WILMINGTON — Derek Brunson is relentless in his pursuit of becoming the best fighter in the world.
A 33-year-old Wilmington native and graduate of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Brunson continues his climb up the Ultimate Fighting Championship ladder in hopes of one day donning a championship belt around his waist.
It’s a drive that got him to the gym on Tuesday, just two days after his eighth UFC victory — a first-round knockout against Daniel Kelly in New Zealand on Saturday night.
Not even the 19-hour flight home could keep his passion dormant.
“You take it one fight at a time. If you’re not hurt or injured, stay in the gym and stay motivated,” Brunson told The Robesonian. “You always have to be looking at the bigger picture, training for the next fight, and preparing for the fight after that. You have to be looking at your legacy.”
Known for his speed and power, Brunson, the eighth-ranked fighter in the middleweight division, utilized another tool on Saturday night en route to snapping a two-fight losing streak — patience.
“I guess I’m a natural fighter at heart,” he said. “In reality, when you’re going out there, you have to take your time and ease into a fight. If you go out there and try to get it done fast, you have the best fighters in the world, you can’t just put guys away without setting it up. Going forward that will be my mindset. I know I can touch a guy one time and put him to sleep.”
Putting fighters “to sleep” with his devastating blows has become a trend throughout his career. It’s one that continued against Kelly.
In the second minute of the fight, after setting up Kelly, Brunson saw his opening. The southpaw threw a slight jab with his right hand, then landed a vicious left-hand strike that caught Kelly flush on the jaw. Kelly, who was previously 13-1, went down and Brunson landed a barrage of hammerfists to the downed fighter before the referee stopped the fight.
The official time of the win was 1:16 of the first round, Brunson’s fastest win since a 36-second TKO of Ed Herman in January 2015.
“I wanted to go out and get it done and make a statement,” said Brunson, who has the most first-round stoppage wins (6) in UFC middleweight history.
“This guy (Kelly) beat (former middleweight champion) Rashad Evans and a lot of young guys. He’s a four-time Olympic athlete. A lot of people wanted to sleep on that guy, but I knew I wanted to go out and handle my business.”
And he was aware of the stakes, as well as the record of claiming a sixth first-round stoppage win.
“It felt good. That’s something that no one can take away from you. So when you go out there and get it done, setting records, that’s a pretty big deal.”
Brunson’s eight UFC wins since 2012 are tied for the most in the middleweight division. He moved to the verge of a title shot with a five-fight winning streak, including four straight first-round knockouts from 2014 to 2016.
The streak was snapped in a TKO loss to Robert Whittaker — who is fighting in July for the interim title — in Australia last November. That was followed by a controversial judges’ decision loss to MMA legend Anderson Silva in February.
The setback against Silva proved to be a nice setup for the bounce-back victory.
“I didn’t learn much from it,” Brunson said of the Silva fight. “I gave my best. … I definitely won.”
UNCP wrestling coach Othello “O.T.” Johnson coached Brunson — a member of the UNCP athletics hall of fame — during his senior season.
And he noticed a key difference in Brunson’s fighting approach against Kelly in the Octagon.
“I think (Derek) has kind of said in interviews that he’s been kicking himself for a lack of patience,” Johnson said. “I think he needs to be more patient. The same patience that he had in this fight needs to carry over into his next fight. I think that’s the biggest thing. Yeah, he’s 33 years old, but he needs to be patient as he climbs up the ladder.”
And Johnson has no doubts about Brunson’s ability to scale the UFC mountain.
“He’s got a high ceiling. He can outlast anybody in that division. At the end of the day Derek is still fighting after two tough losses. He got robbed (against Silva). If Derek is patient and continues to grow as athlete and fighter, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him fighting for the title in the next six to 12 months. He’s that raw of an athlete and he can take what he’s taught and apply it.”
The constant drive to improve is something Brunson learned during his standout college career as a wrestler with the Braves. A three-time all-American at UNCP, Brunson racked up 121 career victories from 2002-07, claiming three NCAA region titles and four trips to the NCAA Division II National Championships.
“I’m a hard worker,” he said. “I got my start at UNCP. I had a couple of D-I offers, but I chose UNCP.”
Johnson hopes Brunson’s attitude rubs off on his current and future wrestlers in Pembroke.
“You can expect a Derek Brunson to come through our program in the next couple of years. Having a guy like him, who is not just fighting but is successful at it, is huge and it lets kids know once you compete and get your degree, there are always opportunities to pursue fighting and be good at it. It’s helped our program immensely and it’s a great recruiting tool.”
As he continues to draw the attention of the nation’s UFC fans, Brunson hasn’t forgot about his home state and the people who continue to show him love. It’s a movement he hopes will continue to grow throughout North Carolina.
“It’s good to have all of the support. I want to urge the people to keep up with the local guys — follow them on social media. The companies want to see who is representing. I’m representing for North Carolina, Pembroke and Wilmington. I want everyone to stay current with my career.”
As for his next challenge, Brunson has two fighters in mind at the moment.
“Antonio Carlos Junior called me out last week. … he could be next.”
Carlos Junior, the winner of “The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 3,” has a 4-2 record since his reality show win.
Gegard Mousasi, the No. 4 fighter in the latest middleweight rankings, is also a possibility. Brunson reached out to Mousasi via Twitter on Tuesday. One of the top middleweight contenders, Mousasi is on a five-fight win streak with victories over former UFC champions Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort.
“This sport is about money and that (fight) can put me in the mix for a title fight,” Brunson said. “I want to advance my career. … Don’t sleep on me. I’m here and I’m ready to do work at any time.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.