opportunity to come back to North Carolina, it’s super exciting for me.
CLTure: What can the fans in Charlotte expect from your octagon entrance, maybe some Petey Pablo? Or is that top secret?
DB: (Laughs) I’m still working on that. I did come out to Petey Pablo one time but didn’t perform up to my potential. Generally, if I don’t have a good performance I won’t come out to that song again. Maybe being in North Carolina I’ll get some J. Cole or somebody else from North Carolina.
CLTure: Do you follow other NC sports?
DB: For sure, yeah I’m a big Panthers fan, big Hornets fan. I follow all sports. I catch all the Panthers games and a lot of the Hornets games. They don’t air every single game for the Hornets nationally but, yeah, big time fan.
CLTure: Do you have a favorite fighting or boxing movie?
DB: Probably Rocky. When you think of it that’s what rings a bell, just like old school, grimy, gritty, pure fighter, gets knocked down, comes back. You can see the exhaustion of how a real fight is by how he portrays it.
CLTure: You fought Jacare once before. What can you tell us will be different this time around coming into the fight?
DB: When I fought him before, I was fresh out of college, right when I first started fighting. So I came in as a straight wrestler and it takes a long time to develop your boxing skills, your muay thai skills, to not over-extend yourself when you punch, but actually being able to throw a punch and not leave yourself in danger is a key point. I’m a different fighter in that aspect. I’ve been able to knock guys out clean here recently because I’ve been able to find that mix, to find that happy medium.
CLTure: Have you looked ahead at all and thought about what’s next if you defeat Jacare on January 27?
DB: Now that George St. Pierre has vacated the middleweight title, in February they’re having [interim champ] Luke Rockhold fight Robert Whittaker, the guy who was the former champ before GSP vacated. They’re fighting down in Australia. So this is definitely a good fight for me to let the UFC know that I deserve that next title shot after that.
CLTure: At UNC-Pembroke, you got your degree in Criminal Justice. What are your future plans after your fighting career? Instead of knocking down middleweights are you gonna be knocking down doors for the FBI?
DB: (Laughs) I actually worked on the opposite end of that before I started fighting. I was an in-home therapist so I worked with families helping them to adjust into society and just helping them with their problems. I also opened up a mixed martial arts gym and have younger fighters or people who aspire to be fighters and people who just want to get in shape. So I have a few things lined up.
CLTure: What advice would you give young folks in North Carolina looking to get into MMA?
DB: You gotta be consistent. You need to write out a schedule and say I’m gonna train this much per week and you make it a way that you get all your training sessions in, even if, say you have a class that you can’t make it to because of a family emergency, you gotta find a way to mimic the training on your own. This is a sport that’s gonna take a lot of hours and a lot of practice to get to a spot where you can compete at a high level.
CLTure: You’re a ferocious competitor in the octagon and a ton of fun to watch. Anything else that you want your home crowd to know about Derek Brunson?
DB: What you see is what you get. I’m a guy who goes out there, takes his time, gets it done, and looks for those knockouts.
UFC Fight Night: Jacare vs. Brunson takes place Saturday, January 27 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. You can also catch the main card live on FOX at 10 p.m. ET.