Derek Brunson has yet to lose, and that's the way he likes it.

Tonight, the middleweight steps into the cage for the ninth time in his young career, taking on seasoned American Kickboxing Academy export Nate James on the main card of Strikeforce Challengers 20 from the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

Following a first-round finish of Lumumba Sayers on July 30, Brunson now finds James standing in the way of upholding that perfect career mark. Though the 22-fight veteran holds an obvious edge in experience, Brunson is not yet ready to declare James his toughest opponent to date.

“The guy has a lot of experience, but toughest fight? I fought pretty tough guys coming up,” Brunson told Sherdog.com on Thursday night. “My first two or three fights weren't that tough, but after that, the guys were pretty solid and had a lot of fights. I don't know [if James will be the toughest]. We'll see what happens.”

A three-time Division II All-American wrestler at The University of Carolina at Pembroke, Brunson began his mixed martial arts career as a way to quench his thirst to compete after graduation.

“After working for three years after college, I had the urge to compete again,” Brunson said. “That was my main reason for training MMA. Initially, I was going to do wrestling again. I started working out at a gym that had a couple of amateur fighters, and they told me I should do MMA.”

Brunson currently holds an 8-0 professional record and has earned seven finishes along the way. Blowing through his first four opponents in less than four minutes combined, the 27-year-old was introduced to his eventual manager, Ali Aziz, following a 14-second victory one year ago in Providence, Rhode Island.

Two fights later, Brunson called Aziz and the pair formed their business relationship. Not long after, the fighter began training at Jackson’s MMA, one of the sport's most revered camps. Currently, Brunson conducts the majority of his training in Albuquerque, N.M., though he has made two short trips to New York to train with Team Renzo Gracie as well.

“It's been real good working with those guys [at Jackson's MMA],” Brunson said. “Greg gives me a lot of personal time. I learn a lot, and I can add a lot of tools to my game. Mike Winkeljohn, of course, he's the striking coach, so I do a lot of pad work [with him].”

Prior to this summer, Brunson looked as though he might never see a second round as he continued to rip through his competition. That changed upon making his Strikeforce debut on June 24.

Taking on a game Jeremy Hamilton, Brunson came out like a house afire and appeared to be in for another first-round finish. However, Hamilton weathered the early storm, and Brunson found himself running out of gas. Though he left Challengers 16 with a unanimous decision, the middleweight says he learned much about pacing himself from the bout.

“I definitely feel more comfortable knowing that I’ve been through a three-rounder. I was going pretty much crazy the whole time, especially on my feet,” said Brunson. “He was a pretty tough guy. I knocked him down twice with a left in the first, and then I knocked him down with a head kick in the second round.

“I learned the pace of MMA, not to go crazy the whole time and to pick my spots better. That fight, anytime I knocked him down, I was going in for the kill and pretty much gassing myself out. He was moving on his back, and I was missing and not hitting. So, [I learned about] playing the game a little bit more.”

Now entering his third Strikeforce appearance, it would not be unreasonable for one with Brunson's pedigree to look toward the future and consider bigger fights that could lie ahead. Brunson, however, prefers to focus on the present, using his preparation as a tool to build confidence.

“I don't feel pressure,” said Brunson. “I expect to stay undefeated. I just take it one fight at a time. By the time fight time comes, I’m pretty confident, because I know I’ve prepared well. So, I don't really feel the pressure.

“I try to keep it all in perspective and not focus on the future. [I try to] get the most out of the fight that I’m fighting at the time instead of thinking, 'Hey, three more fights, and I can do this or fight this person.' I just try to take it one fight at a time and focus on who I’m fighting.”

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