Derek Brunson should have had this “Jacare” Souza business out of the way in March. But five crazy months later, he’s finally going to get his chance to meet up with the former Strikeforce middleweight champion when they square off this Saturday in San Diego.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” said Brunson. “I came into the sport having a lot of success and a lot of fights in a short amount of time, and just all of a sudden, the last nine months have been kind of crazy. It’s been trying to get fights, the surgery, getting a fight pulled a week and a half before, and the whole Grove fight and how that went down. It’s been tough, but I guess that’s fighting.”
That’s a lot to digest, so let’s catch up.
In November of last year, Brunson, one of Strikeforce’s most promising talents, moved to 9-0 as a pro with a unanimous decision win over Nate James. It was the North Carolina native’s third straight win in the organization, and the future was a bright one. And it still is, but there were a few detours along the way.
First, a March bout with Souza was scrapped less than two weeks out when the Ohio State Athletic Commission refused to license him due to issues with his vision. In response, Brunson, who had fought his entire career with contact lenses, did what he was planning to do after the fight – he got PRK laser eye surgery in March.
Six days after the surgery, Brunson was back in the gym, and in a month, he was sparring. But with the Strikeforce schedule already set for the near future, the 28-year old had to wait for his next assignment. Enter a request for Brunson to step in on short notice, four days worth of short, to meet UFC vet Kendall Grove in a non-Strikeforce bout in Missouri on June 16th.
“I felt confident and I thought it was a good fight,” said Brunson on his reasons for accepting the bout. “Before I started fighting, I graduated with a Criminal Justice degree and I was working as an in-home therapist before I started fighting, so I was making pretty good money and I had steady income, but whenever I started to fight, it was just all fighting and all training, so I stopped working and dedicated my time to training. And not fighting for seven months, I had to make some money.”
But that wasn’t his first consideration.
“I knew who Kendall Grove was, but the first thing I thought about was, ‘can I make the weight?’” said Brunson, who estimated that he was around 210 pounds when he got the call. The two camps eventually settled on a catchweight of 190 pounds, and Brunson accepted the fight. Then he lost his unbeaten record via controversial split decision.
“I went out there, fought the guy and dominated him for three rounds, and then I lose a split decision,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with losing knowing that I went out there and fought and gave it my all and it just wasn’t my night. But man, I beat that guy up for three rounds and then they gave him a split decision. I was like this is just not right. I’m not being a poor sport, but I had an undefeated record and I worked so hard and trained so hard to stay undefeated, and to lose like that left a bitter taste.”
The final result of the Grove fight can’t be erased, but if his placement as the co-main event on this Saturday’s Strikeforce card is any indication, the powers-that-be at Zuffa haven’t penalized him for the loss. And as far as Brunson is concerned, he’s not going to let the “1” in his loss column deter him moving forward.
“Every fight is different, and I know I didn’t lose that fight, other than on the scorecards, so my confidence is still high and I believe that I’m one of the top guys in the world,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to prove it because before Jacare’s last loss (to Luke Rockhold in September of 2011), he was a guy that was looked at as a guy that was in the top five in the whole world, and I think he could go in the UFC and make an immediate impact and beat several guys. You’ve got great grapplers in the UFC, and in nothing but grappling he’d dominate those guys. So I think it’s definitely a good time to showcase where I’m at and work toward that title shot.”
A three-time Division II All-American wrestler at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Brunson excels at dictating the pace and the location of his fights. He’s finished seven of his nine wins (four by knockout), but he has also proven the ability to go three rounds in his victories over James and Jeremy Hamilton. As for his outlook on the Souza fight, he knows that he’s facing one of the sport’s premier grapplers, but beyond that he’s planning on taking matters as they come on fight night.
“When I go into a fight, I know what the person is good at, but I really don’t have a gameplan, per se,” he said. “If I fight a striker, obviously he’s going to be looking to strike, and if he runs in all crazy, I’m a wrestler, so I just change levels and get the takedown. So I kinda let them dictate it and go from there and see what kind of rhythm I’m in that night.
“He throws a few punches and takes most guys down, and I’m a wrestler, so I’ve gotta stand strong and be like ‘hey, this guy’s not just gonna come in here and take me down.’ That’s my strong suit, just like he’s not worried about me sweeping him and submitting him because that’s his strong suit. But I feel confident that I can keep the fight wherever I want it.”
And with talk starting to crop up about Rockhold’s next championship defense and Souza being in a lot of those conversations, Brunson is more than eager to spoil the Brazilian’s party this weekend.
“It’s funny, Jacare’s been saying he accepts the title fight, so I’m not really offended, but I really want to give him a good beatdown just for looking past me,” said Brunson. “I’m not one of those guys you can just look past; I’m a gamer, and I’m gonna step up and show up every fight.”
If he hadn’t made that clear in the past few years, he certainly did in the last few months.
“I’ve been through tougher days in life and mistreated in different ways harshly, so I’m not gonna rest on that fight (against Grove) and let that define me as an athlete or a mixed martial artist. I’m just gonna keep pushing. This is a great opportunity for me to go out there and get the job done.”