2020 was a year most of humanity would like to forget. But while the rest of us were locked down in our homes, Kevin Holland was locked down in the Octagon, enjoying the best year of his MMA career. The middleweight racked up five wins last year, four of which came by stoppage. The man they call ‘Trail Blazer’ put himself firmly on the map and was richly rewarded for doing so. Holland scooped three Fighter Of The Year awards, including one from BT Sport, as well as four media Breakout/Breakthrough Fighter Of The Year gongs. With his mantlepiece swelling under the weight of these accolades, prognostications were bright for Holland in 2021.
This year, everybody’s pick for the breakout star of MMA in 2020 has fought twice, losing both. Kevin Holland has returned to Earth with a thud, picking up decision losses to Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori. It should be said, both these opponents are top-five middleweights, with Vettori fresh off challenging for the UFC Middleweight Championship. Holland should be credited at least for taking a step up in class, and for taking the pair the full distance. However, this kind of drop-off remains alarming. It is this issue that the ‘Trail Blazer’ looks to address this Saturday at UFC Fight Night 193 in Las Vegas.
Unranked Kyle Daukaus appears to be a smart piece of matchmaking on-paper. A submission specialist before joining the UFC, his company record is 1-2 with every fight going to a decision. On the surface he feels like the perfect foil for a ranked fighter looking to rebuild. However, stylistically he could pose a real threat to Kevin Holland. The California-born fighter has struggled with his takedown defence, while Daukaus does his best work on the mat. This could prove to be a fatal combination for Holland’s hopes of challenging for titles in the future.
To his immense credit, Holland has tried to work on this area of his game. He has spent time training with former champions Daniel Cormier and Johnny Hendricks in a bid to tighten up his wrestling. In 2020, he rarely had to rely on the fundamentals of the sport, instead going on a truly remarkable run of highlight-reel finishes. There was the knockout scored from his back against Ronaldo Souza, the brutal slam-submission of Charlie Ontiveros, the one-punch stoppage of Joaquin Buckley and the barrage of knees and punches thrown at Anthony Hernandez. When Holland equalled the UFC record for most wins in a calendar year, he did it in spectacular fashion.
It is this box-office appeal that makes Holland’s fight this weekend so interesting. He has gone from taking the top ten by storm with some of the most spectacular finishes seen in years to fighting for his life as a top middleweight. As canny a piece of matchmaking as Daukaus is, providing an opportunity to address weaknesses against a less high-profile foe than Brunson and Vettori, it remains a huge risk. Lose here, and this will be Holland’s last co-main event for a long time. This is his chance to prove 2020 is not a distant memory, and that the fighter who spent that most tempestuous of years beguiling us with his talent still lives within him. It might not be spectacular, but the main thing here is to win.
Betfred Odds: Holland 8/13, Daukaus 5/4