Professional mixed martial artist Derek Brunson not only competes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but also teaches the tools of success to the next generation at Brunson’s MMA & Fitness in Wilmington.
If you have found yourself strolling around Independence Mall in Wilmington, you may have noticed Brunson’s MMA & Fitness next to JC Penney. If you walk inside, you will see any number of different martial arts classes on display. That is exactly how owner Derek Brunson wanted his first business to be — easily accessible for the public, especially children. After watching a class, I sat down with Brunson and listened to the story of how he became an MMA sensation and then started his store.
Born and raised in Wilmington, Brunson played football, basketball and baseball in his youth. He also loved to watch professional sports. He grew up a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs and then the Carolina Panthers. He also watched a lot of professional boxing.
“My childhood sports hero was ‘Iron Mike’ Tyson, the youngest boxer to ever win a heavyweight title,” he says.
In the seventh grade, Brunson became a cheerleader and continued cheering through his senior year at J.T. Hoggard High School.
“Cheerleading helped me to become a better athlete,” he says. “I learned that hard work will pay off. And it gave me the attitude from then on that I always expect to win.”
And win he did! Brunson was on a cheerleading team that qualified for the national cheerleading tournament (televised on ESPN) all six years he cheered. They finished in first place every year but one.
It wasn’t until his senior year that some friends suggested he should join the school wrestling team. He decided to give it a try.
“I lost my first seven matches,” he says. “But every match I learned something new and improved quickly.”
Brunson went on to win 50 matches and placed third in the state!
“When I started wrestling, people kept asking me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I told them all that I just enjoyed the competition,” he says.
When he graduated from high school, Brunson was offered a scholarship in cheerleading and in wrestling at the University of North Carolina Pembroke (UNCP). He decided to focus all his energy on wrestling at UNCP.
Brunson attributes his success in his younger years to positive reinforcement.
“You know, there were always opportunities to get into trouble growing up,” he says. “I remember in the eighth grade there was a volunteer mentoring program. If we had a good week and didn’t get into trouble, then the mentor would bring us lunch and eat with us. The positive reinforcement and extra support made a big difference in getting my act together.”
Once in college, Brunson continued to excel at wrestling. He finished with 121 victories, went on to three NCAA regional wrestling titles and made four appearances at the NCAA Division II National Championships. He was named Division II All-American wrestler three times and inducted into the UNCP Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
That’s quite a story for a man who only began wrestling in his senior year of high school. Turns out, this was only the beginning of his story.
Three years after graduating from college, in 2010, Brunson made his professional fighting debut in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). This combat sport incorporates techniques from boxing, wrestling, judo, karate and several other disciplines. He won his first fight in under a minute, and then went on to win his next five matches — all in the first round! This immediate success got him noticed, and he took advantage of it. Two years later, he made his UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) debut in a match in which he was a heavy underdog, but won a unanimous decision because of his superior wrestling ability.
Since then, Brunson has totaled more than 20 wins and ranked as high as number 7 in the UFC middleweight rankings.
He has had matches all over the United States and also in Australia, Canada, Brazil and New Zealand, and the traveling has been fun.
“New York City stands out simply because the scenery and energy made it so much fun,” he says. “I also loved Colorado and New Mexico because I love to snowboard.”
Nowadays, Brunson leads a busy life. Besides running his own business, he has four children whom he is very active in raising. And he is training as hard as ever for his next match. He says the gym is more than a hobby for him.
“After seeing how important it was for me to have a good mentor as a child, I decided as an adult that I wanted to be a good role model,” he says. “And I had always wanted to have my own gym. This way I get the opportunity to connect with so many kids and adults. I want them to see that if they are willing to put in the hard work and time into their craft, they can achieve things they never thought they could.”
The next time you get by the mall, stop in and say hello to Derek Brunson. Maybe you could watch a class. And wish him luck for his next match. We are looking forward to seeing what the next chapter brings for him!
Want to go?
Brunson’s MMA & Fitness
3500 Oleander Drive, Wilmington