The UFC is back in action this weekend with a showdown near the top of the middleweight rankings. Derek Brunson, who currently resides at seventh, meets rising star and 10th-ranked fighter Kevin Holland in the headliner of UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs. Holland.
Brunson proved naysayers wrong in his last outing when he bounced Edmen Shahbazyan from the ranks of the unbeatens. He looks to duplicate his success this weekend and turn back another surging contender while also proving that he still belongs to be counted among the division’s elite. Holland had a banner year in 2020, though. He notched five wins in five outings. Holland seeks to continue that momentum now that the calendar has changed over.
The co-main event marks the return of Gregor Gillespie, who suffered a vicious knockout in his last outing. He tries to bounce back from his first professional defeat when he takes on Brad Riddell at lightweight. Riddell has gone 3-0 since joining the UFC and sports an overall record of 9-1. Riddell is on the hunt for his first finish inside the UFC.
The main card also plays host to a heavyweight slugfest between Tai Tuivasa and Don’Tale Mayes. “Bam Bam” snapped a three-fight skid in his last appearance when he knocked out Stefan Struve just before time expired in the opening round. Mayes struggled out of the gate inside the UFC, dropping his freshman and sophomore performances. However, Mayes has since picked up a decision victory over Roque Martinez.
Bantamweights clash when Adrian Yanez meets Gustavo Lopez, hard-hitting welterweights Song Kenan and Max Griffin square off, and the main card opens with UFC newcomer and Dana White’s Contender Series alum Cheyanne Buys, who tangles with Invicta FC veteran Montserrat Ruiz in the women’s strawweight division.
UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs. Holland takes place on Saturday, March 20, inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, with COVID-19 precautions remaining in place. The prelims air on ESPN2 and ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET. Action switches over to ESPN and ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET for the main card. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Kevin Holland brings a five-fight winning streak to the cage this weekend against Derek Brunson, who has a number of wins over top-tier opponents. How will Holland fare in this contest?
Sumian: Holland faces a whole new level of competition when he meets Brunson in a five-round main event. Despite taking different routes, both of these top-10 middleweights are in a very similar situation. Holland is the surging prospect, but he has rattled off his wins against low- to mid-level competition. Meanwhile, Brunson has successfully rebounded from back-to-back losses by playing spoiler to up-and-coming talents. Both men reside in the back half of the top 10, and the victor should land a match-up with a top-five foe.
Holland won the 2020 “Breakout Fighter of the Year” award from many media outlets for good reason. He went 5-0 in the UFC in less than eight months. This included knockout victories over Joaquin Buckley and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. The Californian is an exceptionally athletic and lengthy fighter who many believe can pose one of the biggest challenges to Israel Adesanya’s dominance if he is able to continuously improve and take out stiffer competition. Holland, who stands 6-foot-1 and boasts an 81-inch reach, has improved his striking and possesses a sound ground game. These attributes have made him one of the most dangerous middleweights in the UFC. He is likely two wins away from challenging for UFC gold.
Despite suffering numerous notable losses to the likes of Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero and the aforementioned Adesanya, Brunson seemingly cannot be deterred. He bounces back even stronger, a common story of his lengthy and successful career. The North Carolina native has refused to quit after suffering a loss and continues to surprise with stellar performances despite being set up to predominantly lose in a majority of his bouts. Brunson’s most recent skid included knockout losses to Jacare and Adesanya. Many fans wrote off the UFC vet as washed up and nothing more than a gatekeeper. Instead of losing motivation, this fueled Brunson to embrace the role. He has now recorded three straight wins over notables Elias Theodorou, Ian Heinisch and Edmen Shahbazyan. Still, the eight-year vet enters Saturday as the underdog.
This bout is a very compelling UFC middleweight match-up for a number of reasons. First, it sets up the winner for a top-five opponent. Second, it will ultimately prove how ready Holland is to face elite competition. Third, it will give Brunson the opportunity to prove yet again he is far more than just a test subject for the UFC’s up-and-coming middleweights.
