Last week the UFC took a small break, as families around the country celebrated Thanksgiving. This week, they are back in action with UFC Fight Night: Thompson vs. Holland, live from the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. The main event is a showdown in the welterweight division as former multiple-time title challenger Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson clashes with Kevin Holland, who Dana White once nicknamed “Loudmouth” after his Contender Series performance.
Thompson is nearing the end of his career at 39 years old and needs a win to keep himself relevant at 170 pounds. He has lost his last two fights, both by convincing unanimous decision, and is looking to get past Holland to avoid the dreaded three-fight losing streak, which would be the first of his career. Holland most recently fought Khamzat Chimaev as part of the musical chairs that unfolded prior to UFC 279 and was submitted in the first round. Prior to that bout, he had decided to move back down to welterweight after being stifled by the top of the middleweight division. He is 2-0 at welterweight since making that change and will look to make it 3-0 to put the hiccup against Chimaev in his rearview mirror.
The co-main event is also a welterweight contest with Rafael dos Anjos squaring off against action hero Bryan Barberena. Dos Anjos is a former lightweight champion and interim title challenger at welterweight. He has found success in both weight classes and now moves back up to welterweight to try and mount another run towards the top, after being knocked out by Rafael Fiziev in his most recent lightweight fight. Barberena is riding a hot streak, winning his last three fights and earning “Fight of the Night” bonuses in both of them. He has notched “Fight of the Night” honors a total of five times in the UFC, and he looks to add a sixth this weekend as he tries to get past dos Anjos.
UFC Fight Night: Thompson vs. Holland airs live in its entirety on ESPN+ and ESPN starting at 7 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Stephen Thompson has lost two straight fights for the second time in his career; can Wonderboy stop his skid and defeat Kevin Holland?
Kuhl: There was a time – like, years before he had his first title shot against Tyron Woodley – when I thought Stephen Thompson was going to breeze through the division on his way to a UFC welterweight title. He was 58-0 as a pro kickboxer, and, heading into his Jul. 2015 battle with former standout wrestler and MMA veteran Jake Ellenberger, he was 10-1 in pro MMA, with his sole loss coming to the gritty veteran Matt Brown. Then, in a pre-fight interview, Ellenberger scoffed at the idea of getting beat by “karate,” before getting knocked out cold with a spinning hook kick in the first round.
After sleeping Ellenberger, Wonderboy took out Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald, setting up a well-deserved title bout with Woodley. To make a long story short, after two very questionable sets of scorecards, their first bout, in Nov. 2016, ended in majority draw, and their rematch, in Mar. 2017, ended in majority decision in favor of Woodley. So, even though Thompson appeared to be purely a striker coming into MMA, he ended up finishing multiple wrestlers, and went the distance twice with one, who also happened to be the champ at the time. It’s not really worth listing all the names, but he has only fought the “Who’s Who?” of the UFC welterweight division ever since. He went 3-2 after Woodley, and one of those was his only career stoppage loss to Anthony Pettis in early 2019.
Thompson may currently be riding a two-fight losing streak, after the aforementioned 3-2 run, but his last two losses were to multiple-time BJJ world champion Gilbert Burns, who also packs a ton of striking power, and Belal Muhammad, who is now ranked fourth in the division and has only lost once in the last six years and 14 fights. Thompson might be 39 years old, but he entered MMA later in life, and he still has the physicality and mentality of a 20-year-old. He still is one of the most prolific and unique strikers in the UFC, and his grappling game has only continued to evolve under the tutelage of his brothers-in-law, 8th degree BJJ coral belt Carlos Machado and former UFC middleweight champ, and NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, Chris Weidman. Needless to say, Thompson’s game is still evolving.
Now, comes Kevin Holland. This guy is an absolute murderer. He came from a much different lifestyle and background than Thompson. He grew up rough, with parents in and out of jail, and didn’t start training until his late teens. He holds black belts in Kung Fu and BJJ, and has been fighting professionally since Mar. 2015. He now sits at 23-8-1 as a pro, has a great balance of finishes with 13 knockouts and six submissions, and currently sits at 10-5-1 in the UFC. He also tied the record for the most UFC wins in a calendar year back in 2020, when he knocked out four of five opponents, including Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Joaquin Buckley.
The battle between Holland and Thompson, both multiple-time-performance-bonus winners, is a pretty fantastic one for the UFC to put together. We have a perennial top-ten standout and former title challenger in Thompson, and a well-rounded, 30-year-old brawler in Holland. Neither of these guys are going to shy away from striking, both are willing to engage in grappling, and, whether the fight stays standing or goes to the canvas, it’s going to be a banger.
