Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
How do you even size up an event like UFC on ESPN 21? Multiple important matchups, including the co-main event, disintegrated in the days before fight night, leaving just 10 bouts to skid across the finish line. We were left with a bare-bones card that featured more than twice as many Octagon newcomers (5) as Top 10 fighters (2). Yet in an era in which more and more Ultimate Fighting Championship cards are 15-fight death marches, “UFC Vegas 22” was a lean, mean and generally quite fun roller-coaster ride, with fewer than half the fights even making it to the final horn.
Even if Saturday’s event was a strange one, and in any event a bit of a lull before next week’s pay-per-view extravaganza, there was no shortage of fighters elevating or hurting their future prospects. Here is the stock report for UFC on ESPN 21: Brunson vs. Holland.
STOCK UP: Derek Brunson
Much like Jan Blachowicz a few weeks ago, Brunson felt almost like an afterthought — and was the underdog — heading into a main event against an opponent who was younger, smaller and less established in the division, but somehow the sexy pick. And just like Blachowicz, Brunson showed poise, cage IQ and good old-fashioned muscle in winning a unanimous decision that felt a lot less like an upset afterward. Saturday’s headliner was not always riveting viewing, but Brunson did more than enough to justify the copious amounts of top control time. If there is any blame to be placed, look toward the fighter who spent double-digit minutes on his back, doing little more than talk. More importantly, going forward, the 37-year-old North Carolinian remains too much of a factor to be called a gatekeeper; other than a weird decision loss to Anderson Silva, Brunson’s setbacks have all been against champions or future title challengers. While he will always have an uphill battle to a title shot in a division with Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker hovering above him in the rankings, Brunson did precisely what he needed to in order to stay relevant as a contender.
STOCK UP: Adrian Yanez
On one hand, I’m wary of coming across like a shameless homer as I put my fellow Houstonian on this list for the second time in a row. However, the same principle holds true now as last November, when Yanez made his UFC debut; in the era of COVID, the door is wide open for fighters who show up and put on a couple of spectacular performances to become stars very quickly. Yanez has now racked up highlight-reel knockouts in three straight fights dating back to his appearance on Dana White's Contender Series last year, and is looking like not only a potential star, but a competitive factor in the UFC bantamweight division. His one-sided destruction of Gustavo Lopez on Saturday, in which he showed poise and patience as well as electrifying hand speed and power, demonstrated the futility of continuing to match him against unranked prospects. Look out for the Metro Fight Club proponent to graduate to name opponents soon, and while there are still questions to be answered before he can be certified as a legitimate top contender, he has at least earned the right to try and answer them.
STOCK DOWN: Kevin Holland
It isn’t just the “L.” Almost every fighter loses sooner or later, and Holland had several losses on his ledger before Saturday. The overwhelming problem here is the optics. What do I mean by that? Put simply, in under half an hour of work, Holland went from perhaps the hottest fighter in the UFC to someone that I have little interest in seeing against a Top 10 opponent, especially one who is willing to wrestle. As stated above, the main event was not the fireworks display some might have hoped for, but most of the blame for that must rest with Holland, who appeared far too happy to camp out on his back, especially in the first three rounds.
I’ve enjoyed Holland’s rise to stardom, and find him entertaining in and out of the Octagon. He seems to find a genuine joy in fighting that is infectious, and even his trash talk is refreshing in that it doesn’t rely on belittling his opponent. However, Holland’s insistence in grinning his way through rounds he had to know he was losing — to say nothing of turning his back and refusing even to engage during the closing seconds of the fight — was almost worse than the loss itself. Antics that went over like a charm when he was winning fights, suddenly looked like the coping mechanisms of a man who didn’t want to admit he was being pushed out of his comfort zone.
STOCK DOWN: J.P. and Cheyanne Buys
It would be too easy to dunk on the young couple here. After all, the Buys were only the second married couple to compete at the same UFC event and both entered as betting favorites, only to become the first couple to lose at the same event, and decisively at that. However, I have no interest in doing so. Both of them are young, in years as well as professional fight experience, both are currently processing the frustration of losing very winnable fights, and they are collectively dealing with the loss of half their projected household income for Q2 of 2021. That sounds like a rough week.
If anything, the Buys’ presence in the Octagon is an indictment of the UFC’s trajectory over the past few years. J.P. and Cheyanne both joined the promotion based on their appearances in Season 4 of Dana White's Contender Series, which signed fighters at over double the rate of the first season. (Remember when fighters used to win on DWCS and not receive automatic contracts?) Put simply, a few years ago both of these young fighters probably would have been sent back to continue developing their skills despite winning on the Contender Series, whereas in 2021 they were thrown to the wolves. The result was that Cheyanne lost a one-sided decision to a smaller woman who stepped up on short notice and grounded her for two-thirds of the fight using literally one move, while J.P. was knocked out by a fighter who was 0-2 in the UFC and likely fighting for his job. Both of them will almost certainly get another shot in the UFC, but the chance for a positive first impression is already gone.