This main event is one that I have personally been anticipating since it was made a few short months ago. Those short months have seemed like a particularly long layoff for Kevin Holland, who has fought eight times in the last two years, and who took advantage of opportunities presented in 2020 by winning all five of his fights last year.
Holland will be taking on Derek Brunson, who has come to be known as the proverbial “gatekeeper” of the middleweight division. The 37-year-old Strikeforce veteran holds a professional record of 21-7, and has been in there with some of the best 185 lb. fighters of the last decade.
Brunson is not to be taken lightly by Holland, who was picked by many members of MMA media to be the 2020 Fighter of the Year. Brunson has been a test for the likes of Uriah Hall, Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, now-champion Israel Adesanya, former champion Robert Whittaker and, most recently, Edmen Shahbazyan, who he finished by knockout in the third round to de-rail the hype train that surrounded Shahbazyan at the time.
Brunson is currently riding a three-fight winning streak, including decision wins over Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch, as well as the aforementioned knockout of Shahbazyan. He has twelve career knockouts to go along with three submissions, and all six of his wins between 2015 and 2017 came by first-round knockout. Most notably, his victories over Hall and Machida.
Brunson is a patient striker with a lot of power. He looks to inch his way forward, work inside with his jab, and throw his hooks. He’s a big, strong guy for this weight class, and can utilize his wrestling when needed. In 18 UFC fights, the three-time NAA DII all-American wrestler has never given up a takedown.
He’s a forward-moving fighter who looks to land his power shots, then execute trip takedowns by establishing underhooks. He is much more successful when he’s first to the punch, and he does his best work along the fence, where he can mix his striking in with his grappling. He has a nice straight left hand, and throws solid hooks with his lead right.
With all due respect to Brunson, his striking is not technically sound. He isn’t very fast, he doesn’t get full extension on his punches or his kicks, he throws erratically and from weird angles, his hands are held low, and his head almost never moves off the center line. He does, however, fight a style that can be very tricky to deal with for fighters who look past him or don’t properly prepare for what he brings to the octagon.
While Brunson has and is known for his power, the strengths of his game are wrestling and dirty boxing. He can press opponents into the fence, working the body and land elbows on the break. He’s a very good folkstyle wrestler and can finish takedowns from a variety of positions. On top, he looks to control position and start landing shots once he has control. He caused Shahbazyan severe damage with nasty elbows and hammerfists from side control and top mount before finishing their fight on the ground.
My biggest concern for Brunson in this fight is that he leans into all of his strikes without moving his head off the line. You simply cannot do that against a striker of Holland’s caliber and expect to not get put to sleep with a counter hook or get caught with a jab on the way in. Holland has all of the skills necessary to dismantle him standing, and stuff Brunson’s ensuing takedown attempts.
Holland is a tall, long and natural 185 lb. fighter with an outstanding 81” reach. He is an absolute sniper from the outside, fighting behind a stiff jab and throwing straight rights with power and precision. He has excellent footwork and range management, and his striking speed would be the best in this division, if not for a world-class kickboxer in Adesanya currently reigning over the middleweights.
Holland is one of the sharpest strikers in any UFC division today. He demonstrates an excellent variety of strikes. His straight shots are devastating, but so are his counter hooks and uppercuts. He has the ability to lead the dance, as well as sit and counter. He has some nasty kicks to the calves and body, and utilizes strong lead teeps.
He’s comfortable wherever the fight goes, and can do a lot of damage in the clinch due to his height. He throws vicious knees up the middle and elbows over the top. He does little things like slap his opponents ears with his palms in an attempt to alter their equilibrium, stomps on their feet, throws elbows off his back, and straight up keeps it nasty.
He’s one of the most game fighters you’ll find, and the best part about his overall game is that he doesn’t allow that to fault him. People have this misconception about Holland that he isn’t an intelligent fighter. Maybe that’s because of the trash talk, the antics or even some of his more unorthodox strikes. In any case, he is, in fact one of the most creative and intelligent fighters on the UFC roster.
Another widely held misconception about Holland is that he’s purely a striker. Though he isn’t the most credentialed grappler, he is a newly minted black belt under Travis Lutter with serious submission skills. His takedown defense has, largely, held up so far in his UFC career. Even when it hasn’t, he hasn’t been held down for very long, and I think you all saw what he’s capable of doing from his guard in the Jacare fight this past December.
Look I’ll put my cards on the table here, I had to try very hard, during my film study, to entertain the possibility that Derek Brunson is a threat to win this fight, and I truly did consider all avenues to victory for him. When Holland was initially asked about this matchup, he stated that Brunson’s striking is “like, a disgrace to striking.” I don’t know if I would personally go that far, but Brunson’s striking is clearly not anywhere near the same level as Holland’s.
I was shocked to see Holland open as only a -165 favorite and I’m appalled to see that the line hasn’t gotten much steeper. I am loading up on Kevin Holland in this fight. I am willing to go as far as a personal guarantee that he gets this win, and it likely comes by knockout very early. The only variable that might delay the finish here is if Holland tries to take Brunson down, just to prove that he can.