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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Vegas 22: Can Derek Brunson break gatekeeper label against Kevin Holland?

Dig into the details of UFC Vegas 22, headlined by Kevin Holland looking to climb past longtime gatekeeper Derek Brunson into the divisional elite.

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Kevin Holland, celebrating his win over Jacare Souza at UFC 256
Kevin Holland, celebrating his win over Jacare Souza at UFC 256
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

UFC Vegas 22 isn’t a good card… by UFC standards. Keeping in mind the UFC is the pinnacle of the sport, that doesn’t mean everything is bad. The main event between Derek Brunson and Kevin Holland is a perfectly fine contest – one I’m very much looking forward to – but it isn’t necessarily a contest fans feel they need to see over the course of five rounds. The co-main event between Gregor Gillespie and Brad Riddell is another fantastic matchup… but a co-main event? Eh. There isn’t much else to sell to the casual fanbase beyond the top two fights, and even those aren’t gonna get many buying.

Of course, for those of you who are going to watch anyway, you know I’ve got you covered.

Derek Brunson vs. Kevin Holland, Middleweight

For about five years, Brunson is the first fighter that comes to mind when fans hear the word gatekeeper. Not just for the middleweight division either; for the entirety of the sport, so entrenched has that label been imprinted on him. Though it isn’t meant to be a insult, fighters hate that label as it means they are often used as a stepping stone for others to get to the top, not always being aware of the amount of other fighters whose heads they step on to keep them down. Now 37, this run may be Brunson’s last opportunity to break that label and establish himself as an elite middleweight.

With that knowledge, motivation shouldn’t be an issue for Brunson. In his most recent showings, he’s been fighting like he knows it’s his last chance. Formerly a reckless ball of athleticism who was looking to run over his opposition with sheer power, Brunson has been fighting far more measured, showing decent striking technique for the first time in his career. Given he has plenty of power and his wrestling to fall back on, he was able to get away with being a reckless striker up to that point. Brunson hasn’t had issues going the distance either, but he’s never fought into the championship rounds, leaving questions how he could do should the fight go the distance.

It’s fair to question if Kevin Holland can go the distance as well given he has never gone into championship rounds either, but the lanky loudmouth tends to push a hard pace in every contest without any worse for wear on his conditioning by the end. That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions around him. Does he have the focus? Is he overconfident in his ability to work his way out of a sticky situation? Given his takedown defense has always been a question, it’s worth wondering if he’ll be able to avoid Brunson’s wrestling, something Brunson has been using with greater frequency as of late.

What Holland might be able to do is outstrike Brunson. While Brunson’s striking has improved – his jab in particular is potent – Brunson is also used to being the longer and more athletic competitor. Whether Holland is the better athlete is debatable, but there’s no doubt he’s got a hell of a reach advantage. Holland can be aimless at times – thus the questions about his focus – but he’s exceptionally creative at times and has surprised with his accuracy for someone who appears to float through fights. Well… he used to float through fights. Holland has looked exceptionally focused in his recent contests, indicating he’s turning a corner.

This is a very difficult contest to pick, a credit to the UFC matchmakers. It isn’t hard to see Brunson smothering Holland with his wrestling or even blasting Holland into orbit. Holland is notoriously durable, so the latter is less likely, but it isn’t impossible to see it happening given Brunson’s power. On the flip side, Holland could blast Brunson – who has been finished via strikes on several occasions – or even find a submission out of nowhere as Brunson tries to keep him grounded. In a situation like this, a fair question to ask is what direction each fighter is going or is most likely to go. Holland is the younger fighter who has made massive strides in recent years whereas Brunson’s age leaves open the possibility of him falling off a cliff. I don’t think he does here, but I do think it’s more likely Holland walks out the victor. Holland via TKO of RD4

Gregor Gillespie vs. Brad Riddell, Lightweight

It’s fair to wonder if Gillespie has had his confidence shattered. After all, he disappeared for 16 months following his first loss, a brutal KO at the hands of Kevin Lee, only now returning to the cage. Up to that point, Gillespie had been able to run through his opposition with minimal resistance. Now that someone has pushed back, is Gillespie going to be the same?

While getting KO’d is different from any other type of loss in sports, this is hardly the first time Gillespie has lost a high stakes sporting contest. The collegiate wrestling champion wasn’t exactly undefeated in his wrestling collegiate career. It feels like betting against Gillespie would be a foolish endeavor if it comes down to mental strength. Besides, Gillespie’s MMA career has been built around the idea of breaking his opposition mentally by taking them down and keeping them down. Even when keeping them down has been an issue, Gillespie’s wrestling is strong enough he can usually just drag them down to the ground pretty damned quickly.

That’s not good news for Riddell. Though the Aussie has proven to be a better wrestler and grappler than anyone anticipated the former kickboxer would be, he hasn’t faced someone with the stickiness of Gillespie. And when I say Riddell has been better than expected in those departments, the expectations were on the low side to begin with.

That hardly means Riddell doesn’t stand a chance. The former Tiger Muay Thai striking coach throws with a combination of intensity and technique that is hard to find. He’s frequently countered takedown attempts with uppercuts and puts together lengthy combinations that leave his opposition wobbly. Riddell hasn’t put away anyone in the UFC yet, but he’s come close enough on several occasions that it’s hard to believe one isn’t too far away.

