UFC fighter trains in Wilmington’s Independence Mall

Austin Chandler, Contributing Writer

It’s not every day that you stumble upon athletes training in mixed martial arts while shopping in Wilmington. At Independence Mall, it’s common day occurrence. Since its birth in April 2017, Brunson’s MMA and Fitness has become an intriguing spectacle for any Wilmington mall-shoppers that pass by.

Brunson’s MMA and Fitness was founded by Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight Derek Brunson. Brunson was born and raised in Wilmington and attended John T. Hoggard High School. The professional fighter’s first experience with sports came in the seventh grade when he was introduced to cheerleading by his cousins.

Brunson competed in cheerleading from the seventh grade until he graduated from high school, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he got involved in other sports like football, track and wrestling. However, it was cheerleading that developed the physical strength needed to compete in the UFC.

“Our main thing was tumbling, like gymnastics, flips and stuff like that. That’s where we were an asset to the team,” Brunson said. “Eventually we started stunting, which is tossing girls in the air, and funny enough, the tumbling helps develop your core, and tossing girls in the air helps develop your chest, so when I got into the other sports my upper body was super strong.”

Brunson turned down scholarships in other sports to attend the UNC Pembroke on a wrestling scholarship. Brunson graduated as a three-time all American wrestler but didn’t think a professional fighter was a career option until after he left UNCP.

“After college, I had a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and I was working as a case manager. After that, I got into working out to pursue Olympic style wrestling and I fell into a gym that had amateur fighters,” said Brunson. “I started training with them, had my first amateur fight, and went pro a little after.”

Brunson has made a name for himself in the world of fighting with a professional record of 18-7 (9-5 UFC) which includes a notable win over former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Loyoto Machida. Brunson’s success has given him the opportunity to provide Wilmington athletes with a resource that he did not have while growing up.

“I wanted to build something here, and give kids the opportunity to do what I did,” Brunson said. “To get to the UFC and fulfill their goals.”

Since its birth in 1993, the UFC has been the catalyst for mixed martial arts’ emergence as a mainstream sport. As it continues to gain popularity, more children will be getting involved in the sport and at young ages.

“We have a lot of kids training right now from 12 to 15 years old and they are in here every day working hard,” Brunson said. “I also have guys in their 20’s that are about to go pro, trying to find their way in the sport.”

Brunson’s MMA and Fitness provides kids and adults alike with a head start against their peers who don’t have the privilege of learning from someone with Brunson’s level of experience and knowledge.

“I didn’t have what I’m able to give to others… as far as somebody who has been there and done that,” Brunson said. “I figured I would start it now, get a crop of guys, start them young, build them up, and get them ready for the next generation.”

Brunson back to back losses to UFC fighters Ronaldo Souza and Israel Adesanya, but at 35-years-old, his fighting career is far from over.

“It’s funny because it’s not the wins that I look back at, it’s the losses. Each one served a purpose and each one was a different let down that showed me what I need to work on,” Brunson said. “Looking forward, I can say I took a lot of things out of my losses that will propel me to do better in the future.”

Brunson is not scheduled to fight but hopes to reenter the Octagon a couple months from now. Until then, Brunson plans to continue training himself and others at his gym in Independence Mall, where you can expect to find groups of intrigued shoppers gathered outside, admiring what a hometown kid is providing for his community.