Kevin Holland takes on Kyle Daukaus in the co-main event of this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night: Santos vs. Walker card on ESPN+. After suffering two defeats in a row, will Holland get his career back on track?
Holland became a breakout UFC star in 2020, picking up five victories in the year. He started to garner attention for his tendency to speak loudly to his opponents during his fights. Holland had been known to talk during bouts ever since he competed on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018. His trait was magnified with the absence of fans following the outbreak of COVID-19. Behind closed doors, with no crowd noise, both fans watching and the small crew in attendance could hear a lot more than usual.
Holland’s biggest moment came against veteran Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at UFC 256. In a strange sequence of events, Holland was taken down by Souza in the first round, but immediately began to talk to his opponent. Getting taken down by one of the all-time great Brazilian jiu-jitsu champions in MMA would usually spell danger for most fighters. For Holland, this appeared to have the opposite effect. His talking seemed to distract Souza, as Holland started to tee off with some heavy blows from his back. One of these shots knocked Souza backwards, and Holland hit some follow-up punches to secure a knockout victory. The win over Jacare was Holland’s fifth victory in five fights in 2020, tying the record for most UFC wins in a calendar year. Being able to knock out a man as durable as Souza, off his back, highlighted the raw power that Holland possessed.
That fight propelled the 28-year-old Holland into a higher level of stardom within the MMA community. Fans were captivated by his penchant for trash talking during fights, his unpredictable fighting style and his willingness to compete frequently. With all of that momentum behind him, Holland earned his first UFC main event, headlining a card last March against Derek Brunson.
Many fans expected Holland to overcome Brunson and continue his quick rise up the rankings. It seemed that Brunson, who is known for his excellent grappling as well as his knockouts, would have a rudimentary striking defense that would cost him against Holland. However, what transpired that night ended up derailing Holland’s momentum and turned many fans against him. He was taken down at will by Brunson, and the veteran controlled Holland on the ground for almost the entire contest. Holland did have a few moments on the feet when he hurt Brunson, but the 37-year-old was soon able to close the distance and secure a takedown.
Holland seemed to make basic mistakes that contributed to him losing to Brunson. On the feet, he threw wild, swinging shots that exposed his hips and allowed Brunson to easily change levels and initiate grappling sequences. The Texas native also had sub-par footwork, often planting his feet after throwing strikes, which gave Brunson opportunities to quickly close the distance and bring him to the ground.
While on the ground, Holland repeatedly closed his guard and pulled Brunson towards him. Instead of trying to make space and escape, he was actually helping his opponent keep him on the bottom. But, this approach did manage to help Holland stay relatively safe and avoid heavy ground-and-pound shots.
Holland’s trash talking in the Octagon had previously entertained fans, but it caused frustration for many in the Brunson bout. The fact that he looked to be more pre-occupied with talking, than he was doing attempting to stop takedowns and win the fight came across as a lack of professionalism. He lost the fight by a unanimous decision, with one judge scoring it 49-45 against him and the other two scoring it 49-46 in the same direction.
Due to the one-sided nature of that contest, it came as a surprise to many when Holland replaced Darren Till to fight Marvin Vettori in a UFC main event just three weeks later. The 28-year-old showed slightly more resistance to takedowns in that bout, and he toned down the talking, but was once again dominated on the ground. The same technical deficiencies that were exposed by Brunson resurfaced in that contest. Vettori emerged with a comfortable unanimous decision win.
Holland has since recognized that he has holes in his game that he needs to fix to be able to compete with the upper echelon of talent in the UFC. When he met higher-class opponents who looked to expose his poor grappling, he had no answer. In order to remedy this, Holland spent a few weeks training at the American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose, California. There, he worked with former Olympic wrestler and former UFC champion in two divisions, Daniel Cormier. More significantly, he also changed camps and has started training with former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks. It was revealed this week that Hendricks will be in Holland’s corner for his fight this Saturday against Daukaus.
Daukaus has lost two of this fights in the Octagon and represents a step down in competition for Holland. However, he is a solid grappler and will almost certainly look to test any improvements Holland has made in this department.
For most of 2020 Holland was unencumbered by pressure and expectation. However, this changed in the lead-up to the Brunson fight. Holland’s success and charismatic personality led to increased scrutiny, and he received a barrage of criticism for his performances against Brunson and Vettori. Perhaps it was unfair to expect so much from a fighter who was still only 28 years old and lacked experience when it comes to competing with the elite.
Against Daukaus, Holland has the chance to showcase his improvements and rebuild his career. If he loses, then all the progress he made in 2020 will seemingly be undone. The trajectory of Holland’s career could be determined by the outcome of this fight. A third loss in a row would not yet represent a threat to his UFC career but it would make his ambitions of becoming UFC Champion a pipe dream. He may never reach the heights of last year, and could be remembered as another fighter who enjoyed temporary success but was ultimately a flash in the pan. If Holland is victorious, then his career is back on track, and he will have the opportunity to once again compete against the world’s best fighters. Whether Holland can handle the pressure of dealing with these fine margins remains to be seen.