Holland’s key to victory lies in his ability to keep this fight on the feet, where he can utilize his length to fire off consistent jabs and body kicks as Brunson continues to try to pressure him with forward movement and the constant threat of a takedown. Despite being able to hold his own on the ground, Holland should have no desire to go there with the elite wrestler Brunson. Brunson’s path to victory is much the same as that which led him to handily defeat past opponents such as Heinisch and Shahbazyan: forward movement, the looming threat of the takedown, and damage in the clinch.
Holland is the real deal and will eventually find his way to a title shot. However, Saturday night belongs to Brunson. He’ll score a convincing decision over Holland and officially be dubbed the “Hypetrain Killer.”
Petela: I’ll be the first to admit that I was completely wrong about Brunson in his last outing. I thought he would be nothing more than a stepping stone on the way to the aforementioned Shahbazyan’s coronation as the next big thing at middleweight. However, Brunson proved the doubters, myself included, wrong with a truly dominant performance that culminated with a third-round stoppage. However, I will not be wrong this time.
Holland will use Brunson as a launching pad into the elite tier at 185 pounds. He’ll deploy a high-volume attack to disrupt the timing of the harder-hitting Brunson. By the time this fight hits the fourth and fifth rounds, Brunson will be noticeably labored in his striking and become a stationary target. Holland won’t overcommit in looking for a finish. Brunson is tough and won’t be put away easily, and Holland doesn’t want to end up out of position where Brunson can land a bomb that closes the show. That means this one will likely go the distance. The scorecards will be lopsided in Holland’s favor, though.
Holland’s trash talk will also play more than a small part in his victory. When Brunson had his grudge match against Adesanya, the charismatic New Zealander got under Brunson’s skin and forced him to fight a bad fight. Ultimately, it was the superior skill level of Adesanya that got the job done, but those pre-fight antics made it much easier. Holland will take it to a new level and frustrate Brunson during the fight with trash talk as he picks him apart at range.
Gregor Gillespie returns for the first time in more than a year. He’s coming off a loss and will look for a rebound win against Brad Riddell. Does he succeed?
Petela: Yes. The time off for Gillespie was much needed after the brutal knockout he endured from Kevin Lee. This fight will be a real test of whether Gillespie is the same fighter now that he was before taking his first professional loss. Gillespie will pass with flying colors and look quite impressive against a tough opponent in Riddell.
This is a fight where Gillespie will lean heavily on his wrestling prowess and NCAA Division I championship skills to dictate the pace and ensure this fight stays mostly on the canvas. The longer these guys are standing, the better Riddell’s chances become — the New Zealander has finished five of his nine wins by knockout. Unfortunately for him, he will quickly find himself on his back. Before the first round bell sounds, Gillespie will notch a submission win and announce his arrival back as a lightweight contender.
Sumian: Agreed. The New York native is as tough as they come and will bounce back stronger than ever in his UFC return. Gillespie will be the prime example of how a fighter picks themselves back up after being knocked down.
Cheyanne Buys, Montserrat Ruiz, Jesse Strader and JP Buys — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: Strader enters the Octagon after compiling a 5-1 record outside the UFC. The Californian bantamweight is riding a two-fight knockout streak. Unfortunately, his debut comes against the very dangerous Montel Jackson, who has compiled a 3-2 mark since joining the company. Jackson will have a significant height, reach and experience advantage over the newcomer, which will lead to a unsuccessful debut for Strader. He’ll have a shot at making it up in his sophomore appearance.
In regards to UFC debuts, the night will belong to the “dynamic duo” of married couple Cheyanne and JP Buys.
Cheyanne makes her debut in the UFC women’s strawweight division after putting together a 5-1 record, which includes an active four-fight winning streak and most recently a victory over Hilarie Rose on the Contender Series. She faces fellow newcomer Ruiz, who brings a 9-1 record into the Octagon. Despite being somewhat behind in the experience department, Cheyanne will use her size and ground game to bully Ruiz and earn a fifth straight win.
JP will also exit the cage on a similarly high note as his wife when he finishes Bruno Silva in spectacular fashion and extends his winning streak to six. The 24-year-old South African’s resume screams of an up-and-coming prospect in the highly competitive and revitalized flyweight division. He went 9-2 outside the UFC and has an 88 percent finishing rate.
