CHARLOTTE — Derek Brunson’s road to a UFC Middleweight title shot hit a roadblock in his home state Saturday night.
A loss in the main event of UFC on Fox 27 in Charlotte has Brunson not sure where he’ll go next.
“Definitely not to the top,” he said. “Definitely not into the top five or anything.”
The Wilmington product had won two straight bouts by first-round knockout, vaulting him to No. 8 in the UFC’s Middleweight Division and earning him a main event in North Carolina.
It was the first time Brunson fought in the Tarheel State since Dec. 4, 2010 — his fifth pro fight and years before the UFC came calling.
The home cooking was not friendly to Brunson, however. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, the No. 3 middleweight in the world, stopped Brunson with a first-round TKO.
Souza also knocked Brunson out the first time they fought, in 2012, in Brunson’s last bout before joining the UFC. He was hoping that five years of development would change the outcome.
“Everything was going good,” Brunson said. “I was feeling good. I felt I had the speed advantage, big-time. I had him swinging and missing.”
Brunson prefers an extremely aggressive approach, charging forward and hunting an early knockout. It often paid dividends, leading to seven first-round stoppages in his last nine fights. Against the 38-year-old Souza, a former Strikeforce Middleweight champion, however, Brunson was a bit more cautious.
The two spent nearly the first minute circling and feeling out the opponent.
“I saw some places where I could’ve turned it up more,” Brunson said. “But I really wanted to stick to my game plan. Be patient. Take my time. I didn’t want to make any mistakes out there.”
In the second minute, Brunson began to open up. He threw several front kicks to Souza’s head and body, a relatively new addition to his Octagon arsenal. The move seemed to open up Souza’s defenses, allowing Brunson to move forward with extended combinations of punches.
While the flurries didn’t do much damage to Souza, it allowed Brunson to control the action.
Souza responded by targeting counterpunches at the end of Brunson’s attacks. He landed a body kick at the 3:15 mark and slowed Brunson with a short right hook 15 seconds later.
Brunson continued to advance in the fight’s third minute, throwing three- and four-punch combinations. Souza appeared to hurt Brunson with a straight counter right at the 2:15 mark.
“I saw his punches,” Brunson said. “One time, he threw a punch, and it hit my shoulder. It got me off balance, and I kind of faded back.”
Brunson was able to stuff Souza’s lone takedown attempt of the fight, overhooking the veteran’s arm and pulling both fighters back to their feet, where Brunson landed a knee to the body.
“I knew he was going to punch and shoot,” Brunson said. “I knew, as a wrestler, him taking me down was something I was too worried about. I thought I had an advantage on the feet.”
Brunson then charged across the cage, throwing punches. The backpedaling Souza landed the best punch of the sequence, however, landing a left counter that halted Brunson in his tracks. Souza then foreshadowed the end of the fight by immediately throwing a sweeping head kick that just barely missed its target.
Ten seconds later, the sequence repeated itself. Souza landed a counterpunch, then followed it up with a sweeping head kick.
This one connected with Brunson’s temple, sending him sprawling to the mat. Souza pounced, hitting Brunson with a short left as he tried to get back to his feet. An overhand right followed, and then three lefts.
Referee Dan Miragliotta stepped in to stop the fight at that point, ending it after 3:50.
“I was relaxing, thinking I was that much faster than him,” Brunson said. “I saw the kick coming, but I covered up kind of lazy. I learned the hard way that I’ve got to be tighter.”
Brunson didn’t have any complaints about the timing of the stoppage, even though he was still fighting back at the time the referee stepped in.
“It could have gone a little bit longer, but in this game, you’ve got to defend yourself,” he said. “You can’t get caught with good shots, because the refs are going to make sure guys aren’t taking big damage.
“I can’t blame anybody but myself,” Brunson added. “I look at the replay and, man, I cover up tighter and we’re still in the fight.”
Instead, Brunson goes back to the drawing board.
“I’ll take a little bit of time off,” he said. “Maybe take a week off. Then I’ll get back to training. Line something up and get back at it.”