It’s hard to say how this one is going to go. Thompson is the slight betting underdog in this one, and, if Holland tries to sleep on him just a little bit, he could easily get caught with a laser. I expect Thompson to use his trademark distance game on the feet. I expect Holland to try and close the distance. And, I think that, in trying to close the distance, Holland gets caught, suffering his first knockout loss of his career.
Petela: This fight could be entertaining as hell, or it could turn out to be a stinker. Whenever Stephen Thompson’s opponents don’t bring the fight to him, it can nullify his world-class counter-striking. That is what happened in the second Tyron Woodley fight, as well as his fight with Darren Till. If Kevin Holland is patient, he could throw off Thompson’s game and lull fans to sleep. Fortunately, that would be out of character for Holland, and this fight will most likely be action-packed. I agree with my colleague that Wonderboy will pick Holland apart as he tries to get into boxing range, but I don’t think that a 39-year-old Thompson will be able to finish Holland. This one is going to go the distance, but it will be Thompson who gets his hand raised at the end.
The lasting effects of this showdown will be that Thompson is officially the last gatekeeper before a fighter can be considered elite, and it will show that Holland is still missing something before he can be a legitimate title contender. The days of Thompson challenging for a title are over. He may go down as the best welterweight to never win the championship, but he’s not quite finished yet. He still has a few fun fights left in him before his career is done. Holland is entering his physical prime, and he may just have what it takes to contend for the title one day. He just needs his fighting IQ to catch up with his physical abilities.
Rafael Dos Anjos moves back up to welterweight this weekend after a second stint at lightweight; will this campaign at 170 pounds start off successfully against Bryan Barberena?
Petela: I guess it depends on what you consider successful. If you judge success strictly by wins and losses, Rafael dos Anjos might not have a successful start to his sophomore run at welterweight in the UFC. However, if you take into account the entertainment factor, then this fight will have no losers. Good luck to anyone who tries to have a boring fight against Bryan Barberena. The man just isn’t wired to allow for a slow-paced, methodical fight. He has five “Fight of the Night” bonuses on his UFC resume and a handful of other fights that could have just as well earned those honors.
The odds are heavily in favor of RDA, but I’m not so sure that he should be coming into this contest as a five-to-one favorite. Barberena is a real welterweight who isn’t known for his takedown defense, but he will be significantly larger than RDA on fight night, and he will be able to stuff several takedowns against the former champion, who averages just under two takedowns per 15 minutes. After a couple failed takedown attempts, RDA will have to resort to Plan B and engage on the feet with Barberena. Try as he might to turn it into a technical affair, dos Anjos will get drawn into a slug fest like every other Barberena opponent. Barberena will wear down RDA over the first two rounds and then capitalize with a haymaker late in the fight to pick up a surprising third-round TKO.
Kuhl: At this point in his career, the title path for dos Anjos in the UFC has become an enigma. In laymen’s terms, I have no freaking idea what division he is focused on anymore. For his first seven years in the UFC, he was one of the most prolific lightweights, who, at one point, was on a 10-1 run that was capped off with a title win and one defense. His only loss in that time was to the lightweight GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov. He has always been a very well-rounded fighter with both knockout power and high-level BJJ skills.
After RDA lost his title to Eddie Alvarez, he went 1-1, and he made the jump to welterweight, which, at that time, was kind of a fad. Many middleweights were jumping to light heavyweight, and many lightweights were bumping to welterweight. Both of those are big divisional gaps that actually make the case to have the often-suggested ten-pound gap between each weight class, versus those 15-pound and 20-pound gaps. Does 165 pounds seem ideal for RDA? Probably, as there are many guys who seem like that is the perfect spot for them.
When RDA moved to 170, he picked up some high-profile wins, including over Neil Magny and Robbie Lawler, before dropping back-to-back fights to Colby Covington, in an interim title fight, and to then-future champ Kamaru Usman. He stopped Kevin Lee, and then lost two more fights to now-champ Leon Edwards and Michael Chiesa. I’m not pointing all of this out to just regurgitate his record, but when you look at who he lost to at 170, three of the four losses were to the guys who are still the top three welterweights in the world, and that is nothing to be discouraged about. However, by mid-2020, he was on the wrong side of 35 years old, he had 29 Octagon appearances under his belt, and he was probably looking at a return to lightweight as his last shot at another title run.
In his return to 155, RDA squeaked by Paul Felder – in a total war that would prove to be Felder’s retirement fight – and he beat Renato Moicano, before running into the buzzsaw that is Rafael Fiziev. For context, Fiziev is a complete machine. He was on a five-fight winning streak with two knockouts and four performance bonuses, and now sits at sixth in the lightweight division. But, the top five slots at lightweight is a bit of a logjam right now. The same goes for the welterweight division.
