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Kevin Holland sees Derek Brunson as UFC's middleweight 'gatekeeper'

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
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LAS VEGAS — Standard operating procedure among UFC fighters who hit the Top 10 is to vow never to fight anyone behind them in the rankings again.

It makes sense, too, because it will always keep the fighter pointed at the championship. And for fighters in the UFC, being a champion is where the real money lies.

Kevin Holland, though, is different. He just wants to fight. If it’s someone ahead of him, great. If it’s someone behind him, OK. If it is in his division, he’s in. If it’s a division below, he’ll do what he has to do to make it.

“I like being active,” said Holland, who was 5-0 in 2020 with three Performance of the Night bonuses. “I like fighting as much as possible. I come from a kung fu background, traditional martial arts, and it’s all about defending yourself. If you bring somebody to attack me every day, I’m going to defend myself every day.”

On Saturday, he’ll have to defend himself against No. 7-ranked middleweight Derek Brunson in the main event of UFC Vegas 22 at Apex. It is the second consecutive fight against a touted prospect for Brunson.

On. Aug. 1, Brunson manhandled Edmen Shahbazyan, stopping him in the third round. Now, Brunson will provide a welcome to the Top 10 to the 10th-ranked Holland.

Holland, who was nicknamed “Big Mouth” by UFC president Dana White during his appearance on the "Contender Series," picked up on the motivational talk that Coach Henri Hooft was providing to Brunson before he fought Shahbazyan.

Hooft told Brunson to go out and prove he’s not just a gatekeeper. The ebullient Holland, of course, has taken to referencing Brunson as a gatekeeper at every opportunity.

“They test us with the gatekeeper, and there are several gatekeepers in the game,” Holland told Yahoo Sports. “There are gatekeepers in boxing. There are gatekeepers in mixed martial arts. Mixed martial arts is one of the sports known for having gatekeepers. We need gatekeepers in every division and there’s nothing wrong with being a gatekeeper. I understand Derek Brunson’s coach used that to motivate him, but I think that’s what the UFC does with Derek Brunson. They use him as a gatekeeper.

“Everybody who is at the top, ahead of him [in the rankings] has beaten him. Everybody who has had a belt before has beaten Brunson to get to the belt. So I think they have Brunson there as a kind of sign: Beat Brunson and you can go up and get a belt. Don’t beat Brunson and, well, we’ll see what happens with you.”

Brunson has been one of the most consistent middleweights in the world for several years, and is 21-7 on a three-fight winning streak. Holland doesn’t seem all that concerned about him, though, even though he did say he felt Brunson “did a great job” in his win over Shahbazyan.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 31: Kevin Holland reacts after his victory over Charlie Ontiveros in a middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 31, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Kevin Holland stayed active in 2020 and went 5-0 with three Performance of the Night bonuses. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Holland unimpressed with Adesanya's display vs. Blachowicz

There is a lot going on in the middleweight division and Holland wants to make certain he’s in the middle of it. He had a lot to say about champion Israel Adesanya’s loss in a light heavyweight championship bout to Jan Blachowicz.

When Holland defeated Charlie Ontiveros on Oct. 31, Adesanya was seated at ringside. Holland raced across the cage and began to woof at Adesanya.

At the time, Adesanya acted as if he didn’t know Holland, but Holland shrugged it off as mind games.

“He’s all about twisting and turning the story,” Holland said. “I’ve been on that man’s radar. He knew who I was the first day I joined the club when I fought Thiago Santos. He knew who I was then. Before I went out there and fought the [Ontiveros] kid, he knew who I was because he was speaking my name as I was walking by and telling his partner, ‘That’s the guy I was talking about.’ So he knows who I am. All that, ‘Who?’ Never listen to that. These guys aren’t owls. They pay attention to what is going on in their division.”

Holland certainly has, and he paid attention when a fighter from his division fought outside of it.

He said he wasn’t “impressed whatsoever” by Adesanya going up and trying to take on a bigger man and win a title. He gave Adesanya credit for his records, but he didn’t see much to be impressed by in the Blachowicz fight.

Adesanya got outstruck by a black belt, Holland noted.

“Impressed by what he did against Jan Blachowicz? No,” Holland said. “The scorecards weren’t even close. [If] they had the scorecards close, it's cause it was bad judging. He lost every round. He got outstruck. He got out-grappled. He got out-fought. I hear everybody constantly talking about Israel Adesanya, but let’s be real here: If Kevin just came off a loss, they wouldn’t be spreading Kevin’s name. I understand the guy’s the 85 pound champ, but the 85 ‘champ’ is coming off of a loss.

“When you’re the champion and you lose, you also lose your belt. If it was boxing, that would have been the case. So in my eyes, the guy has to go back and avenge himself at 85 and prove to himself that he can fight people in his natural weight classes.”

Holland has proven that, and more. He’s fun to watch and he’s fun to listen to, as well. And if he reels off a few more wins, he’ll finally get that chance to show Adesanya what he’s got.

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