We've seen this before. A UFC middleweight main event in which veteran Derek Brunson is paired with the division's next big thing: Israel Adesanya, Ian Heinisch, Elias Theodorou, Edmen Shahbazyan and, last night at UFC Vegas, Kevin Holland.
Twenty-three-year-old Holland arrived at the fight with a record of 20-6 and, more importantly, one of the best years any MMA fighter has ever had. Holland fought five times in 2020 and won them all, including three by first round finish.
As is seemingly now requisite, after knocking out Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza at UFC, he was set to face Derek Brunson. The UFC seems to think that at 37 Brunson's too old to make a genuine run at the strap, but his record of 21-7, with the only UFC losses coming from the middleweight elite is undeniable.
Only Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker, Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya and Jacare have beat him and that means the message is clear. To beat Brunson, a fighter has to be one of the best and on the top of their game.
Before the bell, it looked like Holland was. In the Octagon, he's known for his fast and flashy style, out of it, he's known for his fun larger-than-life personality and he did his walk in singing and dancing to his music. The last time someone looked this happy before a fight, it was Jon Jones grooving like he was already on the dance floor before beating Chael Sonnen in a round.
Brunson, as always, was all business and nothing was going to distract him – and Holland tried, he really tried. In the opening round, he slipped and Brunson pounced, taking top position. Holland was fidgety so Brunson couldn't do much besides for hold his opponent down and drain his energy.
However, Holland wouldn't shut up. In the quiet of the UFC Apex, which was empty besides for staff and key personnel, every word was being picked up by the microphones placed around and above the Octagon.
He should have spent more time trying to get back to his feet instead of talking. According to UFCstats.com, Brunson spent 4:29 of the round's 5:00 holding Holland to the ground. Brunson could even be heard asking Holland "why don't you shut up?" just before the bell.
He didn't take the advice. Between rounds, while resting with his cornermen, he called over to Khabib Nurmagomedov who was watching the event ringside with UFC President Dana White, asking him to come and help him out. When Round 2 began, he could be heard shouting "tell me when the shot's coming, brother" over to Khabib.
It was funny, and everyone laughed besides for Brunson who started tagging Holland with punches. The challenger responded and looked to have hurt Brunson, only instead of capitalizing and ending the fight, he hesitated for a moment – perhaps to let Brunson get back upright so he could go for another highlight KO – and ended up being taken down.
Brunson is known for his heavy hands; 12 of his 22 wins have come from KO/TKO. However, nobody has a career like him simply standing and banging. His fight IQ is underrated and following the success of Round 1, he repeated that ground game in Round 2 and spent 3:09 on top, throwing punches and attempting head-and-arm chokes but focusing on pressure.
Now Brunson had a plan and knew how to execute it. Rounds 3 and 4 went the same way. He would start on the feet, exchanging with Holland, and quickly take it to the ground where he could impose his will. Even though he was now clearly tired, Holland still couldn't get free.
The only change in the later rounds came from the director at the UFC Apex. The in-Octagon audio would occasionally cut out to make sure we didn't hear the parts of Holland and Brunson's banter considered too adult for the ESPN broadcast.
Obviously 4-0 down on the scorecards, Holland had to come out strong and go for a finish in the final frame. He came out with that energy, without the drive, and paid the price. Brunson was tried, breathing heavy, looking for the takedown yet Holland didn't push the pace at all.
He did, admirably, take Derek Brunson down – something nobody else has been able to do in the UFC – but with three minutes left in the fight, he had to do more on the ground than weak hammerfists. Brunson defended admirably and flipped position with 90 seconds left.
He defeated Kevin Holland by unanimous decision (45-49, 46-49, 46-49). The lack of damage inflicted by either man meant the scorecard seemed closer than the fight actually was. In terms of significant strikes, Holland had 51 and Brunson had 50 but in terms of ground control, Holland had one minute 47 seconds, Brunson had over 15 minutes – that's more time than in a standard UFC fight.
Adesanya beat Brunson in 2018 and went on to be the undefeated UFC Middleweight champion. Brunson beat Heinisch down to the prelims, he beat Theodorou out of the UFC, he beat Shahbazyan so badly that he took a year to retool himself before arranging another fight. What will happen to Holland?