Exposed Kevin Holland at a serious career crossroads

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5 min read

LAS VEGAS — Call me crazy, but I believe in Kevin Holland. I still believe in Kevin Holland.

I was there at Apex on March 20, when Holland dropped all five rounds of a middleweight fight with Derek Brunson. And I was there again on Saturday when Marvin Vettori swept Holland once again, following Brunson’s lead by repeatedly putting “Big Mouth” on his back.

Yet, I believe. Call it blind faith, but I believe this man is not done and still has the potential to be a UFC champion.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing: There will be no championship, or anything even close, if Holland’s takedown defense doesn’t get markedly better. But Holland has all the other skills it takes to sit on top of the pack one day.

Will it happen? Probably not, to be honest, since the odds are stacked heavily against him. There are dozens of fighters good enough to be champion, but only a select few actually pull it off. Generally, they have to fight through adversity and Holland is facing a serious career crossroads. Either he learns to stop the takedown or he’s soon going to be back on the regional circuit or looking for another line of work.

But former UFC double champion Daniel Cormier, who did analysis of Saturday’s card on ABC, also believes that Holland can do it.

“I think Kevin Holland has a ton of ability,” Cormier said following the show. “ ... There are a lot of simple things he needs to fix in order for him to become what he can. It’s hard to watch a guy like that who has an area of his game that has been exploited that way two fights in a row. Tonight, he was better.

“He and his team were much more focused. They defended with much more intensity. But he’s going to need to take a little time to go and fix some of these issues he’s got.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 10: Kevin Holland returns to his corner between rounds of his middleweight fight against Marvin Vettori of Italy during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 10: Kevin Holland returns to his corner between rounds of his middleweight fight against Marvin Vettori of Italy during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Saturday’s bout was his seventh in 11 months, an unbelievably hectic pace for a high-level UFC fighter. It would be good for him to take six or nine months off and do nothing but concentrate on defending the takedown.

Right now, he’s like the baseball player with enormous home run power who struggles to hit off-speed pitches and is getting struck out consistently.

The fact he has that raw power is going to get him plenty of chances in the hopes he one day harnesses it. The same is true of Holland, who is an elite striker and has high-level jiu-jitsu. His knockout of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza from the bottom in December is a reminder of how good he can be when he is on top of things.

It’s frustrating, he admitted, to continually be taken down and not be able to apply his game.

“It is frustrating, but it’s not the pitcher’s fault,” Holland said. “The batter has to learn to find the pitch he can hit. I need to take a month off and spend some time with my family, and then I guess it’s nothing but takedown defense for a while.”

Cormier: Holland needs time to learn that one thing

Cormier noted that it’s not like Holland suddenly has to learn how to become the NCAA wrestling champion. He doesn’t even have to become above average at it. He just has to avoid being the absolute worst in the UFC.

Vettori set a division record Saturday with 11 takedowns, which came on 17 attempts. He had an absurd 20:01 of control time in a 25-minute fight. Holland, according to UFCStats.com, had three seconds of control time. That told the story of a fight that Vettori won by scores of 50-44 on all three cards.

Vettori noted that Holland has an unusual striking technique in which he lunges and that makes it easier to take him down.

“I knew he was really wild,” said Vettori, who demanded a title shot after the victory. “When he goes for strikes, he really throws himself in. He’s either out or in. If he clinches, there’s no point for me to get off the clinch. You risk his short elbows he throws off the clinch. So I was looking for strikes and he would just jump in, so I was like, I’ll just clinch him and get him down. He would clinch me and I’d have the advantage. Why would I get off the clinch and risk anything? So I just took him down.

“Hats off to him, because he was sharper today than his last fight. He wanted it more. He had way more urgency in getting back up. It was a good fight. I want to go back and watch it. I wanted to stop him, but couldn’t. Still, it was 50-44. I had a dominant performance.”

Holland is capable of those dominant performances, and it’s hard to watch a guy oozing with talent to not use it.

Cormier said there’s not much lacking with Holland, but that one deficiency right now is a killer.

“What he needs right now is time,” Cormier said. “Time to learn that one thing. His ground game is good. His stand-up is good. His cardio’s good. It’s just a matter of understanding these very simple basics of defense. He’s doing a good job here, when the guy is in front of him. What he’s not recognizing is when the guy is behind him. They’re locking their hands and he can’t defend.”

More prospects miss than make it. And Holland could be one of those who misses.

At his best, he’s a brilliant, dynamic, high-energy fighter. At his worst, one spends 25 minutes watching him flat on his back.

It’s his choice. If he makes it is, in large part, up to his willingness to learn takedown defense.

“I know what I have to do,” he said, glumly. “And when I do, these [expletives] are going to get their [expletive] heads knocked the [expletive] off.”

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