After losing two fights in a row, it’s time to look at the Trailblazer’s future prospects
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
The main event of UFC Fight Night: Vettori vs. Holland did not go the way middleweight Kevin “Trailblazer” Holland likely wanted it to go. The ever-loquacious Holland was quieted after being taken down 11 times by Marvin Vettori, a UFC middleweight record, and losing via a unanimous decision.
This was the second time in less than a month that Holland soundly lost after being taken down repeatedly.
However, Holland’s recent stumble should not overshadow just how incredible his rise to prominence in 2020 was. While most Americans buckled under the weight of the pandemic, Holland rose throughout the UFC ranks like a phoenix. Holland went undefeated, won five fights, tied the UFC record for most wins in a year, and he did it while showing the world his gift for gab.
Holland’s trash talk is incessant, he rarely stops talking. Even losing won’t shut him up, he’ll trash talk on his back while getting punched in the face. UFC President Dana White dubbed him “Big Mouth” after Holland’s loss to Thiago Santos in 2018. The Internet took notice of Holland’s consistent blabbing, and nowYouTube is filled with compilations like this one of Holland’s trash talk during fights.
Holland also has an aggressive fighting style and he has a penchant for finishing fights. He’s finished 81 percent of his wins by knockout or submission in his career, which has made him a star in the MMA community.
Trailblazer also showed a certain amount of toughness all mixed martial arts fans love. Holland fought two times in the span of six weeks in 2020, and he fought just two weeks after battling COVID-19.
However, Holland is now at a crossroads in his career. He is winless in 2021 and has fallen out of the top-10 UFC Middleweight division rankings. Holland is now 8-4 in the UFC, and the question now is, does he have UFC middleweight championship potential at all?
The answer: it’s complicated. For starters, history is not on Holland’s side. Only two men have ever gone 5-0 in a calendar year, and neither man was able to sustain that level of success for very long.
Roger Huerta was the first to set the record, and his meteoric 2007 rise was spectacular and violent. He finished four of his wins and even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, Huerta’s MMA career would collapse after 2007, and “El Matador” would go 4-12 after his miraculous 2007 run ended.
Neil Magny was the second man to complete the feet, but his run would be less dramatic. Magny quietly went 5-0 in 2014, is 10-5 in the UFC, and the perennial welterweight contender is currently ninth in the UFC welterweight rankings. However, Magny has never fought for a UFC title and has never been ranked higher than sixth in the UFC welterweight division.
Furthermore, it’s not even certain if Holland stays in the division. Holland has openly talked about moving down to welterweight, and MMA journalists like Cole Shelton argue that Holland is undersized for the middleweight division.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Holland decides to stay at middleweight. Holland is as dynamic a fighter as they get and has a diverse fighting background. Holland is a black belt in both Kung Fu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and using statistics compiled from the UFC database, Holland emerges as an elite-level striker.
On average, Holland lands just under 37 more total strikes than his opponents and about 19 more significant strikes.
In terms of striking defense, Holland is also solid. Compared to the UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and the top five middleweight contenders in the division, Holland absorbs the least significant strikes and is fifth in significant strike defense.
Trailblazer is also second in significant striking accuracy, fourth in total significant strikes landed in his UFC career, and fourth in significant strikes landed per minute compared to the top of the division.
However, statistics are not a perfect way to gauge performance in mixed martial arts. Data can’t demonstrate fighting style, fighter intelligence, the skill of the opponents a fighter has faced, or a fighter’s heart, but they provide a framework to understand a fighter’s success. Purely based on the numbers, Kevin Holland’s striking matches up well with the best in the division.
However, the stats also show Holland’s fight game is incomplete at best, and severely flawed at worst. It is a little-known secret that Holland doesn’t like to wrestle, and it shows in his fights. In his 12 bouts in the UFC Holland has been taken down 36 times. Holland does acknowledge his problem defending takedowns but doesn’t seem to want to completely adjust his fighting style.
“I’m not going to change the fighter I am and try and become a wrestler just because all these guys want to wrestle,” Holland said. “It’s like, I like to strike, I like to bang.”
His aversion to wrestling has cost him in his last two losses. In both fights, the Trailblazer was controlled against the cage or on the ground for an average of just under 19 minutes, meaning 74 percent of the fight Holland was being physically manhandled.
The numbers only get worse when you compare him to other top middleweights. While Holland acquits himself well in terms of striking, he is comparatively weak at stuffing takedowns. Holland’s 52 percent takedown defense is second-worst among the top six middleweights in the world.
For comparison’s sake, number 11 ranked UFC middleweight and former middleweight champion Chris Weidman has a 73 percent takedown defense. However, this is not quite fair to Trailblazer. Weidman is a decorated collegiate wrestler and has a completely different fighting style compared to Holland.
Instead, let’s compare current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to Holland. The two are rivals, their war of words got so out of hand Adesanya threatened to sexually assault Holland, the two have similar flashy fighting styles, and both have struggled with defending takedowns.
However, Adeyesanya's efforts to improve his grappling have been applauded by UFC experts/legends such as Chael Sonnen, as his takedown defense has improved to 82%, Holland has made no such efforts.
It’s hard to determine what all of this means in terms of Holland’s potential to become UFC middleweight champion. One could argue Holland’s wrestling struggles are irrelevant because the top of UFC middleweight division is primarily full of strikers and Holland is as good as they get.
However, mixed martial arts history has shown time after time that great fighters cannot win big fights if they can’t grapple, and Holland’s Achilles heel in his style could hold him back from championship glory. Furthermore, Holland’s admission that he needs to improve his grappling proves that even the Trailblazer sees his takedown defense as a fatal flaw.
It’s unclear what the future will hold for Kevin Holland. The Trailblazer is a fun fighter to watch, and people will always want to watch him slug it out in the cage.
Whatever happens to Holland, we’ll hear about it, because he’ll tell us.