5 burning questions heading into UFC on ESPN 21: Can Kevin Holland surge into title contention?

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Simon Head
·7 min read
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Two middleweight finishers will go head to head at UFC on ESPN 21 in a bid to gatecrash the title picture at 185 pounds.

Middleweight stalwart Derek Brunson and rising contender Kevin Holland will look to thrive under the main event spotlight on Saturday night. Both are on solid winning streaks and both have eyes on the division’s top men, with victory likely to propel one of them toward a bout against one of the 185-pound elite.

The co-headliner will see the return to action of Gregor Gillespie, who will look to bounce back from his first career defeat following his knockout loss to Kevin Lee at UFC 244 in November 2019. He’s set to face surging Kiwi Brad Riddell, who will be keen to extend his winning run under the UFC banner after winning his first three bouts on the big stage.

UFC on ESPN 21 takes place Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The main card airs on ESPN following prelims on ESPN2.

Ahead of the event, we take a look at five burning questions we’ll be seeking answers to when the fighters take to the cage.

Can Kevin Holland pick up where he left off in 2020?

After a banner year that saw him elevate his career from entertaining mid-card talent to rising contender, Kevin Holland will make his first appearance of 2021 looking to continue the momentum he rode through the entirety of last year. Holland (21-5 MMA, 8-2 UFC) went 5-0 for the year as he picked up victories over Anthony Hernandez, Joaquin Buckley, Darren Stewart, Charlie Ontiveros and Ronaldo Souza to claim MMA Junkie's "Fight of the Year" accolade for 2020. He even found time in his busy schedule to beat COVID, too. However, the genie is now out of the bottle. Holland is no longer under the radar and is legitimately being discussed as a potential contender to face middleweight champ Israel Adesanya – including by "The Last Stylebender" himself. But with the increased hype comes a higher level of opposition and, after dramatically finishing an aging "Jacare" off his back at UFC 256, Holland's next test comes against a man very much still in his prime. Derek Brunson may be nine years Holland's senior, but he's got a recent history of halting the hype train of surging 185ers. In his most recent outing at UFC Fight Night 173, Brunson (21-7 MMA, 12-5 UFC) handed Edmen Shahbazyan the first loss of his career as he finished the highly touted prospect via third-round TKO, and you can bet he'll be looking to repeat the feat against Holland on Saturday night. If Holland can rise to the occasion, deliver another show-stopping performance to defeat Brunson, and conduct another dynamite post-fight interview, he might just be able to finagle his way into title contention in the second half of the year. But against a man who has dangerous punch power, bags of experience, and a superb team in his corner, Holland knows he's facing the toughest test of his career. If he passes that test, big things surely await for the man Dana White famously called "Big Mouth." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ow_ZWSd4wGc

Will Gregor Gillespie bounce back against dangerous striker Brad Riddell?

In 2019, Gregor Gillespie was undefeated, looking dominant, and appeared to be on a one-way trip to the top. Then he ran into Kevin Lee at UFC 244 and ended up on the receiving end of one of the greatest head-kick knockouts seen inside the octagon as he crashed to his first career defeat. Gillespie (13-1 MMA, 6-1 UFC) has processed that moment, chalked it up to experience – and brilliant technique from Lee – and is ready to return to the cage. "The Gift," received no presents from the UFC matchmakers on his return, however, with the keen fisherman netting himself a bout against New Zealand's top lightweight striker, Brad Riddell. "Quake" made a name for himself in kickboxing circles before transitioning to MMA, and has looked outstanding since arriving in the UFC. After more than a year away from the cage, Gillespie will be keen to bounce back in dominant fashion against Riddell (9-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC), but after his knockout defeat to Lee, the City Kickboxing man will certainly fancy his chances of sending the former NCAA Division I national champion to his second straight KO loss. Can Gillespie rebound in style, or will Riddell's top-drawer striking prove to be a nightmare proposition for the American? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OEQuOoHW-8

Can Tai Tuivasa kickstart a new winning streak?

Hard-hitting, shoey-drinking, fun-loving Australian heavyweight Tai Tuivasa's last outing saw him pick up arguably the biggest, most important win of his career. Now he's looking to follow up on that victory and build some momentum heading into the summer. Tuivasa's buzzer-beating first-round TKO of Stefan Struve at UFC 254 saw the Aussie snap a three-fight losing streak and keep him in the UFC's heavyweight mix. He was all set to take on Don'Tale Mayes on Saturday, but after his opposite number was forced off the card, "Bam Bam" will instead take on the debuting former Contender Series prospect Harry Hunsucker. Hunsucker's lone defeat since 2016 came against Jared Vanderaa on the Contender Series last year, but he has since rebounded with a win to earn a short-notice call-up to face Tuivasa (11-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC), but all eyes will likely be on the Aussie on fight night. Can Tuivasa dispense with the debutant and take aim at the division's bigger names, or will Hunsucker (7-3 MMA, 0-0 UFC) step in and make a big impact by scoring the upset win? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAlV2wjSfJk

Which bantamweight will pick up momentum after impressive finishes?

Saturday's main card also features a fascinating clash in the super-competitive bantamweight division, with former Combate Americas bantamweight champ [autotag]Gustavo Lopez[/autotag] looking to claim back-to-back UFC wins by defeating Contender Series graduate [autotag]Adrian Yanez[/autotag]. Lopez (12-5 MMA, 1-1 UFC) was handed a baptism of fire on his octagon debut in June 2020 as he lost out to Merab Dvalishvili on the scorecards at UFC on ESPN 10, but he bounced back in style with a first-round submission of Anthony Birchak at UFC on ESPN 17 five months later. Now he's set to face Yanez (12-3 MMA, 1-0 UFC), who made a blistering start to life in the UFC with a huge head-kick knockout of Victor Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 181. It's a clash that could deliver one of the fights of the night, but which man is best equipped to make a run in the UFC's 135-pound shark tank? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tn-7pUrSm-o

Can the Buys cement their place in the record books with debut wins?

March 20 will be a date to remember in the Buys household, with husband and wife duo [autotag]J.P. Buys[/autotag] and [autotag]Cheyanne Buys[/autotag] both set to make their octagon debuts on the same card. Flyweight newcomer J.P. (9-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) will make the walk first when he steps into the octagon to face [autotag]Bruno Silva[/autotag] (10-5-2 MMA, 0-2 UFC) in the second preliminary card bout of the night, while strawweight prospect Cheyanne (5-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) will face off against fellow debutant [autotag]Montserrat Ruiz[/autotag] (9-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) in the main card opener. The Buys are only the second husband and wife pairing to compete on the same UFC card, following in the footsteps of Mark and Montana De La Rosa at UFC Fight Night 167 in Rio Rancho. Only Montana was able to pick up the win on that occasion, meaning a piece of history could be up for grabs on Saturday. If J.P. and Cheyanne both pick up debut victories, they'll become the first husband and wife pairing to win UFC fights on the same card. Can they kick off their UFC careers on a winning note and write their family name into the history books in the process? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Inj8ennjt-c

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