The Ultimate Fighting Championship will further flesh out its middleweight division, as Robert Whittaker meets Derek Brunson in the UFC Fight Night 101 main event on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia. They will fill the hole left by the original headliner: a rematch between Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo Souza that was called off when the former suffered an injury while training.
The rest of the 13-fight card features a lightweight clash pitting Jake Matthews against Andrew Holbrook, a middleweight tilt pairing Daniel Kelly with Chris Camozzi, a welterweight affair slotting Kyle Noke opposite Omari Akhmedov and a featherweight encounter matching Yusuke Kasuya with Alex Volkanovski.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC Fight Night “Whittaker vs. Brunson” matchup, with analysis and picks:
MiddleweightsRobert Whittaker (16-4) vs. Derek Brunson (16-3)
THE MATCHUP: Brunson is something like lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, in that he is a powerhouse grappler with seriously powerful ground-and-pound. The key differences: Brunson, while he is still most vulnerable on the feet, has a more varied striking style than the Dagestani brute, with a full complement of kicks and unpredictable southpaw strikes. Of course, he is nowhere near the takedown artist Nurmagomedov is, but he possesses overwhelming physical strength and has a real knack for finding shots in the clinch and in transitions.
Like his Eastern European counterpart, however, those moments of openness on the feet are a real risk for Brunson. He is reliant on lunging power shots which when done well can either knock out the opponent out -- i.e. Uriah Hall -- or create an opportunity to take him down -- i.e. Yoel Romero. Against a dangerous counterstriker, however, Brunson’s habit of flying into the pocket with his chin high could very well lead to a sudden, violent knockout. It is worth noting that Brunson has embraced the role of knockout artist lately, having notched a first-round finish in his last four fights. I doubt, however, that he will take the same approach against Whittaker, who is easily the best all-round striker Brunson has faced in years.
Whittaker is an excellent striker. He has gone away a bit from his textbook boxing since his middleweight debut, preferring more unorthodox combinations and a greater volume of wide power shots. Embracing his power has worked well for him, and it is a credit to his punching that Whittaker has continued hurting and knocking out opponents at the higher weight. It also means, however, that he is more defensively vulnerable and could end up lunging just as much as Brunson, especially against a southpaw.
One has to wonder how effectively Whittaker can stop takedowns from a powerful middleweight wrestler. The best wrestlers he has faced since moving up to 185 pounds have been Brad Tavares -- he was separated from consciousness less than a minute into the bout -- and Rafael Natal, who completes only 34 percent of the takedowns he attempts. Whittaker was an effective counter wrestler at welterweight, and his technique has never looked poor at middleweight. With that said, Brunson brings a combination of power, tenacity and technique that Whittaker has never seen before.
THE PICK: For Brunson, lunging in from long range means the risk of a knockout; for Whittaker, the same habit means the risk of a fight-changing takedown. Brunson may be vulnerable, but he has never been easy to put away, and I have yet to see an opponent easily stuff his takedowns. Even Romero’s butt met the canvas three times when he fought Brunson in 2014. I think the likeliest outcomes in this fight are a relatively early knockout for Whittaker or a late, attritive stoppage for Brunson. I favor the latter. The pick is Brunson by fourth-round TKO.
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