While not in the way that great fights are, booking Derek Brunson against Elias Theodorou was something of a stroke of genius from the UFC; not just in the way of it being a sensible fight that could carry rankings implications, but also in the sense that the fight could turn out to be one of the most hilariously bizarre in recent memory.
Derek Brunson is on a two-fight skid, having been knocked out quickly by Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza (in their rematch) and Israel Adesanya. While those losses are far from embarrassing, Brunson has also lost to Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero, so he’s somewhat cemented outside of the top tier. To remain in the top 10 and perhaps earn another chance at a top fighter (the way he did against Souza), he needs to put Elias Theodorou down quick and hard.
Meanwhile, Theodorou is on one of the longer win streaks of his UFC career, and is theoretically on the brink of contention; while his performances have been uninspiring, Theodorou’s results have given him an opportunity at the #8 ranked contender. Derek Brunson could be Theodorou’s ticket to move into the top 10, and perhaps face a top 5.
Despite his unrefined approach, Derek Brunson’s success isn’t exactly a mystery; the American is one of the most prolific knockout-chasers in the division, which benefits greatly from his aggression and his athleticism. However, that reliance has caused him issues against truly elite fighters; Brunson lives and dies by aggression because he has very few actionable tools that aren’t “sprint forward and throw the left,” and against fighters who can consistently counterpunch him (Whittaker, Souza), his reckless aggression looks comically ineffective.
Without the skills to do anything on the outside, Brunson is locked into his most high-risk tendencies for better or worse; while those explosions can catch most fighters unaware and unprepared (which makes for a short night), the shallowness of Brunson’s striking toolbox has prevented him from making a real run despite his athleticism and despite a fine wrestling pedigree. In fights where Brunson feels uncomfortable rushing in, he’s unable to do much; his haste to wrestle Israel Adesanya showed his discomfort on the feet when the blitz wasn’t a high-percentage option, and that discomfort kept him from having any chance at taking Adesanya down (since he couldn’t strike without being exposed to counters, his shots were poorly concealed).
That said, effective counterpunching isn’t the issue that Brunson is likely to run into against Elias Theodorou, one of the clearest examples of a point-fighter at any division. Theodorou is a defined out-fighter who mostly plays a volume kicking game, and while he’s extremely laterally active, it would be remiss to call him a masterful ring general; Theodorou doesn’t have many tools to get away from the fence but to square up and skip out, and his utter lack of a counterpunching skillset means that fighters like Eryk Anders could pressure with impunity.
In fact, Theodorou is a fighter notable for his lack of boxing acumen in general; he can throw winging overhands to set up kicks, but past that, he doesn’t have any hurting blows, and he doesn’t have defense in the pocket either. In general, Theodorou relies on confusing opponents who can’t cut the cage, racking up points with noncommittal blows while hoping that his opponent can’t crowd him. It’s an effective approach that frustrates his opponents, and his success at the division belies the flawed nature of his style, but a crack at an elite-adjacent Brunson puts his skillset to a more dangerous test.
The nuances of this fight from a technical perspective are fairly difficult to appreciate, but it deserves mention as one of the starker juxtapositions in style that have come about in the UFC; an extremely athletic glass cannon who cannot calm down against a pointfighter who stays on the backfoot, constitutionally incapable of exhibiting any urgency. They almost seem made for each other; Brunson isn’t historically a good-enough pressurer to stand Theodorou in place and reliably land a shot, but Theodorou doesn’t have the counterpunching to make Brunson ever feel a need to stop bursting forward, so the fight may just be Brunson running face-first into the fence until he manages to land that one big shot.
Ultimately, Brunson’s athleticism and his power is something that Theodorou hasn’t faced before, and Elias had enough trouble with the one-note left of Eryk Anders that Brunson should probably be favored; that said, firmly believing in Brunson’s approach is done at one’s own peril.
Prediction: Brunson via KO1. This writer caps Brunson at -150.