With a newly crowned king in Edwards likely rematching Usman soon, and Colby Covington still holding strong in the top three, you still have Khamzat Chimaev positioning himself for a title shot, and Belal Muhammad sneaking into position like a damn ninja. There is just no easy or quick path to a title shot for RDA in either division. If I were him, at 38 years old, I would avoid any difficult weight cuts, fine-tune my skills and conditioning as much as possible, and give myself the best chance of sneaking into a replacement fight for a top-five spot. That appears to be what he is doing.
As my colleague pointed out, Barberena is no easy fight. He always comes for a brawl, and, in dos Anjos, that’s exactly what he will get. Barberena has knockout power and good wrestling for a guy without a wrestling background, while dos Anjos still has superior grappling skills. Dos Anjos is also durable on the feet, and he has better overall ground control. Obviously, as all fights do, this one will start standing, but I see RDA getting this one to the mat early and often. He may not finish the fight early, but, knowing that Barberena is dangerous on the ground, but not quite at his level, he will likely maul him on the ground and keep the pressure high, eventually securing a decision victory.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: I think Eryk Anders has his back against a wall in this one. He is coming into this fight with Kyle Daukaus on a two-fight losing streak, and he has only strung together two wins in a row once in his last 12 UFC fights. He’s an exciting guy to watch, but I could see a loss sending him out, and, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him quickly pop up in a PFL or Bellator, as he is still a fun guy to watch with a great backstory, and he is an overall talented athlete.
Petela: Scott Holtzman. He has lost two straight, both of them by knockout. Granted, he lost to a couple high level opponents in Beneil Dariush and Mateusz Gamrot but a third loss in a row at 39 years old will probably be the end of the line for “Hot Sauce” in the UFC. He goes against another grizzled veteran in Clay Guida, who is even longer in the tooth at 40 years old and will celebrate his 41st birthday next week. I expect Holtzman to pick up the win here, but, if he doesn’t, it could be the last time we see him walk to the Octagon.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: This card is full of fun fights on the preliminary card. To pick just one, I’ll go with the women’s flyweight bout between Tracy Cortez and Amanda Ribas. Cortez hasn’t lost since her professional debut and is 2-0 since returning to flyweight. This clash with Ribas should be the toughest test of her career.
Ribas has gone back-and-forth between strawweight and flyweight, whereas Cortez spent a short stint up at bantamweight, so she should be the larger woman in the cage. It will be interesting to see if the BJJ and Judo black belt Ribas can overcome her size disadvantage to get this fight to the mat, or if she will be forced to face off in a striking-laden contest with the crisp boxing of Cortez. Either way, this clash should be a great one to watch.
Kuhl: I’m excited to see Niko Price take on Philip Rowe. These are not two guys who come to point-fight, and that is an understatement. Both of them are unique, well-rounded and fight at a high pace. This one will not likely see the scorecards, as both will be constantly going for the finish, and this one could earn them “Fight of the Night” bonuses.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: I’m going to stick with my main-event underdog pick in Wonderboy. He is due for one of his spectacular knockouts, which we haven’t seen in well over half a decade. He has been so focused on fighting grapplers that I think he lost some of that mentality, but he knows he needs a win, and if he’s patient with Holland, who will most certainly be looking to land some big shots, I think he can catch him off-guard to earn that bonus.
Petela: Tai Tuivasa. He is coming off a knockout loss against Ciryl Gane, which snapped a five-fight knockout winning streak. He will get back to his winning ways this weekend against Sergei Pavlovich and notch another knockout win to add to his resume and prove that he is still a dangerous contender who might just wear gold before his career is over.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Flying Dog’s Underdog Atlantic Lager. I expect Bryan Barberena to buck the odds and pick up a huge win against former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos. In celebration of his impending victory, drink an ice cold Underdog Atlantic Lager. Just like every Bryan Barberena fight, you will not be disappointed.
Kuhl: Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. This is a great card. Enough said.
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
WW: Stephen Thompson vs. Kevin Holland
WW: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Bryan Barberena
FlyW: Matheus Nicolau vs. Matt Schnell
HW: Tai Tuivasa vs. Sergei Pavlovich
MW: Jack Hermansson vs. Roman Dolidze
MW: Eryk Anders vs. Kyle Daukaus
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
WW: Niko Price vs. Philip Rowe
StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Emily Ducote
LW: Clay Guida vs. Scott Holtzman
LW: Michael Johnson vs. Marc Diakese
FW: Darren Elkins vs. Jonathan Pearce
Women’s FlyW: Tracy Cortez vs. Amanda Ribas
LW: Natan Levy vs. Genaro Valdez
FW: Francis Marshall vs. Marcelo Rojo
StrawW: Yazmin Jauregui vs. Istela Nunes
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