Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Next month, UFC 267 is scheduled to be headlined by 38-year-old light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz, defending his title against Glover Teixeira, who will be 42 come fight time. Both men have had extraordinary career renaissances long past the point that they were presumed to be finished as contenders. Blachowicz, who was 34 when he suffered a miserable loss to one-dimensional wrestler Patrick Cummins, has gone 9-1 since, including a thrilling knockout of Dominick Reyes to win the light heavyweight championship and handing middleweight champion Israel Adesanya his first loss. Most incredibly, he was an underdog for eight of those nine triumphs.
Teixeira's path hasn't been as impressive, but it might be even more unlikely. After being thoroughly dominated at the age of 38 by Corey Anderson, he has won five in a row. Not only was he an underdog or even money for all of them, but Glover came back from being very nearly knocked out in three of those contests, against Karl Roberson, Ion Cutelaba, and finally Thiago Santos.
However, those amazing resurgences can partially be attributed to having occurred at light heavyweight. Speed and reflexes aren't as vital and it's a very weak weight class for the UFC these days, especially after Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones moved up to heavyweight, and the departure of contenders Ryan Bader, Corey Anderson, and Anthony Johnson for Bellator MMA.
Is the Blachowicz-Teixeira title fight primarily a reflection on how bad UFC's light heavyweight division has become? Would such a pair of late-career comebacks even be possible at a lighter, more highly skilled and competitive weight class? This past weekend, Derek Brunson answered that question in very emphatic fashion.
At 34 years old, Brunson lost twice in a row by first-round knockout, to Ronaldo Souza and Adesanya. For a fighter who relied so much on his athleticism, his time as any kind of serious contender seemed to be over. Many wondered if he was washed up, period. Yet now at 37, he has won five fights in a row. One shouldn't underestimate the magnitude of his accomplishment. Not only was Brunson an underdog for all five of those victories — a huge one, against Edmen Shahbazyan — but he defeated several fighters that many believed would be his kryptonite. That includes myself, as I thought Darren Till, Brunson’s opponent at UFC Fight Night 191 last Saturday, was a horrible match-up and would crush Brunson.
How has Brunson consistently proven doubters like me wrong? The most obvious change is his fighting style. Up until a few years ago Brunson was an absolute berserker, blitzing forward like a man possessed, firing off huge left hands, and if that failed, clinching and wrestling like crazy for a takedown. Now, he has the exact opposite mindset. He is a calm martial artist, patiently waiting for the right opening to either strike or grapple.
Brunson’s changed approach did not yield immediate fruit. He was restrained against Adesanya, not rushing in, and it didn't work. The future middleweight kingpin was able to split Brunson’s guard, defend takedowns beautifully, and knock Brunson out. To the credit of Brunson and his team, they didn't immediately abandon the new approach after a setback. And while a change this late in a fighter's career might not work for everyone, it did for Brunson, who has consistently demonstrated good, smart decision making.
To some extent, this is a phenomenon I've described before, especially in the context of Teixeira. Older fighters with great longevity are able to compensate for their declining raw physical abilities with increased intelligence, maximizing their remaining skills to the limit. That certainly applies to Brunson.
However, he also did something else that accounts for his win-streak. Something even more difficult and unique. He added a brand-new skill that has made him a different fighter altogether. In his younger years, Brunson was similar to that mold of wrestler we looked at last week. He was a powerful, athletic grappler with a very deadly left cross. As he aged and MMA evolved, that was no longer the weapon it used to be.
Thus, Brunson developed a vital new skill. It used to be that Brunson was great at getting takedowns, but his top control was lacking. He would allow opponents to hip-escape and wall-walk with impunity, controlling neither their hips nor wrists. And if he took the back, his base would be unstable, often allowing opponents to simply stand up. All this was on display as recently as his victory against Elias Theodorou, the start of his five-fight winning streak, who got back up with ease each time. But over the past couple of years, Brunson has gone from having limited top control to having some of the best top control in the division. Additionally, his ground-and-pound is utterly vicious.
With this new weapon, Brunson has been able to make his wrestling far more devastating. He ripped Shahbazyan apart with ground-and-pound, stopping him in the third round. Against Kevin Holland, then a considerable favorite, and a very tricky fighter from the bottom with nifty submissions and sweeps, Brunson utterly neutralized him while beating him up for five rounds. And his best accomplishment yet was against Till, a fighter known for being terrific at getting up from takedowns. Brunson kept him grounded with tremendous hip pressure and smashed him with punches and elbows before tapping him with a rear-naked choke. Now, honesty compels me to note that Till was coming off knee surgery for a MCL tear, which did appear to limit his explosiveness from the bottom. But much of the credit must also go to Brunson.
Interestingly, Teixeira uses a very similar style nowadays to defeat his younger opponents. The difference is that Teixeira has always had good top control and a fantastic top game. Brunson, meanwhile, had to develop most of this when he was already 35!
Again, all this is a credit to Brunson as a martial artist, who has now done something unprecedented. He is easily a Top 10, possibly even Top 5 middleweight who is better than ever at the age of 37. Will we see an older top contender accomplish a similar feat at an even lighter weight class? Only time will tell!