Petela: This is an incoming class to keep an eye on, without a doubt.
Cheyanne’s lone pro loss came in 2018 against Helen Peralta at Invicta FC 29. She was on the wrong end of a decision, but she made a decent showing for someone in only her second fight. Since then, Cheyanne has looked more and more impressive each time she competes. She has rattled off four straight decision victories, and despite stepping into a shark tank at strawweight, she is definitely someone with the ability to climb the rankings very quickly.
Her husband does not like to leave things in the hands of the judges. JP has finished all of his victories. Even in defeat, he has not gone the distance. The UFC is a perfect place for him to make a splash at flyweight, a division in which it won’t take long before he has a number next to his name.
The only concern with Strader is that he has been out of action since August 2019. That nearly two-year layoff might leave him with some ring rust that spoils his debut. Other than that, expect big things out of a fighter who has only lost to Marcelo Rojo, who just put on an incredible fight in his own UFC debut last week against Charles Jourdain.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Marion Reneau. The 43-year-old has tested positive for COVID-19 twice, forcing this fight to be rescheduled. She has also lost three straight. It would be a shock to see her remain with the promotion to finish out her career if she doesn’t get a win this weekend. Fortunately for the high school teacher out of California, she will score the upset via unanimous decision over Macy Chiasson and proverbially live to fight another day inside the UFC.
Sumian: Bruno Silva. He will suffer his fourth straight loss in the UFC and be released. Yes, his UFC debut was technically a no-contest, but he actually fell victim to a third-round submission from Khalid Taha in that bout. This time around, the Brazilian will suffer a knockout courtesy of JP Buys and move on to a promotion more suitable to his level of competition.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Trevin Giles and Roman Dolidze. Both of these middleweights boast massive potential and will look to put on a spectacular performance. Giles is coming off a beautiful knockout victory at the expense of Bevon Lewis. Meanwhile, Dolidze puts his undefeated record on the line against the toughest test of his career. These guys will bring out the best in each other on Saturday night.
Petela: Grant Dawson and Leonardo Santos. Dawson comes into this bout with a seven-fight winning streak, including five finishes. His opponent has won six straight and is riding a 13-fight unbeaten streak. The 41-year-old Santos has fought sporadically over the past several years, but he has not disappointed fans when he has stepped into the cage. This one will be a fan-friendly affair that renders the judges useless.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Tai Tuivasa. “Bam Bam” righted the ship in his last outing with a knockout of Stefan Struve. We’re in for an even better Tuivasa against Don’Tale Mayes. This one will be fun while it lasts, but it will be a second straight knockout victory inside the first round for the Aussie heavyweight.
Sumian: Max Griffin. The Californian boasts some of the most under-the-radar boxing skills in the UFC. He will punch his way to a knockout of Song Kenan, who has already suffered two knockouts in his career.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: A rehearsal dinner. There are a number of fun fights here that will whet the appetite of UFC fans across the world for what follows on March 27, which could very well be one of the most significant UFC events of the year. The March 20 main event should provide sufficient entertainment and bring about a new top middleweight contender, while the majority of the fights serve as eliminators for setting up future bouts in the coming months.
Petela: A detailed look at the rule book. After the last two events, which have had high-profile fights end due to fouls, who knows what this fight card has in store for fans. Take a look at some of the peculiar scenarios that could arise and how they should be handled. You’ll be one step ahead of the commentary team and one giant leap ahead of referee Herb Dean.
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET)
MW: Derek Brunson vs. Kevin Holland
LW: Gregor Gillespie vs. Brad Riddell
HW: Tai Tuivasa vs. Don’Tale Mayes
BW: Adrian Yanez vs. Gustavo Lopez
WW: Max Griffin vs. Song Kenan
Women’s StrawW: Cheyanne Buys vs. Montserrat Ruiz
Preliminary Card (ESPN2 and ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Marion Reneau vs. Macy Chiasson
LW: Grant Dawson vs. Leonardo Santos
MW: Trevin Giles vs. Roman Dolidze
BW: Montel Jackson vs. Jesse Strader
Women’s BW: Julia Avila vs. Julija Stoliarenko
FlyW: JP Buys vs. Bruno Silva
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