Preview: UFC on ESPN 21 ‘Brunson vs. Holland’ - Brunson vs. Holland

By: Tom Feely
Mar 19, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday puts forth another solid main card with UFC on ESPN 21. The top two fights are the clear standouts, with the Derek Brunson-Kevin Holland main event leading the way at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Beyond the narrative of an entrenched veteran defending his turf against a rising young talent, it is an interesting fight in every phase. The co-headliner serves as a proving point for two lightweight prospects: Gregor Gillespie needs to rebound from a damaging loss, while Brad Riddell attempts to pave his way towards becoming yet another top fighter out of Oceania. The rest of this slate is all about entertainment, featuring matchups between fighters who look to press the action. Adrian Yanez-Gustavo Lopez features two competitors who should quickly carve out names for themselves as reliable bringers of violence.

Now to the preview for the UFC on ESPN “Brunson vs. Holland” main card:

Middleweight

#10 | Kevin Holland (21-5, 8-2 UFC) vs. #7 | Derek Brunson (21-7, 12-5 UFC)

ODDS: Holland (-160), Brunson (+140)

Brunson might be turning another corner at the age of 37. He rose through the ranks as a blanketing wrestler, which is a bit amusing in retrospect given how his career turned out. He did eventually develop his striking to the point that it was an effective weapon, and by 2015, Brunson had gone in the complete opposite direction, building a name for himself as a first-round knockout artist. A run of four straight first-round finishes got him into the mix of middleweight contenders, but that run ended in somewhat hilarious fashion in a main event slot against Robert Whittaker. Brunson chased a quick knockout about as obviously as any fighter in history, charging after Whittaker in wild and exaggerated fashion. If the gambit had worked, it would have been amazing, but instead, Whittaker just stayed calm and eventually found the punch to stun Brunson. It led to a finish shortly thereafter. That gave Brunson a rightful reputation as a glass cannon of sorts. While he remained a dangerous knockout artist, he was just as prone to imploding as soon as his fights turned against him. After his 2018 loss to Israel Adesanya, the book on Brunson seemed to be written. However, his August 2019 win over Ian Heinisch resulted in a performance that provided a glimmer of hope. Heinisch is the sort of relentless pressure artist that historically makes Brunson uncomfortable, but the Sanford MMA rep stayed surprisingly calm and smartly took apart the challenge in front of him. It was a similar story in a main event slot against Edmen Shahbazyan in August. Shahbazyan looked to be the sort of talent that could succeed early and send Brunson careening towards defeat, but the North Carolina native instead put in another measured performance that led to a third-round stoppage. Now utilizing the best tools and the best mindset of his career, Brunson could be primed for a late-career run—or Holland could put an end to his sudden turnaround.

Some fighters have thrived during this pandemic era of the UFC, and Holland was essentially made for it. Beyond his willingness to fight as much as possible—Holland squeezed five fights into a seven-month span, even with a three-month break—his penchant for talking to his opponents throughout his fights brought a new level of entertainment to bouts inside an empty arena. As a fighter, Holland is quite talented, enough so that it may actually be to his detriment. Holland’s ability means that he has a wealth of options at his disposal, and “Trailblazer” does not always pick the best one. As an example, he started his UFC career by attempting some manner of flying triangle choke against Thiago Santos. Add in Holland’s excessive confidence sometimes getting him into trouble—he was willing to scramble with Brendan Allen until the former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion finally caught him for a submission in 2019—and he looked set to be a talented-but-flawed mid-tier fighter. Then came Holland’s breakout 2020 campaign, and his creativity has blossomed. Beyond the swagger and trash talking, he is coming off of an unorthodox knockout of Ronaldo Souza that took place while Holland was on his back. However far Holland can take this approach, it is going to be entertaining the whole way through, and he might just make his way to a middleweight title fight.

On paper, this is a test for Holland to break into the middleweight elite, but the fight itself may actually be more of a test for Brunson and his newfound mental approach. If any fighter is capable of getting into his opponent’s head, it is Holland—and the 2021 version of Holland over, say, the 2018 version of Brunson would have been a simple pick. Holland would probably hit a few big shots and talk some smack, at which point Brunson would probably get thrown off and overreact to every bit of offense that came his way. However, as long as Brunson can stay calm and focused, he has the skills to take this. Holland’s significant reach should theoretically be an issue for Brunson, but he is inconsistent as far as using his length to any sort of advantage. He is more than willing to crash into his opponents and initiate some clinch and wrestling exchanges. That, in turn, is Brunson’s wheelhouse. Even if he cannot totally control Holland, he will be in close enough range to crack Holland with the harder shots of the fight. If Brunson keeps up his recent form, the biggest danger may be on the mat. While Brunson has never been submitted, Holland’s creativity makes him a danger on the ground—and most of the submission threats that Brunson has faced have either been quickly knocked out or knocked out Brunson themselves. This is a fascinating fight, but as long as Brunson can stay within himself, he is skilled and durable enough that Holland’s willingness to take the fight anywhere should eventually provide some openings for Brunson to take over the fight. The pick is Brunson via decision.

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