Kevin Holland talked to opponent Derek Brunson while the two were on the ground. He chatted with referee Herb Dean several times during the fight. And Holland even had a full-blown conversation in between rounds with UFC legend Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was watching from cageside.
But while Holland was yucking it up over 25 minutes, Brunson was the one actually winning the fight. Brunson took home a unanimous decision (49-45, 49-46, 49-46) victory in the main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Las Vegas.
Holland had some moments on the feet, but for the most part Brunson dominated the five-round bout with his wrestling and top control. Brunson landed a career-high five takedowns.
“I was so busy trying to punch him in the face in between him talking that I didn’t really pick up too much,” Brunson said in his postfight interview. “I just really wanted to hit him in the mouth while he was talking.”
Coming in, ESPN had Brunson ranked No. 9 in the world at middleweight. This was a fight where the UFC positioned Holland, a surging up-and-comer, against Brunson, a veteran, in a litmus test for both. Brunson proved once again that he is a top-tier middleweight and afterward called out former title challenger Paulo Costa.
“I wasn’t really too excited about this matchup,” Brunson said of Holland. “I wanted a top-five [opponent]. They probably didn’t like my performance too much. So give me a top five and see what happens.”
Holland slipped going for a kick in the first round and Brunson immediately sprung into top control, which was foreshadowing for the rest of the fight. Brunson spent the rest of the first round on top.
In the second, Holland opened up with some hard punches and actually rocked Brunson with a right hand and a combination. But the resourceful Brunson went back to his wrestling when he was in trouble and took Holland down. Brunson nearly had Holland in an arm-triangle choke submission, but Holland escaped.
It was much of the same from there. Brunson would take Holland down and land some ground and pound. Holland would talk the whole time, landing some elbows and open-hand slaps to Brunson’s ears from bottom position. When the rounds were done, Holland would go back to his corner and engage in a chat with Nurmagomedov, who was sitting next to UFC president Dana White.
Holland hurt Brunson again briefly in the fourth round before another Brunson takedown. In the fifth, Holland actually landed a trip takedown on Brunson, who had never been taken down before in the UFC. Holland celebrated the takedown while on top of Brunson, proclaiming “no matter what, that’s a freaking win.”
“[Nurmagomedov] gave me advice going into the fifth round and then I got the takedown,” Holland said on the postfight show. “Very interesting.”
But an actual win, on the scorecards, was not to be for Holland. The judges obviously weighed Brunson’s fighting heavier than Holland’s talking. All three judges gave Brunson the first, second, third and fourth rounds. Judge Mike Bell scored the first round a 10-8 for Brunson.
Holland added afterward that he might seek out a nutritionist and make the drop to welterweight, since he’s a fairly light middleweight. He weighed 183 pounds for the 185-pound bout.
Brunson (22-7) has won four in a row, the second longest streak in the UFC middleweight division. In his previous bout, he toppled another prospect in Edmen Shahbazyan, a third-round TKO last August. The North Carolina native, who trains out of Sanford MMA in Florida, sports a 13-5 UFC record, but has not yet fought for a title. Those 13 UFC middleweight wins are tied for the third most in division history. Brunson, 37, owns wins over the likes of Lyoto Machida, Uriah Hall and Chris Leben.
Holland (21-6) tied the record in 2020 for the most UFC victories in a calendar year (5). The Texas native won five straight coming in, four of those by KO/TKO. Holland, 28, has won eight of 10 overall since his UFC debut loss to Thiago Santos.