Derek Brunson

“Three and 0 baby!” shouted Derek Brunson. “Three and 0!” The 36-year-old had just picked up the 15th finish of his career, upsetting Edmen Shahbazyan on Saturday in Vegas, and heralded his undefeated run of form since moving to Sanford MMA in Florida. He stomped around the Octagon in celebration. He had an aura around him. He wore a look of determination in his eyes.

Indeed, training with Henri Hooft has drawn a new level of intensity and composure out of Brunson. The Wilmington native chained his wrestling and boxing together beautifully at the weekend in his fourth UFC main event, finishing the job in round three with measured punches around the guard from back mount. That followed a similarly intelligent performance against Ian Heinisch last August, when Brunson jabbed and moved to leave the judges in no doubt that he was the victor.

With a verdict over Elias Theodorou also in the books while at his new gym, Brunson looks well at home at Sanford MMA. After all, Hooft has soared in 2020, masterminding a string of victories for Vicente Luque, Gilbert Burns and welterweight titlist Kamaru Usman. His teaching and knowledge have turned Brunson into a slicker all-rounder whose punches flow so smoothly around his shoots from distance.

Whenever Brunson drove for Shahbazyan’s ankles, thighs, or mid-riff, completing the takedown on four from eight attempts, he disrupted his rival’s rhythm by coming back up with looping punches over the top and debilitating blows to the ribs. Once he worked to earn half guard in the second round, his most dominant period, he bounced Shahbyazyan’s dome off the canvas with elbows and forearm smashes.

That efficiency and poise he has shown under Sanford MMA is a far cry from his toils in 2018, as he suffered a pair of first-round beatings at the fists of Israel Adesanya and Rolando “Jacare” Souza. Back then, against Adesanya in particular, Brunson looked too wired-up, too eager to shoot for a takedown in desperation. There was none of the linking together of attacks or sky-high fight IQ which the American has built his latest streak on.

Maybe his defeats contributed to Brunson standing as a +300 underdog with some oddsmakers on Saturday. He admitted to avoiding social media in the lead-up to UFC Vegas 5 as fans waded in, stating he’d get knocked out by the 22-year-old contender, proclaiming he was just cannon fodder for another surging prospect. Of course, Shahbazyan led as a -360 frontrunner. He had just carved through Brad Tavares in November, darting in with a head kick behind a jab, and was hailed as the next big thing to revive coach Edmond Taverdyan’s reputation.

In the end, once Brunson had survived body attacks at range and discovered that he could take his man down, impressively slamming his opponent in round one with a cast-iron grip around the backside, the southpaw honed in with varied ground-and-pound, posturing up magnificently, going to the well with crushing elbows which sliced up Shahbazyan’s right eyebrow towards the end of round two. The youngster survived a doctor’s inspection in his corner but succumbed to a finishing assault after only 26 seconds of round three.

Shahbazyan joins fresh-faced prospects Maycee Barber and Sage Northcutt in losing an undefeated record while still in his early twenties, but this isn’t the end for Taverdyan’s latest project. We should remember how this young man doesn’t drink, doesn’t party, and lives for becoming a better fighter at Glendale Fighting Club in Glendale, California. Maybe next he could fight Marvin Vettori, the Italian submission specialist. Who knows? Perhaps Jacare Souza could be next, given the Brazilian’s downturn in form.

In any event, Brunson’s 12th win in the UFC brings him further up the rankings and closer to a title shot. We’ve already seen Robert Whittaker outpoint Darren Till by switching up single-leg attempts and overhand punches, so maybe Brunson could acquire similar results against the Liverpudlian. Yoel Romero or Kelvin Gastelum would be worthwhile opponents too.

Brunson may have already lost to the likes of Adesanya, Souza, Romero, and Whittaker but since stepping through the doors of Sanford MMA, he’s broken the cycle, disposing of Shahbazyan and tearing up his status as a gatekeeper to those looking for a way up. There was no post-fight bonus for Brunson in Vegas, reinforcing the narrative that he’s overlooked and underrated, but with Hooft at the helm he’s building a body of work to be reckoned with and one that looks set to continue.

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