clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kevin Holland: A hero for the crowdless age

New, comments

Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch extolls the virtues of Kevin Holland, a fighter made for the silent arena.

UFC Fight Night: Holland v Buckley Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

“I told myself, I said: even if I got one and two, the last one was like a 10-8. So I was like... f*ck, it might be a draw—oh, my bad—I was like, dang, it might be a draw.”

Such were the words of UFC middleweight Kevin Holland after his latest and, arguably, finest performance in the Octagon. When he isn’t cracking jokes or complaining about wrestlers (whom he just spent all three rounds trying to take down), Holland often cuts loose with this kind of unvarnished honesty. You’d call it brutal if there was anything brutal about the man saying it, but Holland comes across as more of a good-natured creative. An innovator, more artist than brawler, a man who steps into the cage determined only to make an interesting choice whenever possible.

Call him Nicolas Cagefighter.

I always say that combat sports are all about the narratives. Mutually consenting violence has a draw of its own, of course, and there are few things I like better than a display of perfect technique, but without a story, and a pair of interesting characters to carry it out, even the most exciting war is all too quickly forgotten.

Most fights are action movies. Some good, some bad, but you can usually expect a car or two to get blown up, and that’s fine. That’s all you ever really need, and sometimes, all you want.

Kevin Holland’s fights, on the other hand, while rarely short on action, tend to have lots and lots of dialogue. Holland talks almost constantly during a bout, complimenting his opponent’s strengths, joking about his own mistakes, even conversing with his corner in the midst of a scramble, or remarking on something he overheard one of the cageside commentators say. A low blow never passes without Holland delivering some quip about his future children.

In a word, Kevin Holland is the perfect distraction for our current, terrifying moment. Now that UFC fights are all contested in darkened arenas, the athletes serenaded only by their corners and a newly self-conscious commentary team, Holland’s talents have really started to shine. Whether or not you’re into the new ambience, Kevin Holland is the only fighter on the UFC roster whose fights have gotten undeniably more entertaining since the start of the pandemic. Which is great, because last weekend’s bout was his third since May.

Most fighters respond to Holland’s jawing with carefully composed silence. In August, Holland took on a promising newcomer by the name of Joaquin Buckley, whose profound stoicism turned Holland into a bonafide soliloquist. And Holland controlled the fight so comfortably, he might as well have taken a crack at iambic pentameter.

“Good man,” Holland says to Buckley over and over, sounding like some Lost Generation parody, except he might not be joking. “Good man.” No from Buckley, except another flurry of wild hooks. “I thought you wanted to talk?” Holland inquires. “What happened? I thought you wanted to talk.” The other man punches Holland directly in the pills, forcing the referee to intercede. Holland tugs at his crotch, wincing. “One more kid would be nice.” He gives Buckley a ginger smile. “Please don’t hit me there too many times. I want to use ‘em, you know?” Having already interrupted the fight, the referee now has to interrupt Holland. “Stop the talking right now,” he says in a calm, deliberate voice. “Time in. Fight.” It’s not a rule, but that’s moot: Holland only stops talking long enough to knock Buckley on his ass. He watches Buckley clamber back to his feet, and invites him in. “There you go,” says Holland as he blocks a left cross, nodding. “You’re straightening it out. That’s a better Buckley.” Buckley, either angered or encouraged, tries it again and misses by a mile. “Good man,” says Holland. “Good man.”

UFC Fight Night: Holland v Buckley Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

After it was all over, Buckley showed himself to be an excellent sport, shaking hands, smiling, and patiently listening to yet another impromptu speech, this one too quiet for the mics to pick up. Probably Holland’s final punch had erased a good portion of the trash talk from his immediate memory, but there’s also Kevin’s inimitable charm. Perhaps, in written form, his running commentary takes on a sneering, condescending tone. In sound and picture, however, Holland is just… likeable. Losing to him is like being beaten up by a lovable class clown, not a bully. Even those who beat Holland seem sympathetic towards him. I’ve never seen Thiago Santos deliver such apologetic ground-and-pound.

Fellow fighter and broadcast commentator Paul Felder likes Holland personally, too. Evidently the two of them shared some talks about Holland’s extracurricular activities, which Kevin had no qualms about bringing up in his post-fight interview.

