Derek Brunson has been here before.
After building an impressive five-fight win streak between 2014 and 2016, the former Strikeforce prospect turned UFC contender had earned four straight knockouts and was arguably only one victory away from earning a title shot.
Unfortunately, the confidence built from four consecutive first-round finishes had Brunson ready for a fire fight when facing Robert Whittaker and rather than strategizing the best way to win, he just bit down on his mouthpiece and started swinging for the fences.
He earned a Fight of the Night award but lost the fight by first round TKO.
Now five years later, Brunson has again won his last four in a row — but this time around he’s learned from the mistakes of his past. After last tasting defeat in 2018 when he fell to Israel Adesanya at UFC 230, Brunson was honest enough with himself to admit where he veered off course and what it would take to get back on the road to title contention.
“A couple years ago, I wasn’t patient,” Brunson explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I wasn’t about the process. I’ve never been 25 minutes and that [fight with Adesanya] was even in a 15-minute fight, and even in a 15 minute fight I never felt like I was settled in.
“I always felt like I was in a rush. But now I’ve been 25 [minutes]. I’ve been in main events. Now I know I can go the distance, I can pace myself, I can pick my shots. I can articulate a whole fight, whether it’s three rounds or five rounds. I’m a whole different person.”
Looking back at that loss to Adesanya from three years ago, Brunson realized that he wasn’t getting dismantled on the feet but he was so determined to get the fight to the ground that he simply failed to actually set up his takedowns.
To his credit, Adesanya feasted on Brunson’s mistake and made him pay for it.
“In that first fight with Izzy, I was super in a rush to take him down whereas there was no reason to, cause I wasn’t getting outstruck on the feet,” Brunson said. “Before he caught me with the knee off my shot, I probably had more strikes landed than he did.
“It wasn’t a thing of, I was just losing on my feet. It was, ‘I just know I’m so much better on the ground, let me get it there.’ At the same time, you can’t approach a fight like that. You still have to set it up, be patient, and you have to be ready to be gritty and grimy and get yourself without rushing.”
As he prepares to face Darren Till this weekend in the UFC Vegas 36 main event, Brunson has become a much better version of himself. He’s more confident in his striking but also never forgetting his wrestling roots.
He’s stated without hesitation that he absolutely plans to put Till on his back at some point during their five-round fight, but he’s also prepared to throw hands with the British slugger if that’s what it takes to get the job done.
Assuming he can secure his fifth win in a row overall and put Till away, Brunson doesn’t see why that shouldn’t put him right back into position to battle for a UFC title that has eluded him since joining the promotion in 2012.
“I think with a finish here, I could be looking at the next title shot after Whittaker-Adesanya, December, early next year,” Brunson said. “A decision win, I could see me fighting somebody else and the winner of that gets the next title shot.
“There’s some possibilities, but definitely with what I’ve done in this division, how I’ve reinvented myself to go out here and get a finish and look good, I’m deserving that next title shot and I’m planning on waiting to see what happens.”
Of course, Adesanya and Whittaker are due to battle it out again in a rematch that’s likely going to take place in early 2020.
If all goes well in his fight against Till on Saturday night, Brunson will then turn his attention to that title bout where he’s got a vested interest in eventually facing the winner with a little extra added motivation considering his past with both fighters.
“I don’t care who wins,” Brunson said. “I fought both guys. I need to get revenge on somebody. Best case scenario, somebody wins. Somebody is going to win and I need to get revenge on somebody. May the best man win.”