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UFN 83 Toe to Toe Preview: Derek Brunson vs Roan Carneiro

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Two of middleweights unlikeliest contenders attempt to break into an upper tier which has suddenly broken wide open

Art by Phil Mackenzie
Art by Phil Mackenzie

Derek Brunson meets Roan Carneiro at middleweight in the co-main event of Fight Night: Cowboy vs Cowboy on February 21, 2016, at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

One sentence summary

David: 2008's long lost prospect meets 2015's long revealed overachiever.

Phil: The Big Dude attempts to grapple with the Angler Fish of generic middleweights

Stats

Derek Brunson 14-3

Odds: -400

Roan Carneiro 20-9

Odds +325

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: Brunson never caught the public eye in Strikeforce so needless to say, it was kind of shocking to see him fight so competently in the UFC. His lone loss is to Yoel Romero, and that was and is Romero's toughest fight to date. He's been kind of revelation, all things told. He was just unfortunate enough to get off on the wrong foot with that Leben fight.

Phil: He's been both cursed and blessed with anonymity. If he was more memorable, then people might still well be mad at him for the post-Leben celebration. However, there's also a limit to just how much you want to slide under the radar. Even in retrospect it's difficult to nail down when we realized that this dude is pretty good. I think it was the Larkin fight... maybe? Even that was corrupted by people getting angry for someone cleanly and conservatively shutting down a dangerous action fighter. Since then, he's looked like a lock for the top 10, including utterly housing the mid-tier fighters that we thought he belonged with.

David: Oh man. Carneiro is slowly turning into the fighter he's groomed to be by Frank Grillo's Greg Jackson facsimile in Warrior. Before his win over Mark Munoz, he was remembered by MMA historians as the harbinger of that dreaded "MMA jiu jitsu vs. pure jiu jitsu" debate in the dark corners of Sherdog.net. Here was this grappling ace getting submitted by fighters like Jon Fitch and Kevin Burns. I mean, what a bizarre career narrative. I can't think of anyone quite like him when it comes to historical storytelling. It's fitting that he has a SAG card.

Phil: So weird. It's like running Demian Maia's MMA career through the projector backwards and upside down. He starts at welterweight, has a pretty terrible job of actually submitting people, gets dummied by Fitch, then ends up at middleweight where he's suddenly looking far better.

What are the stakes?

David: So much higher than they were between these two men three years ago that I think we have to [Tyson]take our hand off to them[/Tyson] and credit them for finding themselves in a spot where there are stakes to begin with. To be fair, this isn't just some excuse to be amusing. Brunson potentially improving to 6-1 in the UFC with his lone loss coming to a contender in which he nearly knocked the massive Cuban out with a head kick would turn matchmaker heads. And Roan's story would be such a zig zag of events it's entirely possible he ends up fighting a real contender by accident. Stakes. They has ‘em.

Phil: A lot of the time in our previews the stakes are a little off-kilter- one fighter gains more than another with a win. This is a relatively rare one where the paths to the fight are asymmetrical but the actual outcomes are pretty balanced. Both guys get a jump into the upper part of a division where the effects of the injection of new blood from Strikeforce are draining away, leaving it increasingly anaemic.

Where do they want it?

David: Brunson's talents are in his ability to blanket opponents with activity. He's a talented wrestler. And it's possible that Joe Rogan will spin his roots in cheerleading into a fight functional asset the way soccer experience puts nitrous in your leg kicks.

But he's also a heavy handed striker who leaves very little space for opponents to operate. Yes, his takedowns are imposing. But they're imposing because within his grappling acumen is a cloud of facemelting punches and kicks.

Phil: Brunson is not a man with many frills to his game. Wait, strike that. He is completely frill-less. He has zero frill. He either punches into the clinch or tries to kick his opponent's head off with the left high kick. Why this works quite so well is because he has an excellent understanding of distance and disguises his entries with feints. His footwork is also rather good, using short and quick steps rather than the big, surging and inefficient strides which characterize practically every non-elite fighter. Add to this ironclad takedown defense and a constant barrage of elbows and short uppercuts in close and you have a really surprisingly dangerous fighter.

David: Carneiro is kind of throwback-lite kind of grappler. He quickly learned how to be efficient on the feet in order to be deadly on the ground, but never quite went beyond archetype. Like a lot of grapplers with good fundamentals, the longer he's on the ground, the more likely the inevitable submission. His overall vision on the ground isn't perfect (he's not lights out defensively), but he's great at finding small openings for the choke.

His striking is of the In and Out Burger variety. He'll enter the pocket aggressively, and exit the pocket passively like a lot of grapplers turned mixed martial artists still grapplers do.

Phil: His game is that old-school MMA grappling with a new-school twist. He's still dependent on the central tenets of body lock, clinch takedown and taking the back, but he's much more able to put together combinations on entries than he was prior, and he's much less likely to spaz out if faced with transitional ground and pound.

Insight from previous fights?

David: Brunson has some quick finishes in his last two outings. I'd expect him to continue testing his kickboxing strength against a fighter he can easily exploit. As interesting as I find Roan's story, I certainly can't in good confidence argue that he's turned a corner just because he quickly finished Mark Munoz.

Phil: The primary problem with Brunson's approach is that everything funnels into the clinch. This is one of those fights where, taken in a vacuum, one of the fighters "should" just be fighting from the outside, but everything about where he fights indicates that this is going to be in the phone booth.

X-Factors

David: Brunson can be his own worst enemy. His transitions could use some work and I think he gets tunnel vision in certain areas of the game. Other than that, not much to report. It's been awhile since Roan fought, so there's that.

Phil: He's also pretty old. Like Maia, though, it looks like he's finding a new lease on life in what should be his competitive twilight years. Still, 37 is 37.

Prognostication

David: Roan isn't taking Brunson down, so unless Carneiro has suddenly turned into a Stephen Thompson clone, a takedown into a rear naked choke just ain't happening. Derek Brunson by TKO, round 2.

Phil: Brunson will be engaging Carneiro in close, but his TDD has been uncrackable thus far, and he's got most of the key physical advantages. Add to this a skillset which is much better tuned for winning decisions, and Derek Brunson by unanimous decision.