Fighting the Good Fight

UFC fighter and Hoggard High alum Derek Brunson brings MMA home

BY Amanda Lisk

Fight scene from the April 2023 Ultimate Battle Grounds MMA event, Wilmington. Steve McMillan
Fight scene from the April 2023 Ultimate Battle Grounds MMA event, Wilmington. Steve McMillan

Derek Brunson stands inside the caged ring at the Ogden YMCA Activity Center, giving final instructions to fighters who are about to battle it out. The April 2023 event was an Ultimate Battle Grounds MMA (mixed martial arts) tournament.

“Martial arts is about respect and discipline. It provides structure and confidence,” says Brunson, No. 9 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight world rankings and a Hoggard High School alum.

Brunson began with wrestling at Hoggard, and received a wrestling scholarship to UNC Pembroke. After college he began competing in the UFC, the MMA promotional company headquartered in Las Vegas. Brunson is ranked among the top 10 middleweight MMA fighters in the world.

“The fights air on ESPN. I fight all over the world — Australia, Brazil, New Zealand — and then I’m here nine months out of the year,” says Brunson.

Ultimate Battle Grounds is Brunson’s brand. The tournament is typically held in South Carolina but returned to Wilmington for the first time in several years following the recent lifting of MMA restrictions in North Carolina.

After competing earlier in the day, 8-year-old Ava Ramirez was on the front row watching two fighters punch, kick and wrestle for several rounds.

“I do jiu-jitsu. You can’t punch or kick in jiu-jitsu, you have to look for a takedown,” she explains. “Coach Gus [Morelli] taught me.”

Ava attends James B. Dudley Academy in Wilmington, where martial arts is incorporated into the curriculum. 

They do it every day, it’s helped a lot with her confidence,” says Ava’s mom, Zoe Ramirez.

Martial arts instruction was added to the school’s core classes by executive director Kwabene Williams. Coaches are trained by Brunson.

“We are fortunate to be able to offer it during the school day,” says Williams, who holds a blue belt in jiu-jitsu and is part of Brunson’s competition team. “For the students to have something they look forward to each day really goes a long way academically. It translates directly into the classroom.”

Williams fought at the Ultimate Battle Grounds tournament, as did many Dudley Academy students.

“They get a chance to compete at events like this, thanks to Derek,” Williams says. 

Dudley Academy art teacher Pirin Morelli also says jiu-jitsu benefits students’ academic performance.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids on the (autism) spectrum or kids having problems just learning come to jiu-jitsu and be able to take in these instructions and then apply it to school,” Morelli says. “When you learn something on the mat and then you apply it, you can see ‘Oh wow that works, let me try this in school.’”

Morelli’s 16-year-old son Gus, known as “Coach Gus” at Dudley Academy, holds a blue belt in jiu-jitsu and is a Pan-American champion. He’s been competing since he was young.

“It gave him a lot of confidence growing up,” says Morelli.

Pirin Morelli is a cardio kickboxing instructor at Brunson’s gym and is taking jiu-jitsu for the first time. 

“It’s really fun learning something new,” Morelli says.

MMA opportunities are increasing nationwide. In Wilmington, more Ultimate Battle Grounds events are in the works.

“This is a growing sport and the opportunities for kids learning this now are a hundredfold compared to what was available before,” says Williams.

Brunson’s gym teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, wrestling and self-defense.

“I was born and raised here. I enjoy being able to build something back where I’m from,” says Brunson.

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