On Sept. 17, martial artist and UNCP alumnus Derek Brunson walked into UFC Fight Night 94 looking to make a statement.
After months of feuding with fellow middleweight Uriah Hall over social media, Brunson wanted nothing more than to knock his foe out cold in front of 5,624 fans in Hidalgo, Texas. It wouldn’t be an extraordinary feat for Brunson, who was riding a streak of three consecutive victories by knockout.
The 32-year-old had come a long way from his days as a Brave.
From 2002-2007, Brunson donned the black and gold as a member of the wrestling team. He led an accomplished career in Pembroke, picking up three NCAA region titles and 121 total victories.
During his time at UNCP, Brunson saw the program undergo major coaching changes. Among those altercations was the addition of current head coach Othello “O.T.” Johnson to the staff before his senior season.
“It was like any other program where a new staff has taken over,” Johnson said. “You have to get the new athletes to buy in, or get off.”
“Fortunately for us that year, Derek was one of the 14 kids that bought in.”
That group of 14 wrestlers proved to be the most resilient after the team started the year with over 90 athletes.
The new coaching staff helped Brunson discover his own untapped potential. The senior was able to compete at a higher level than he ever had before.
After graduating from UNCP with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Brunson’s transition to professional fighting did not come immediately. He started his post-college life working as an in-home therapist. However, the idea of a career in wrestling always stayed in the back of his mind.
“After my wrestling career I wanted to pursue the Olympic-style wrestling, so I got back into the gym,” Brunson told The Pine Needle. “I kind of just fell into the other martial arts, and here I am today.”
The adjustment from amateur to professional fighting required hard work and consistent improvement from Brunson. The former wrestler pushed himself to be able to succeed at the highest levels of competition.
“You go in there and think that because you’ve seen it on TV, or you might have boxed a couple times, that doesn’t qualify you to be an elite martial artist,” Johnson said. “There’s people who are doing it with the idea that this is their livelihood. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”
Brunson lived up to the high expectations and made an early impact in his career. He won his first nine professional bouts, with seven of those victories coming in the first round.
His achievements in the octagon earned Brunson some respect in the field of martial arts as while as at his alma mater. He is slated to be inducted into the UNCP Hall of Fame during homecoming week in October.
“When I got that call from [Athletic Director] Dick Christy, it was great,” Brunson said. “To go to a college and have a good career there and graduate with a degree and then do things after your career athletically, it puts a staple on that.”
Despite his busy schedule as a professional fighter, Brunson consistently finds time to reconnect with UNCP. He stays in contact with Johnson, and attended a couple of the team’s practices in recent years.
It all comes back to the philosophy that Johnson hopes the rising martial artist will continue to take to heart. Through all the success that the rising martial artist experiences, he knows to never forget where he came from.
“Four years at UNCP on the mat helped me transform into the guy I am right now,” Brunson said.
After ending his fight against Uriah Hall in under two minutes, Brunson raised his arm in victory for the 16th time in his professional career.
It helped satisfy Brunson’s thirst for victory, a desire that originated 14 years ago in Pembroke.
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