“We had a conversation about my cardio,” said Holland. “It looked a little bit better tonight. It’s because I laid off that other thing we talked about... I told you what I do a lot… Laid off that, man, and uh…” Shaking his head with a smile. “It opened up the lungs, it opened up the chest, and I felt great, buddy.”

Trailblazer, indeed.

But as scintillating as the verbose beatdown of Buckley was, Holland really shines when he faces someone operating on the same frequency. Enter London’s Darren Stewart, an endearing headcase with a hard chin and too much power. Before the fight, Stewart was asked how he felt about Holland’s chatterbox ways. Stewart’s answer, paired with a prankster’s chuckle: “I’ll talk back. We’ll have a conversation.”

What followed was the most exciting debate ever aired on television.

UFC Fight Night: Holland v Stewart Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Holland ties up early, looking to smack Stewart around in the clinch a little. The Englishman swings him around like a toy plane on a string, but Holland’s superior technique gets him to a favorable position against the fence. “Ooh, he stronger than a mother,” he breathes to no one in particular. Stewart responds by cuffing him on the mouth, and Kevin seems to realize he has an audience. “Yeah, you strong,” he practically whispers in Stewart’s ear. Stewart promptly knees Holland right in the cup, forcing the referee to step in. Holland walks away grinning. Paul Felder has been keeping a tally of low blows over the last few broadcasts, and Kevin approaches him to say, “It’s an Apex thing,” perhaps remembering the last time his junk was mangled in this arena. As the fighters come together to touch gloves and resume, Holland good-naturedly dismisses Stewart’s apology. “It’s the Apex thing, don’t worry. It happens in the Apex.”

Holland presses forward with a one-two, and Stewart cracks him with a savage combination, driving the Smack Man stumbling back toward the fence. But as soon as Stewart gets close enough to plant his feet and follow up, Holland damn near tears his head off with an uppercut-hook combo. Suddenly, fireworks. Holland faces a machine gun salvo with his back against the wall, coolly slipping and rolling everything as he looks for counters in the spaces between.

That’s the thing about Holland. His technique is pleasing to the eye, but what sets him apart is the eerie calm with which he executes those techniques. It might be that very nonchalance which has held him back in the past. Moments like this, exchanges that would trigger the fight-or-flight response of even the most experienced fighters, seem to slide off Holland’s cool exterior like water off a duck’s ass. You can get the sense that Holland is capable of fighting a truly impeccable fight, but doesn’t always bother trying because he never feels pressed to do so.

The fight continued, and like all Kevin Holland fights, it was equal parts impressive and bizarre. Holland bounces a kick off the top of Stewart’s head and points at it, grinning, as if to say, “You’re welcome for the haircut.” At one point, Holland ends up on his back and Stewart, standing over him, punches him directly in the sole of the foot. Really punches him, too, with all the conviction of a knockout shot. As a man who once tickled the feet of a foe, Holland is not perturbed.

But it wasn’t until round three that Stewart revealed himself as the worthiest of all foes. Darren always has to be coaxed into fighting hard, but once he redlines, he’s a scary man. In round three, with Holland starting to fade, he finally crossed that boundary. Stewart dragged him to the floor and proceeded to brutalize him. With punches, yes, and some truly savage elbows, but it was the deluge of accumulated verbal comebacks that really put a stamp on the fight.

“Come on, get up!” Stewart jeers in his thick accent as he tries his best to nail Holland’s head to the floor. “Come on, Kev! Get up, Kev!” Punctuating each blow with another taunt. WIth 15 seconds to go, Holland tries a few experimental strikes from his back, just to prove he’s still alive. “Yes,” says Darren, like some East London supervillain. “Yeeessss!”

And then the fight ends, and Stewart helps Holland back to his feet, to win a decision he doesn’t entirely agree with. I like to think it was this crushing trash talk, more than the violence, that convinced Holland that Stewart had done enough to earn a draw.

You might expect that I watched the final seconds of this fight through my fingers, chewed at my nails while awaiting the uncertain decision, even wondered whether there would be a decision at all. Usually, when you really like a fighter, that’s how it goes. And yet, as the most devoted fan of Holland this side of the Atlantic, I could only stare on as Darren Stewart beat and berated him, and grin.

This was exactly the fight Kevin Holland had asked for.

~

For more on Kevin Holland’s antics, check out the latest bonus episode up on the Heavy Hands Patreon, the original podcast devoted to the finer points of face-punching.