What this comes down to is who will be able to implement their game. Gillespie wants things grounded, Riddell wants it standing. According to UFC Stats, Gillespie has maintained control of some sort for over 75% of his cage time. Remembering fights begin on the feet, that’s an astounding statistic. Riddell has struggled to avoid going to the mat with lesser wrestlers, though it should be noted Riddell has proven difficult to hold down. Riddell is a large lightweight – and Gillespie is on the smaller side – and the Aussie could end the night with a single punch, but Gillespie feels like the far more intelligent choice. Gillespie via decision

  • There’s been a fair amount of buzz around Cheyanne Buys as she prepares to make her UFC debut. Part of that is because she and her husband, JP, are about to be the second husband-wife duo to fight in the UFC. However, most of the attention is because she has shown enough for many to believe she’s going to be a UFC fixture for a very long time. Perhaps what has been most impressive has been her maturity, showing poise and composure in the cage in a way that belies her 25 years. Buys maintains her tight punching technique pretty much at all times, even when letting loose a stream of punches. She hasn’t shown a lot of finishing ability, but she is a physically strong wrestler who maintains excellent control against the cage or on the mat when she can get the contest to the mat. That could prove to be very problematic for Montserrat Ruiz, a late-notice addition to the contest and roster. Ruiz has heavy hands, solid wrestling, and aggressively pursues takedowns. However, she has suffered from bouts of inactivity and has struggled with opponents less physically imposing than Buys. Ruiz is the more likely of the two to secure a finish, but Buys has been calm under pressure when previously threatened. I think she can weather a scare or two from Ruiz to take a decision. Buys via decision
  • The UFC is putting quite a bit of hype behind Adrian Yanez. I don’t say that disparagingly as everything Yanez has done under the UFC banner has completely warranted the push, but the 27-year old striker will be in a world of hurt as soon as he steps into the cage with a wrestler. Fortunately for him, that day has yet to arrive as Gustavo Lopez will be more than happy to engage on the feet. A former Combate Americas bantamweight champion, Lopez made up for a downer of a UFC debut by easily disposing of teammate Anthony Birchak in his sophomore effort. Though Lopez can wrestle and grapple a bit – in an aggressive manner when he chooses to do so – he prefers a firefight over anything else. Of course, that’s what Yanez wants too. Yanez not only is the more explosive athlete, he also the more technical puncher. Throw in the fact he is by far the more diverse striker, it’s easy to see why Yanez is considered to be a firm favorite. Of course, Yanez’s defense could use some polish – leaving open the possibility of a Lopez upset – but he’s also never been finished in his career, indicating a strong chin. There’s no good reason to pick Lopez if betting odds have nothing to do with picking this contest. Yanez via TKO of RD2
  • It can’t be denied that Kenan Song is a physically impressive specimen. He has power, speed, strength… all the tools to be a top-flight welterweight. However, it also can’t be denied that Song’s 4-1 UFC record is very inflated due to fighting some underwhelming competition. It isn’t like he’s been asking for middling opponents and he’s beating them like he’s supposed to, but it’s hard to get excited about his future when he’s disposing of the likes of Callan Potter and Hector Aldana. Another major red flag has been his inability to remain effective late into a fight, fading very badly. He says he has worked on it, but I’ll have to see it to believe it. Stamina has never been an issue for Max Griffin. Though his UFC record of 4-6 pales next to Song’s, Griffin has fought eminently tougher competition and has rarely been blown out. In fact, Griffin continues to consistently add wrinkles to his attack. Entering the UFC largely as a kickboxer, he has shown the ability to be a patient counter striker in one contest and a dogged wrestler in others. Then again, the lack of a definitive identity might also be his curse. Regardless, Griffin has proven to be exceptionally durable. Given Song has relied on getting his opposition out of there early, he’ll probably be in a world of hurt if he can’t get Griffin out of there quickly. Griffin via TKO of RD3
  • It’s impossible not to like Tai Tuivasa. A laid back disciple of Mark Hunt who has introduced the shoey into the vernacular of MMA fans, he’s just a big, fun-loving guy. Of course, his fun-loving nature – as well as his flabby frame — has called into question his work ethic following a three-fight losing streak. To his credit, Tuivasa not only appeared to be in better shape in his most recent outing – a win over Stefan Struve – but was taking a more patient approach, picking his spots rather than bum rushing the opposition as he had in the past. There are still massive questions about his takedown defense, but there’s little reason to believe newcomer Harry Hunsucker will be the guy to see if those concerns are alleviated. Hunsucker doesn’t have the ideal heavyweight frame – Tuivasa doesn’t either if I’m being honest – but he does have solid speed, allowing him to unload a barrage of punches in a hurry that would be more difficult to do as a larger combatant. Of course, Hunsucker has never left the first round either and was disposed of by the only talents that would be considered quality opposition. If Tuivasa’s chin wasn’t so durable, I might put some thought into Hunsucker pulling off the upset as Tuivasa is generally there to be hit. Unfortunately, Hunsucker tends to gain KO’s via volume. Tuivasa will hit back before Hunsucker can get off too many punches and Tuivasa hits like a truck. That doesn’t bode well for the newcomer. Tuivasa via KO of RD1