Heavy-handed scrapper, Kevin Holland, will duel opposite Karate master, Stephen Thompson, this Saturday (Dec. 3, 2022) at UFC Orlando inside Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
Sure, Holland got steamrolled by Khamzat Chimaev, but does that really ruin his Welterweight title dreams? After all, it was an extremely short-notice booking, and it’s not like Khamzat seems all that long for the 170-pound division. Ultimately, “Big Mouth” remains unbeaten at Welterweight, and he’s got a chance to bust into the Top 10 here. Thompson, meanwhile, is in the midst of a rough patch. Indeed, 2021 proved a rough year, as Thompson was soundly out-wrestled in both of his trips to the cage, really putting a damper on his hopes of a late-career title run. Still, few strikers are sharper than “Wonderboy,” and he’s not facing a foe intent on holding him down.
Let’s take a closer look at the skill sets of each man:
Thompson is a fighter who can make great strikers look pedestrian. Look at Geoff Neal and Vicente Luque: it wasn’t all that long ago that Thompson absolutely styled on them with his Karate stance and unique ability to take angles.
There are pros and cons to standing so wide and side-on. With that wide stance, Thompson can move quickly and shift his weight back-and-forth easily, which helps him circle away and counter punch. However, it can leave him open to low kicks, as his weight is rarely in the correct position to check. Similarly, Thompson’s lead leg pointing inward exposes the back of his leg and allows it to be kicked out of position.
Of course, Thompson is well-aware of this fault, and he routinely punishes opponents for trying to kick him. For example, Vicente Luque came equipped with the smart strategy of trying to kick Thompson’s legs from beneath him while also trying to counter Thompson’s straight with his left hook and overhand.
Despite the seemingly sound strategy, Thompson’s side kick disrupted everything. He routinely interrupted Luque’s slower round kicks with a foot to the chest, even knocking him to the floor. Once Thompson had a read on his foe’s timing, he’d also step through the low kick to catch his foe on one leg (GIF).
Thompson’s karate-style stance — as well as excellent dexterity — opens up many of Thompson’s kicks, lead leg or otherwise. Often, he first establishes that spearing side kick. Once his opponent is dropping his hands in an attempt to parry or catch, Thompson will switch things up with a hook or question mark kick.
Thompson’s ability to punctuate combinations with the question mark kick is a thing of beauty. Generally, he’ll begin his combo from the Orthodox — usually a one-two combination or just a cross — but will allow the cross to carry him into the Southpaw stance. From there, he throws a lead leg question mark kick, a rare technique that slides right over his opponent’s shoulder to find the chin (GIF).
One of Thompson’s favorite attacks — which can be used as his opponent comes forward or as a lead — is the darting cross. As Thompson steps into the cross, he allows the motion of the punch to carry him past his opponent into safety. If he chooses, he can plant his feet once more in the opposite stance after landing the dart and strike from an advantageous angle.
The difference between Thompson’s use of the punch and most other fighters’ is significant. Rather than look to merely touch his opponent and then follow up or slide away, Thompson will occasionally spring into the punch with power. In his bouts with Robert Whittaker and Chris Clements, “Wonderboy” used this set up to secure the knockout finish (GIF).
Many of Thompson’s punches come as counters, as he is excellent at outmaneuvering his opponents with lateral movement and pivots (GIF). Thompson is one of the few fighters who truly excels at getting a strong angle on his opponents, forcing them to turn into him and eat punches.
Thompson rarely leads with punches unless able to take an angle. For an offensive example of the dart, Thompson initiated an amazing sequence opposite Jorge Masvidal that dropped “Gamebred,” quickly taking an outside angle before springing into a right hand (GIF). In this example, Thompson used a simultaneously switched his feet to the Southpaw stance as he threw a darting left cross. The switch cross is common enough, but Thompson was able to get so deep into the angle that he exploded into a right hand that Masvidal never really saw coming.
At Middleweight or Welterweight, Holland is one of those rare lanky fighters whose punches snap like a whip, resulting in nasty power.
When we talk about lanky kickboxers, there’s a general assumption that they would prefer to snipe one-two combinations from the outside. Holland is certainly good at sticking his foe with a long jab-cross combination (GIF), but he’s generally much more willing to step forward and commit to power strikes than most. Holland will step into big shots, whipping hooks and overhands, sacrificing the defense of distance for a chance to hurt his opponent.
