Analysis and Picks – UFC Melbourne: Whittaker vs. Brunson

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For the second time in the history of the UFC, the Octagon will return to Melbourne, Australia this Saturday night as UFC Fight Night 101 goes down at the Rod Laver Arena.

On paper this card is very low in terms of high-level quality from the co-main event down with a lot of local Australian talent but not much to whet the appetite of the international viewer.

Initially, a tremendous middleweight contender match-up between former Strikeforce champions Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza was scheduled to headline the event but when Rockhold injured his ACL both men were removed from the card. Filling in for them will be another pair of middleweights as the in-form duo of Robert Whittaker and Derek Brunson throw down.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand but a long-time Australia resident, Whittaker will enter the arena this weekend as a big fan favourite. Now twenty fights deep as a professional, Whittaker’s career got started way back in 2009. Over the next three years he fought eleven times, losing twice and winning inside the distance on nine occasions, with names like Richard Walsh and Benny Alloway on hitlist.

That run earned Whittaker a spot as a welterweight in “The Ultimate Fighter: Smashes” reality show which he took with both hands. In the finale he defeated English counterpart Bradley Scott before going on to defeat American TUF winner Colton Smith next time out. A close decision loss to Court McGee followed that but it was a first round knockout to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson which saw Whittaker move up to middleweight.

Since the move he has been unflappable inside the Octagon with five big wins in a row over Mike Rhodes, Clint Hester, Brad Tavares, Uriah Hall and Rafael Natal.

Now placed at number 7 by the highly qualified UFC media rankings panel, Whittaker will take on the 8th ranked middleweight when he meets Derek Brunson.

Born, and still fighting out of, Wilmington, North Carolina, Brunson was always destined for great things. A stand-out high school wrestler, Brunson went on to become a 3-time All-American with his local college before transitioning over to MMA.

In his first six fights, Brunson remained undefeated with first round finishes coming on every outing. That run earned him a contract with Strikeforce where he went on to win three more in a row.

The first loss of his career came to former TUF winner Kendall Grove and like London busses was followed immediately by a second one when he came up against the aforementioned Jacare Souza. Nevertheless, Brunson was brought over to the UFC after the Strikeforce buyout and has looked very good since.

Now 7-1 in the UFC with his only defeat coming against number one contender Yoel Romero, Brunson has names like Chris Leben, Uriah Hall, Roan Carneiro and Lorenz Larkin all on his win column.

As a styles match-up this one has all the makings of an epic battle.

In their nature, both men like to take the centre of the Octagon and attack from a range in which they are comfortable.

For Brunson, that’s just outside of the pocket in a range where his plodding, pot-shotting game can be very useful. Although he’s never going to beat you with foot-speed or output, Brunson has a canny knack of closing the distance at the right time. And at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. His leg kicks after very good and his jab isn’t bad but, as a southpaw, it’s his big power left hand that is his game changer. While his wresting is a very good secondary weapon too when he needs it.

Whittaker, on the other hand, likes to fight in a much more active fashion. Although he prefers to also push his opponent to the back-foot, Whittaker likes to do it more with a large number of strikes rather than with the fear of landing one big shot. Over the years he has developed a very good jab which starts everything for him. Behind that Whittaker throws leg kicks at a high output while his combination striking, both on attack and countering, is extremely good. Also improved is his takedown defence which makes him a tough match for anyone.

For me, this one is all about who can take the centre of the Octagon. That goes especially for Brunson who will be in a very uncomfortable position when he can’t really win the speed battle and where it’s hard to get a takedown. Whittaker would be a little better from there due to his speed and footwork but would still be in a precarious position.

If I was to hazard a guess, I’d probably favour Whittaker to avoid some early bombs and get himself on the front foot. If he can’t, he’ll probably get KOd eventually, but if he can, I think his output and flashy combinations will get him a late stoppage win.

Outside of that, watch out for tough battles like Dan Kelly vs. Chris Camozzi and Kyle Noke vs. Omari Akhmedov while the most interesting fighters on this card, for me, are Ben Nguyen and Jake Matthews who, despite some setbacks, are very good prospects worth keeping an eye on.

FIGHT PICKS

Robert Whittaker vs. Derek Brunson – Whittaker’s speed and output get him the win
Jake Matthews vs. Andrew Holbrook – Matthews
Kyle Noke vs. Omari Akhmedov – Noke
Yusuke Kasuya vs. Alex Volkanovski – Kasuya
Tyson Pedro vs. Khalil Rountree – Rountree
Seo Hee Ham vs. Danielle Taylor – Ham

Dan Kelly vs. Chris Camozzi – Camozzi
Damien Brown vs. Jon Tuck – Brown
Richard Walsh vs. Jonathan Meunier – Meunier
Ben Nguyen vs. Geane Herrera – Nguyen

Dan Hooker vs. Jason Knight – Hooker
Marlon Vera vs. Ning Guangyou – Guangyou
Yao Zhikui vs. Jenel Lausa – Zhikui

BET OF THE WEEK

Nguyen to win at 11/10

START TIMES

Early Prelims – 11.30pm on Fight Pass

Prelims – 1am on BT Sport & Fight Pass

Main Card – 3am on BT Sport

Podcaster, lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Sunday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Also write for Sherdog. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma