Octagon jitters—it’s an infamous term. The first time a fighter steps into the UFC’s eight-sided cage, there will always be talk of whether the emotional rush and the nerves surrounding his debut will have a profound impact on his performance.

Pundits and fans making predictions on fights will cite the jitters as a reason to doubt a fighter’s chances. And in the aftermath of a defeat, these same jitters will take part of the blame for the fighter’s downfall.

So, following each UFC event, The MMA Corner will look at the fighters who made their Octagon debuts and provide impressions on their performances and their future potential under the UFC banner. In this edition, we focus on the lone newcomer from UFC 155.

Derek Brunson — unanimous decision victory over Chris Leben

Derek Brunson has already seen the big stage of Strikeforce, but even that can’t always prepare a fighter for his first experience inside the Octagon. Brunson’s adrenaline dump was more like a jump off a cliff. The 28-year-old fighter displayed an impressive all-around game in the first round, only to taper off in the following frames.

Had this fight come against a less rusty fighter, and had Brunson not already shown a trend for losing against name opponents, then this Jackson’s MMA prospect might have a better future outlook, but that was not the case. Brunson’s move from Strikeforce to the UFC came more out of necessity than anything. Leben’s original foe, Karlos Vemola, was forced to withdraw from the fight with an injury, and Brunson served as a late short-notice replacement. If not for that scenario, it’s hard to see the UFC’s reasons for bringing a fighter into the fold when that fighter is already on a two-fight skid.

In the opening frame, Brunson did a fair job of dominating Leben. He used his overwhelming reach advantage to stay on the outside until shooting in for the takedown. Once on the mat, Brunson was competent in escaping Leben’s submission attempts from the bottom position. He also showed an ability to control Leben, maintaining top position and looking for submissions of his own. It was a round that made Brunson look like a future force to be reckoned with in the middleweight division.

Unfortunately for the three-time NCAA Division II All-American, he couldn’t keep it up through three full rounds. His wrestling pedigree still allowed him to score takedowns despite his own fatigue, but he could do little to follow up on those takedowns. In addition, Brunson only won two rounds on the judges’ scorecards, with Leben surging in the final frame in an unsuccessful attempt to score a stoppage.

The big issue for Brunson in this fight was obviously his gas tank. It was running on fumes by the beginning of the second stanza and had gone completely dry by the third frame. This wasn’t so much a win for Brunson as it was a matter of timing. Had he fought a Leben who had not been away from the cage for an extended length of time, it’s quite likely that the verdict would have gone the other way, or that Leben would have knocked Brunson’s head clear off his shoulders. However, Leben’s punches were thrown with the speed of a turtle.

Brunson’s win didn’t gain him a fan in UFC President Dana White, who has admitted his mistake at putting the bout on the pay-per-view portion of the card. White also criticized Brunson for looking at the clock way too often instead of focusing on finishing the fight. At this point, Brunson’s career in the UFC is hard to justify. He won the fight, so he’ll likely receive another opportunity, lest he become one of the rare fighters to win in the Octagon and be awarded with a pink slip. But this is a fighter who is living off of his 2011 run in Strikeforce, where he notched three straight wins, including a first-round submission of Lumumba Sayers and a decision over Nate James. The year 2012 has not been as kind to Brunson, who suffered a lightning-fast knockout loss to submission specialist Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and came out on the wrong end of a split decision versus Kendall Grove.

Brunson definitely has the potential to become a star in the UFC. His athleticism and wrestling prowess were on display in the opening round, and he combined that with excellent positional control and submission defense. Yet, one has to wonder if even that part of his game would have looked so great, even in the opening five minutes, against a more combat-ready opponent. Given his losses to Jacare and Grove, plus his performance in defeating Leben, it’s likely that Brunson will find himself on the Facebook prelims of a future card in another losing effort, maybe against an up-and-coming debuting fighter. Unless he can put together his talents and his cardio, there’s little hope of him extending his UFC stay beyond that one additional fight.

Potential: Low

Photo: Derek Brunson (R) gets emotional after his victory over Chris Leben at UFC 155 (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

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