Brunson’s tough path could be finally paying off

LAS VEGAS — It hasn’t been a linear climb to the top of the middleweight division for Derek Brunson. It’s been a two steps forward, one step backward sort of thing for him.

He won seven of his first eight fights in the UFC, including a five-fight win streak. That was brought to rest with back-to-back losses to Robert Whittaker and Anderson Silva, with the second of those being debatable. After going 2-2 in his next four, he has reeled off four in a row and has a chance to become one of the rare UFC fighters to put together two five-fight winning streaks.

He’s finally moving within range of a title shot, and at No. 5 in the rankings, a win over No. 7 Darren Till in their bout on Saturday at Apex would significantly enhance his chances.

In each of his last two outings, he’s been almost in no-win situations. Two bouts ago, he faced rising prospect Edmen Shahbazyan, who was getting a lot of attention for his winning streak and for being managed by ex-UFC champion Ronda Rousey.

Brunson stopped Shahbazyan in the third round after being in control most of the way. In March, he faced Kevin Holland with Holland coming off a huge 2020 that had gotten him some Fighter of the Year mentions.

But Brunson wasn’t caught up in the hype and used his wrestling to grind out an effective if not pretty victory.

Though only 28, Till is a veteran and one of the more popular fighters in the UFC. That’s gotten Brunson more excited for the fight than the bouts against Shahbazyan and Holland, where he had much to lose and little to gain.

“To have a guy like Darren Till, a former title challenger and a guy with a lot of eyes on him, he’s like one of the top guys in the U.K. and [has a] huge following, it’s a funner matchup than these guys [like Shahbazyan and Holland] where I feel like I just had to protect my spot,” Brunson said.

That was particularly true for Brunson against Holland, a colorful, outspoken guy who had dynamic striking capabilities but next-to-no takedown defense.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 20: (R-L) Derek Brunson kicks Kevin Holland in their middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 20, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 20: (R-L) Derek Brunson kicks Kevin Holland in their middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 20, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Brunson is a wrestler and knew that, even though it would not please the masses, taking Holland down and beating him on the ground would be the most certain path to victory.

He didn’t get a lot of praise for the win, and most of the post-fight discussion was more about what Holland did wrong than what Brunson did correctly.

“Oh for sure [I was in a no-win situation],” Brunson said. “I had a guy who hadn’t fought anybody tough but had a great year in 2020. Yeah, it was a no-win situation. I was ranked maybe seven at the time and he was 10. He was a guy who had a lot of buzz from his previous year, but there really wasn’t a lot to gain from that and not a lot of traction going forward.”

That’s not the case with Till, who despite a 1-3 slump in the last four outings remains one of the division’s most dangerous and feared opponents.

Till has the kind of one-punch power most fighters crave and his takedown defense is infinitely better than Holland’s. A win over Darren Till means something.

A win for Brunson would be his second five-fight winning streak in the UFC, which is hugely significant. There aren’t many fighters who ever reel off one five-fight winning streak in the UFC, let alone two, and those who do generally are among the elite of the elite.

Brunson said if he wins impressively, he can wait for the winner of the middleweight title fight that is planned but yet to be scheduled between champion Israel Adesanya and Whittaker, the former champion.

Don’t expect Brunson to try to change the script knowing how close he is to a title shot. He’s a veteran who understands that if he takes care of his end of things — winning his fights — the title picture will work itself out.

He expects a better version of Till on Saturday and said he’s ready for what Till presents.

“He’s a guy who had a lot of success and then kind of what was resting on what he was doing and had to get back to the drawing board and make some improvements,” Brunson said. “I’m expecting a game [guy] who made some improvements to come out here and fight. That gives me more chance to be on top of my game and understand what I’m best at and making him pay for [his mistakes].”