Holland’s willingness to enter the pocket also likely stems from his skill in the clinch. On several occasions in the Octagon, Holland has done big damage with knees and elbows. Against Anthony Hernandez, for example, Holland did a great job of cracking his foe with an elbow, taking an angle, then delivering a fight-finishing knee into the mid-section (GIF).
Holland’s preference for stepping into his can really cost him against wrestlers, however, offering them opportunities to clinch up or duck under his power shots.
Comfort in close aside, Holland does like to fight from range, and he has several tricks there. His performance vs. Joaquin Buckley was likely Holland’s most dedicated range striking performance. In that bout, Holland made great use of his 81-inch reach against the far shorter man, doubling up on the jab and sending lots of one-two combinations down the middle. Buckley is actually pretty good at closing the distance with combinations (he’s accustomed to that height/reach disadvantage), but Holland still timed him repeatedly with pull counters, leaning back to make his foe miss before delivering the right hand.
“Trailblazer” definitely has some interesting wrinkles to his kicking game as well. His most effective kicks are the basic round kick, and his most common target is the lead leg. Once Holland is landing his low kick, he’ll begin to feint with the hips, which helps him set up the rest of his offense.
Holland will also mix it up with front kicks, another effective weapon against his mostly shorter opponents (GIF). More uniquely, Holland likes to attack with the side kick to the knee. Generally, he’ll throw this from the opposite stance of his opponent, shifting more side-on before trying to drive his foot into the quad and hyperextend the knee.
Holland likes to use the threat of the kick to gain distance with his punches. He’ll commonly step up with his lead leg, which gives the early appearance of a snap or low kick. Instead, Holland is using the motion to close a bit of distance and step into punches, usually the jab-cross or hook-cross.
Neither man has consistently done much interesting with their wrestling offense — Thompson hasn’t scored a takedown since 2015! — so let’s focus on defense.
Holland’s takedown defense has genuinely improved since his consecutive losses to Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori. In those fights, he routinely over-punched into easy openings for his opponent. Tall fighters cannot allow opponents such easy access to their hips, because that’s supposed to be the difficult part!
At Welterweight, Holland has been more willing to hang back rather than fall forward with his punches. That stylistic shift is a significant boon to his takedown defense, and he’s generally adept at pulling opponents off his waist into the clinch.
Against Khamzat, I liked Holland’s attempts to Granby roll and scramble. He was doing well in making Chimaev work and forcing the Chechen to take him down repeatedly, but he ultimately got strangled before it mattered.
As for Thompson, the striker went years without getting taken down. His side-on stance and excellent angular movement made it difficult to pick up more than the single leg, which Thompson generally limp-legged away from. Alternatively, he’d hop towards the fence and defend from there.
Unfortunately for the Karateka, wrestling is an immensely physical game. At 39 years of age, he’s lost a bit of speed and strength. As a result, he’s been more prone to getting stuck along the fence and dragged down, whereas perhaps just a few years ago he would have been able to push off and reset.
Thompson has yet to attempt a submission in his UFC career, so let’s focus on the Travis Lutter black belt. Holland is a wildly aggressive grappler, which can be a double-sided sword.
First and foremost, we have to talk about the Ronaldo Souza knockout. Despite facing a jiu-jitsu master, Holland was confident attacking from his back. From the first early takedown, Holland was ripping punches, using a triangle choke to score elbows, and threatening with guillotines.
Aggressively trying to wrangle an alligator tends not to pay off, but it did for “Trailblazer.” When Souza completed a second takedown, he tried to pause for a moment and rest after all the chaos. Holland didn’t let him, swinging his leg in a pendulum motion from his back to wind up a big punch. It caught Souza off-guard, rocked him, and the rest is history (GIF).
As for some more fundamental jiu-jitsu techniques, Holland very much likes the kimura. He’s used it to reverse takedowns and score sweeps from his back. The triangle is likely the other Holland go-to, as he’ll immediately open up his guard and look to jam a hand through the middle.
There is, of course, a reason why other fighters are less aggressive from their backs than Holland. Opposite Brendan Allen, “Trailblazer” ran into a fellow black belt who was unbothered by all his wild bottom position offense. Allen stayed tight defensively and passed guard, and suddenly, Holland was no longer in position to do much but defend. Over time, Holland’s preference for submission over position cost him, as Allen took his back and choked him out during a scramble.
This is a fun match up with real implications at 170 pounds. Holland is still getting his chance to climb the ladder, whereas Thompson can prove that losses to Top Five contenders don’t yet mean that he’s washed up. Perhaps most importantly, it seems like the type of match up that will produce fun performances from each man.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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