What a difference a few weeks can make. It looked like Marvin Vettori had ensconced himself as the most likely title challenger for Israel Adesanya’s belt, regardless of what happened with the contest between Kevin Holland and Jacare Souza. However, even those who’ve followed the sport closely for years tend to forget to never say never in this sport as the one guarantee is that you’ve never seen it all. Holland finished the traditionally durable Jacare in a manner that didn’t spark any recollections amongst MMA fandom. Beginning with punches off his back as Jacare sat in his guard, Holland stunned the BJJ expert, scrambled to his feet and unleashed further punches as Jacare leaned backwards on his knees, completely devoid of his consciousness. When you give people something you’ve never seen, you should be rewarded. Well, I’m of the opinion Holland should be greatly rewarded.
The reward doesn’t come without reason. The middleweight division is in disarray as far as the title picture goes. Israel Adesanya only has two official title defenses under his belt, but carved such an impressive path on his way to becoming champion, there isn’t an obvious choice for his next challenger. Sure, there are some he hasn’t beat that many would declare as a superior combatant to Holland, but they are coming off losses. Though I don’t put any stock in the UFC’s official rankings, it serves as well as any list to make my point. Here is how the top ten is presently constituted outside of the champion:
1. Robert Whittaker: He is riding a two fight win streak, but he lost the title to Adesanya last year in lopsided fashion.
2. Paulo Costa: Coming off a loss to Adesanya earlier this year in lopsided fashion.
3. Jared Cannonier: Coming off a clear loss to Whittaker.
4. Darren Till: Coming off a loss to Whittaker.
5. Marvin Vettori: Riding a four-fight win streak, but lost to Adesanya in a close contest in 2018.
6. Jack Hermansson: Coming off a loss to Vettori.
7. Derek Brunson: On a three-fight win streak, but his best win in that stretch is either Edmen Shahbazyan or Ian Heinisch. Also, has a loss to Adesanya in 2018.
8. Kelvin Gastelum: On a three-fight losing streak that began with a loss to Adesanya in 2019.
9. Uriah Hall: On a three-fight win streak, but the best win is over a 45-year old Anderson Silva.
10. Kevin Holland: On a five-fight win streak, but his best win is over a 41-year old Jacare.
Some will point out the UFC isn’t above rewarding fighters coming off losses with title fights, even when there are other clear options available, remember Jose Aldo got the call ahead of Aljamain Sterling. However, I hated when the UFC went that route and I refuse to advocate for that to become any sort of precedence. So go ahead and talk amongst yourselves in the comments section if you like, but I won’t give that philosophy any credence.
Back to the rankings list. Robert Whittaker should be the obvious choice. He’s beat two of the fighters listed in the top five to work his way back into the title picture. However, Adesanya has shown no enthusiasm to revisit his old opponent and Whittaker made a mistake – as far as his career goes – when he made no public indication of wanting a rematch immediately following his win over Cannonier. Instead of voicing his desire for a rematch, Whittaker instead talked of putting his Christmas tree up when he got home. Dana White interpreted that as Whittaker having no desire for a rematch. While I don’t believe that falsity for a second, a fighter would be wise to market themselves anytime they are in the public eye. Whittaker didn’t do that and he appears to be paying a heavy price for that.
If the UFC isn’t going to go with Whittaker, that leaves Vettori, Brunson, Hall, and Holland as the rest who are coming off wins. Vettori has been vocal about wanting a rematch and it could be argued his contest with Adesanya was the closest contest the reigning champion has had since joining the UFC. Unfortunately for him, Hermansson is the only scalp he has claimed with significant heft. He shouldn’t be completely out of consideration, but that loss – even if it was close – is currently a heavy weight around his neck.
Brunson is looking better than he ever has during his current win streak, but he’s been given plenty of chances over the years to break into the upper echelon and always comes up short. Even more troublesome for him, his loss to Adesanya may be the heaviest this side of Costa as Izzy needed less than a round to dispose of Brunson.
