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MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC on ESPN 21.
UFC on ESPN 21 takes place Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The main card airs on ESPN following prelims on ESPN2.
Derek Brunson (21-7 MMA, 12-5 UFC)
Height: 6'1" Age: 37 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 77"
Last fight: TKO win over Edmen Shahbazyan (Aug. 1, 2020)
Camp: Sanford MMA (Florida)
Stance/striking style: Southpaw/muay Thai
Risk management: Fair
Supplemental info: + Regional MMA titles + Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt + 3x Division II All-American wrestler + 12 knockout victories + 3 submission wins + 14 first-round finishes + KO power + Dangerous left kicks and crosses + Hard right hook + Strong pressure against the fence ^ Strikes well off of the breaks + Excellent wrestling ability ^ 100 percent takedown defense + Underrated grappling ^ Transitions and strikes well from topside
Kevin Holland (21-5 MMA, 8-2 UFC)
Height: 6'3" Age: 28 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 81"
Last fight: Knockout win over Ronaldo Souza (Dec. 12, 2020)
Camp: Travis Lutter BJJ (Texas)
Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
Risk management: Fair
Supplemental info: + Regional MMA titles + Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt + Amateur MMA accolades + Kung fu black belt (2nd degree) + 11 knockout victories + 6 submission wins + 11 first-round finishes + KO Power + Accurate shot selection ^ Dangerous right hand + Diverse kicking attack + Improved clinch striking ^ In and out of the breaks + Solid transitional grappling +/- 6-0 against UFC-level southpaws
Point of interest: Southpaw vs. 'Smack Man'
The main event in Las Vegas features a fun middleweight matchup that pits a slugging southpaw veteran against a fast-talking prospect who averages more words than punches per minute. A self-proclaimed "smack man," [autotag]Kevin Holland[/autotag] has no problem stepping into the spotlight and attempting to steal the show. That said, there is a lot more to Holland than meets the eye, as the six-year pro seems to be steadily stringing things together. Holland still shows nods to his kung fu roots with the way in which he attacks the lower leg using sidekicks or crossover-knee kick variations, but primarily likes to punctuate things in the boxing department. Although one could reasonably ask for more jabs in his approach, Holland still seemingly does well when it comes to setting up his vaunted right hand. Holland has also been making steady upgrades to his clinch striking since losing to Curtis Millender at welterweight on the regional scene, taking more muay Thai bouts, as well as moving up to 185 pounds. But considering that Holland's opponent is also well-versed in these ranges, I will be curious to see how the native Texas-based fighter approaches [autotag]Derek Brunson[/autotag]. From his time spent with Jackson Wink MMA to his specialty training with muay Thai legend Manu Ntoh, Brunson has become a lot more than just an All-American wrestler who can throw his hands. Whether Brunson is stalking opponents down with Thai march variations or his shuffle-steps into space, the 11-year pro will put himself in prime position to land shots from the power side of his southpaw stance. Having a knack for placing powerful kicks, Brunson also has improved his hands over the past few years, being particularly dangerous when punching his way in or out of the pocket. However, despite Brunson’s previous improvements, his brawling instincts have proven to sometimes get the better of him, either costing him emphatic counters in defeat or lackluster affairs that have resulted in close decision losses. Since suffering his last defeat at the hands of now-champion Israel Adesanya, Brunson has finally gotten himself back under the care of a big camp, hooking up with Henri Hooft and company at Sanford MMA. In the subsequent time, we have seen Brunson bring a much more measured and balanced approach to his pressure en route to his recent victories, displaying the ability to fight at a decent pace for three rounds. Though I’m sure that experience likely will serve Brunson well on paper, I suspect that he’ll need to successfully layer his threats with offensive wrestling if he means to properly get his game going. Next point of interest: Wrestling warfare
Point of interest: Wrestling warfare
Considering that Holland has suffered defeats from being stuck underneath bigger men, I will be curious to see how long it takes before Brunson starts looking for takedowns. Despite having a lower takedown percentage than one might expect, Brunson does a deceptively good job of using his initial shot to force his opponents to the fence, chaining off his attacks from there. Whether he is hitting reactionary double-legs or snatching up singles, the former All-American wrestler wields a serviceable and diverse takedown game that could pay serious dividends if Holland gets lackadaisical in the clinch or against the cage. Nevertheless, should Holland end up in any negative positions, he does have a serviceable scrambling ability and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black under Travis Lutter to fall back on. Sure, his loss to Brendan Allen may not be the best look for his grappling game, but Allen is an incredibly talented black belt, himself – not to mention the fact that Holland took that fight on short notice coming off a shoulder injury sustained in the fight prior. Still, I doubt that Holland will want to grapple – much less be on the bottom of Brunson – for extended periods of time. Brunson may not have a “game over” type of ground attack, but the Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt can transition well with strikes from topside and plays positions when he needs to. Next point of interest: Odds, opinion and prediction
Point of interest: Odds and opinions
While the veteran fighter opened as a slight favorite, public money has flipped the betting lines, listing Holland -170 and Brunson +150 as of this writing. Despite my official pick (which is admittedly a reluctant one), I believe that there is some value in Brunson at these odds. Brunson might not be the biggest middleweight by today’s standards, but he carries proven one-punch knockout power that can instantly change the course of a fight. More importantly, Brunson carries a wrestling edge and grappling style that could easily stymie Holland's offensive efforts. That said, I still find myself siding with Holland – regardless of the "trap fight" feels. Holland had yet to be stopped by strikes and sits pretty at 5-0 against UFC-level lefties (6-0 if you count two-time Dana White's Contender Series alum Victor Reyna). The Texan native has also only been submitted by black belt specialists, as I believe that Brunson will have to apply a couple of rounds of cooking pressure prior if he means to create that kind of opening. Should this battle go the way of grappling, then it could come down to who has the better gas tank, given that neither man has seen championship rounds. However, I suspect that Holland's mental warfare and gamesmanship will continue to prove useful in pandemic MMA, as I see him finding his spot for his patent cross between rounds one and three.
Prediction: Holland inside the distance