Derek Brunson takes loss in first career UFC main event

Wilmington fighter admits he was caught up in hype

Matt Roberts—X02835
Nov 27

Derek Brunson was ready for the most important fight of his UFC career, then the stakes got even higher.Riding a five-fight winning streak, the second longest in the Middleweight division, with four straight first-round knockouts—the longest streak in Middleweight history, Brunson got the call for an eliminator fight.Ranked No. 8, Brunson faced No. 7 ranked Robert Whittaker, with the winner taking an important step toward a title fight.The bout was scheduled for the co-main event of the Nov. 27 UFC card, and it would take place in Whittaker’s home country of Australia.As if that weren’t crucial enough for the Wilmington fighter’s career, the bout got a boost in status three weeks before fight night.Former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold, who was scheduled to fight right after Brunson in the card’s main event, suffered a sprained ACL and had to be scratched from the card. His fight was cancelled, and Brunson-Whittaker was promoted to the main event, the first time Brunson had headlined a show in his career.That meant extra press leading up to the fight. More importantly, it meant fighting five rounds, the length of all UFC main events, instead of the standard three. Brunson’s team tried to work on stamina at the last minute, to prepare for the possibility of an extra 10 minutes of fighting.”I fell into the hole,” Brunson said. “I got impressed. Five rounds—we didn’t really prepare for five rounds.”Brunson also fell into the trap of thinking about what was at stake in the fight. Not only did he need to win, but an impressive victory would help wrap up the title shot he’d been working toward since he turned pro in 2010.Unsure of his readiness to go five rounds and trying to make a statement, Brunson came out looking for a quick, highlight-film knockout.”I came out here and fought with no game plan, like a chump tonight,” Brunson admitted afterward.”I’d never been in the main event spot,” Brunson said. “The last fight of the night — I definitely wanted to go out and impress. I just wasn’t smart enough tonight.”The strategy almost worked. Brunson came out swinging and pinned Whittaker against the cage in the early moments of the fight. He threw a wild flurry of punches, with many making contact. Desperate to stop the onslaught, Whittaker tied Brunson up to buy time to recover.”We knew he was going to come out tough,” Whittaker said of Brunson’s early advantage. “I had no idea he was going to come out that hard. I knew I had to weather the storm. He’s a heavy hitter.
Eventually, the set-up paid off.Once the two fighters separated again, Whittaker backed up away from Brunson, setting the trap. Brunson took the bait, charging across the cage, ready to land another flurry.He ran directly into a left hook from the Australian, stopping him cold in his tracks. Whittaker landed four quick uppercuts that dropped Brunson to the mat, then finished him off with several punches on the ground.Not sure if he could fight the full 25 minutes, Brunson saw his first main event end at four minutes, seven seconds of the first round.”Stupid,” Brunson admitted of his charge. “Like I said, this sport is about style points. I knew what was at stake. I was just trying to impress, because I know what this sport is about: getting it done each time and looking impressive. I just wasn’t really smart tonight.”Even more frustrating for Brunson was the early success he had, which could have paved the way to a milestone victory.”I had him against the cage, and I felt him breathing really hard,” he said. “I could have really slowed him down and gotten the takedown. But I didn’t make smart decisions. Instead of going to my wrestling, where I knew that I had the upper hand, I kept trying to knock him out.”So Brunson will take the long trip back to Wilmington and regroup.”This sport is growing,” he said. “It’s about patience, rather than getting caught up in five [knockouts] in a row. Looking at the guys ranked above me, they all have losses. I want a title shot. I want a main event. But I need to remember just to put on a great fight and be smart.””I’ll take a step back for sure,” he added. “It’s nothing I can’t handle. Just keep getting better.”