Hall has long been a tease with his talent, but it’s hard to give him a lot of credence when he spent long periods losing to both Silva and Bevon Lewis – Bevon Lewis! – before securing the finish against them. Besides, he already has a rematch scheduled with Chris Weidman. So Hall shouldn’t currently be in consideration.
That brings us to Holland. At the tail end of the top ten, many people would immediately discount his candidacy due to his low ranking. However, there are also several reasons to push for his candidacy. Not only has he won five in a row as previously stated, he’s won eight of his last nine. Five of those eight victories were finishes. Perhaps the most impressive part of that run is those eight wins came over a stretch of 25 months, just over two years. In a sport where you commonly hear fighters talk about being willing to fight anyone, anytime, anywhere, few have been willing to fulfill that creed. I understand there are reasons for fighters not accepting fights where they have nothing to gain, but Holland has ignored those reasons and accepted contests against lesser opponents when his original opponent fell out. There’s also the occasions when he has been the one stepping in on short notice. Given how much stock the UFC has put into fighters being “company men,” you’d think they’d want to reward those who are willing to save a fight… right?
Another reason to like Holland as a title contender is his outspoken personality. In the hype video prior to his fight against Jacare at UFC 256, Dana White referred to him as “Big Mouth” as he never shuts up. The moniker fits Holland well, even talking to himself at times during a contest, not just his opponents. Plus, Holland has bad blood with Adesanya, issuing words for the champion following Holland’s win over Charlie Ontiveros on Halloween. The UFC loves animosity between combatants as it makes it far easier to sell a titles fight. It’s difficult to think of a top selling PPV in the history of the sport that didn’t revolve around bad blood. Tito and Chuck. Anderson and Chael. Conor and Khabib. I’m not saying Adesanya and Holland would automatically be an all-time great rivalry, but potential is there. Without anything that’s blatantly obvious at the moment, why not tap into that potential and see what’s there? If there is something, Holland’s penchant for flapping his gums will assuredly ensure it surfaces.
For those concerned that Holland would not only be undeserving, but does nothing to boost Adesanya’s legacy, they haven’t made much of an inquiry into the legacies of some of the all-time greats. Anderson Silva had back-to-back title defenses against the likes of Patrick Cote and Thales Leites. GSP secured a win over Dan Hardy. Jon Jones has a win over Anthony Smith. Demetrious Johnson’s ledger is littered with names that hardly seem worth of a title shot. When an all-time great reels off a lengthy reign, there’s going to be opportunities for someone who doesn’t seem to fit the bill of a traditional title challenger who happens to be at the right place at the right time. Sometimes, an upset of epic proportion can even happen. Matt Serra over GSP is perhaps the most traditional case, but few believed TJ Dillashaw was deserving of his title shot against Renan Barao. Both Serra and Dillashaw walked away with championship gold.
There have even been cases when the most deserving opponent has been passed over due to bad blood. Johny Hendricks did eventually get his title shot against GSP, but not until Nick Diaz was granted his opportunity. Perhaps even more infamously, Michael Bisping had his lone successful title defense against a 46-year old Dan Henderson when Yoel Romero, Jacare, Chris Weidman, and Luke Rockhold all made more deserving cases at the time… and that’s just for starters.
Lastly, there have been times when the UFC thrust a fighter into the spotlight that they finally became a star. Few cared for Chael Sonnen before he began his verbal attack on Silva. Perhaps they wouldn’t have cared either but for Silva being a prominent figure already. Why would fans care about some trash talking of a pair of fighters they know little to nothing about? Sonnen remained prominent even after their rivalry was culminated, getting a nice rub from Silva. Perhaps what Holland needs to become a star is to allow his mouth to run against someone who has already proven themselves. Perhaps all he needs is a spotlight. Perhaps a fight against Adesanya might be what the doctor ordered to make Holland a star.