Derek Brunson is little more than 24 hours away from his fight with Darren Till, where his career will hit a crossroad in Las Vegas.
In one direction, victory sends the American to the front of the queue for a shot at the middleweight championship. However, a loss leaves Brunson, at 37, staring into the abyss.
Yet, speaking exclusively to Sportsmail, Brunson is reflecting on another crossroads moment in his life, where he turned his back on a burgeoning cheerleading career to pursue wrestling – a decision that set him on his path to his UFC Fight Night 191 headliner against the Liverpudlian this weekend.
Derek Brunson, 37, is hours away from a crossroads moment in his storied UFC journey
‘I picked the wrong thing man,’ the UFC veteran chuckles. ‘With cheerleading, I used to hang around a ton of hot girls but now I got a ton of sweaty dudes so maybe I picked the wrong thing!
‘It was a lot of fun but still hard work because we did a lot of gymnastics and tossing girls up in the air and holding them up, stuff like that.
‘That was a part of my life but now I am out here sweating with dudes 24-7 in the practise room.’
Victory or defeat for Brunson (L) v Darren Till (R) could have huge ramifications on his journey
This 18-fight UFC veteran enters Saturday night’s contest somewhat overlooked. Brunson is well-remembered on these shores for engaging in – and coming out on the wrong side of – a bitter feud with Israel Adesanya.
A two-fight skid has been followed by a four-fight winning run, yet bookmakers have installed Till – who has one win from four fights – as favourite to triumph in Vegas.
Brunson has warned his doubters to write him off at their peril as he looks to finally convert a strong run into a title shot, having come up short on two occasions during his storied career.
But his life may have been different had he chosen cheerleading over wrestling as a youngster
Now, Brunson is one win away from putting himself in line for a rematch with Izzy Adesanya
‘My resume and what I’ve done has put myself in the title mix,’ he says. ‘I know Izzy [Adesanya] has been mentioning Till’s name as a guy he would like to fight, but make no mistake I am four in a row, a win over Till would be five in a row and that should say a lot in terms of getting that next title shot after Izzy and [Robert] Whittaker mix it up.
‘Each fight is an opportunity to keep the momentum going and work towards something big.
‘Ultimately, I haven’t got my title shot yet so that is what I am working towards and that is my goal ahead. In order to keep that alive I need to go out there and look good against Till.’
Brunson describes himself as an ‘IQ fighter’ who has plenty of weapons to his arsenal
Brunson, who describes himself as an ‘IQ fighter’ equipped to finish opponents on the floor and on the feet, is acutely aware of the threat that striker Till offers in Sin City.
‘[He poses] the same threat that everybody poses,’ Brunson adds. ‘Everybody is trying to get a knockout, everybody is trying to impress, everybody is trying to implement their game plan.
‘At this level, everybody has the same objective in mind. They want to look really good to get that title shot because being top five, top 10 you are right there, you are a win or two away from it.
‘Where I am at in my career I feel this is the best opportunity in front of me. Each fight is very important to ultimately get to where I want to and what I came here to do so every fight is important to me at this point.’
The stakes are high for the 37-year-old ahead of his ‘chess match’ with the Liverpudlian
TALE OF THE TAPE: DEREK BRUNSON VS. DARREN TILL
Weight: 185 pounds
Height: 6ft 1in
Weight: 185 pounds
Height: 6ft 0ins
Till will be making his first Octagon appearance in over a year this Saturday night and has vowed to put on a sensational show in Vegas, promising a first round knockout. Brunson, unmoved by Till’s bold claim, is excited at the prospect of a ‘chess match’ with the Englishman.
‘I predict myself getting the job done in an impressive way, getting a finish,’ he says. ‘Whether it is early, middle or late I feel we get the job done and get the finish.
‘I always think I can get the job done in the first round, he does too so we will see. It will be a chess match to see who can find the openings. I like his mindset.’
Ultimately, a rematch with arch-foe Adesanya is the goal. But for now, Brunson will be hoping to lead Till in a merry dance in Las Vegas this weekend, this time without the pompoms.