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UFC Fight Night: Robert Whittaker vs. Derek Brunson Toe to Toe Preview

Phil and David break down everything you need to know about a middleweight ‘Dark Horse Derby’ for the ages.

MMA: UFC 197-Whittaker vs Natal Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Middleweights keep our attention on the division’s hierarchy this November 27, 2016 at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.

One sentence summary

David: Four ounce baby gloves that do nothing but cover the knuckle are all that stand between Middleweight oblivion and Middleweight Contendership.

Phil: Dark horse derby, as two of the more underrated upcomers in the middleweight division get their unexpected chance to shine.


Record: Robert Whittaker 16-4 Derek Brunson 16-3

Odds: Robert Whittaker +125 Derek Brunson -135

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: I had pretty much written Whittaker off after losing to Court McGee as a Court McGee clone with an impending Court McGee future. Then Wonderboy knocked some sense into him (or out of him), and he’s been improving from project into prospect ever since. I’m still a little unimpressed by his decision over Rafael Natal, but only because Rafael Natal shouldn’t be on anyone’s dance card that is elite.

Phil: Robert Whittaker was the pleasant surprise of TUF Smashes, an otherwise broadly forgettable season of the Ultimate Fighter. Where the remaining contestants gradually set about filtering their way out of the UFC (I think a couple are still in there, just about), Whittaker not only won his season but went on to destroy Colton Smith, the eternally unpopular winner of one of the very worst seasons ever, in a minor upset. He had some troubles at welterweight, but has reinvented himself up a class at middleweight: a little undersized for the division, but lightning fast and with that crucial touch of accuracy enabled by fighting people a little bigger.

David: Brunson is riding high on what the hockey pocket protector crowd likes to call an unsustainable “PDO”: a stat that looks to nominally define ‘luck’ by combining shooting percentage with save percentage. Teams with high PDO are lucky teams since PDO is a stat that tends to regress to the mean. I mention this because I believe Brunson’s current history is a very dramatic symbol of his abilities. As the competition gets better, the violence will calm down a little. But for now we can all enjoy his unsustainable run of brain crushing phalange jazz.

Phil: Derek Brunson had a rough go of it for a while. Fan perceptions vacillated between "lol this guy got destroyed" for the Romero and Jacare fights, "man this guy is boring" for the Larkin fight (unfair) and "man this guy is boring AND annoying" when he beat Chris Leben and had the temerity to celebrate afterwards. Mostly a blue-collar style kept him under the radar a bit, but you know what's a good solution for that? Four straight brutal first-round knockouts. He has a weird preacher-man arrogance that I also kind of dig.

What’s at stake?

Phil: Where we at in the 185 title standings? Rockhold's been AKA'd with an injury, Weidman's out, Yoel likely has next sometime in 2017... not sure if anyone else is on the docket apart from Mousasi. So, that's likely where the winner of this one goes.

David: AKA’d? Is that we call hooking up with Demi Lovato? Oh so that’s what the AKA training memes were for? Got it. Like theories of dark matter, I’m not sure how ‘staky’ this fight is, but it’s obviously pertinent. You’re right though. A really unusual chain of events have opened quite the fight wormhole for one of these two to wiggle through. Especially the Yoel suspension. What the hell NYSAC? Was it really that gangster?

Where do they want it?

Phil: Brunson is a freight train. He's hugely physically strong, and rushes in behind a measuring jab with a thundering series of strikes or a thumping left leg or body kick. He's still a good wrestler and does an excellent job of constantly feinting level changes to keep his opponent from trying to counter on the way in. Once in the clinch, his massive physical strength is generally brought into play by forcing his opponent into the fence, where he works with head pressure to the jaw, uppercuts, and chain-wrestling. He's a crushing force on top, and has a better-than-advertised back take and rear-naked choke.

Increasingly the difference in Brunson's game appears to be that he has absolutely no fear of any of his opponents- he simply tries to crush them as quickly and effectively as possible. That's been working out really, really well.

David: So Brunson is athletic and explosive is what you’re telling me. Racist! But seriously, Brunson is going the Ellenberger route: high octane wrestlers with too much love for their punching power. Of course, there’s a dramatic difference between the two. Ellenberger was an athletic/explosive fighter packed with more ACTN3 proteins than brain cells. So he just folded like a lawn chair whenever he couldn’t pressure or intimidate. Nor did he seem to have the necessary self awareness to adjust when opponents weren’t intimidated. Brunson is a fixed version of Ellenberger: bone crunchingly powerful, but self aware. His fight mind understands that the power in his hands, and especially that left leg of his, are necessary for success. But not sufficient.

Phil: Whittaker has also been someone who's received a healthy dose of pure aggression in recent years. I'm not sure if it's been quite as beneficial for him as it was for Brunson, but that's just in part due to their physical capabilities. Brunson is very strong, Whittaker is extremely fast. He's much safer on the entry than Brunson, with his jab functioning as less of a measuring tool and more as a darting rapier to pierce his way inside. He has an excellent counter left hook.

However, he still suffers some issues with his defense once he gets in the pocket- willing to throw multi-strike combinations of a single connection and often retracts his hands low on the retreat. He can get away with it because he's tough and quick, and has extremely quick hips when it comes to defending takedowns. He's also an underrated kicker, more of a karate than an MT stylist in this phase, with quick, snapping head and leg kicks designed to draw opponents into boxing exchanges.

David: Whittaker is a case study in harnessing little details into practical efficiency. Before his output was a little stunted, and he had one good money punch: dat left hook. Over time, but fairly rapidly, he began to institute more setups into landing that left hook. Now all of those added strikes in support of his left hook breathe life into a set of boxing skills already founded on elite speed. Being able to ‘conceal the predictability’ of those money punches makes them that much more inevitable.

Insight from past fights?

Phil: Sam Alvey is an interesting example of how Brunson approaches, for example, a dangerous counterpuncher. Which is to say, exactly as he's approached every opponent of late. He feints just enough to throw the opponent off, then charges. Lorenz Larkin was fast enough to keep Brunson off him for a while, but looked absolutely exhausted after he locked up with Brunson's sheer brute power for a while.

David: When I watch Whittaker’s KO of Brad Tavares, Brunson’s stance kind of reminds me of Brads. Both stand straight up, which allows Whittaker to take those low angles when pressuring forward. Getting underneath his opponent with strikes and combinations could pay dividends if Brunson isn’t careful.


Phil: Not much. Australian jet-lag for Brunson? Think he's been in the country for a few days now.

David: Pressure in front of the home crowd? Just the usual gauntlet of keys to victory dribble.


Phil: I initially went for Whittaker to be able to counter Brunson on the way in, but I increasingly think that Brunson is just too physically powerful, and his timing has been getting better and better. Whittaker is a clean, technical fighter, but he's not and never has been unhittable. If Derek Brunson gets it done, it's likely pretty early, but I think for some reason that his long-dormant submission game will get some play on the ground. Derek Brunson by RNC, round 2.

David: I think the key here is that Brunson usually steps out when he’s in danger and Whittaker, while a good mover, doesn’t use movement itself to close distance on opponents. He’s a strike-move-strike boxer. The lack of first step movement is where Brunson avoids damage, and punishes him on the ground. Derek Brunson by Decision.