The winningest fighter in 2020, Kevin Holland, will throw down with divisional veteran, Derek Brunson, this Saturday (March 20, 2021) at UFC Vegas 22 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Holland is a tricky athlete to get a read on. The first couple years of his UFC career were fun, but unspectacular, as Holland showed both talent and odd decision-making in a 3-2 start. Something clicked last year, when Holland put together five straight victories. And while the improvement was obvious, the question still remains: is Holland a legitimate contender or just a skilled fighter on a good tear?
Forthcoming analysis aside, we won’t really know until this weekend, when Holland is tested by Brunson’s brand of power, wrestling and now patience. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
A second-degree black belt in Kung Fu, Holland has a striking style uniquely his own. Painting in broad strokes, however, Holland is a potent combination of length and genuine power with a big dollop of confidence added into the mix.
When we talk about lanky kickboxers, there’s a general assumption that they would prefer to snipe 1-2s 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).
Comfort in close aside, Holland does like to fight from range, and he does have a lot of 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 used 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.
Holland also did some weird stuff, like jumping into karate chop-esque right hands.
“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.
Occasionally, Holland will do the same with his back knee, lifting it up to show a kick then stepping into Southpaw. This serves a similar purpose with the added benefit of a somewhat hidden stance switch, allowing Holland to fire some punches or a left kick from his new stance.
Defensively, Holland does occasionally get cracked stepping deeper than necessary into his punches. Additionally, he’s perhaps a bit too confident slipping and defending with his back to the fence. His comfort there has allowed him to score with some slick uppercut counters, but he’s also taken some real shots from that position.
Is Kevin Holland a good wrestler? At the very least, he’s a willing one. Whenever opponents look to take Holland down, his usual answer is to meet aggression with offense, trying to counter and trip up his foe’s to gain top position.
Offensively, Holland hasn’t wrestled all that much in his recent win streak, and I’d prefer to focus on those bouts, because modern Holland is much better than the man who gave up six takedowns to Gerald Meerschaert. Opposite short-notice replacement, Charlie Ontiveros, Holland demonstrated his strength in the clinch. From the body lock, Holland twice slammed his foe to the mat, and the second takedown injured his foe to the point that he could not continue.
Defensively, Holland’s aggressive punching and build mean that he is there to be double-legged in the open. Fortunately, Holland is 1.) dangerous from his back and 2.) quick to scoot his butt to the fence. Once he’s near the cage, Holland is quite good at wall-walking to his feet.
More specifically, Holland is pretty good at defending along the cage in general. Darren Stewart is not an extremely technical wrestler, but he is a seriously strong Middleweight who knows how it hit a double along the cage. In their bout, Holland denied many of his attempts despite good initial position and posture.
In some cases, Holland was able to yank up on overhooks to move the wrestling into the clinch. Other times, Holland worked to break posture by jamming the head toward the mat. In one exchange, Holland reached over his foe’s back and latched onto the ankle, twisting up his opponent’s knee and making it difficult for Stewart to drive forward or lift.
A jiu-jitsu black belt under Travis Lutter, Holland’s grappling is similarly focused toward aggression as the rest of his game.
First and foremost, we have to talk about the Ronaldo Souza knockout. When you first read the result that Holland stopped “Jacare” from his back, one would assume it was just some strange “Trailblazer” fluke. Upon re-watching the fight, however, it becomes very clear that Holland intended to attack 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 — Holland’s most recent loss — “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 choke him out during a scramble.
Holland is a wild one, an aggressive fighter riding high on a wave of momentum and confidence. That surge could carry him to another important victory here ... or it could all come crashing down if Holland makes a mistake against someone with Brunson’s experience and power.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 22 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN2 “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET.
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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.