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Editorial: Whether Kevin Holland is ‘for real’ misses the point

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Kevin Holland may or may not be a legitimate UFC contender, but I’m not sure that matters.

MMA: UFC Fight Night Anthony Hernandez vs Kevin Holland
Kevin Holland main events against Derek Brunson this weekend.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The last time we saw Kevin Holland in the cage, it was at UFC 256, against Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza. Yes, it was an improbable knockout with Holland’s back still on the floor. Against an aging but still elite(ish) fighter. While normally an atypical knockout is about the kind of punching placement that ranges somewhere within the perfect/luck spectrum, Holland’s punches were intentional, and violent — as it were an ace up his sleeve he’s always had.

Still, a few things get lost in that fight. For one, he tied the UFC record for most wins in a calendar year. It’s not terribly impressive in Wants to be a Contender terms, but with fighters like Jacare and Joaquin Buckley on his dance card, it’s still impressive. The other thing worth was everything he did against Jacare before the KO.

Not only did he begin with a brief sweep of Jacare, but he positioned for a triangle, and used it to leverage hard elbows on the crown of Jacare’s head. Then he went for a standing guillotine. Is this all an example of Holland ‘outgrappling’ one of MMA’s greats? Not really. Whether Jacare was ever in trouble is not what I found most impressive re-watching the bout, but just the sheer, comfort, confidence, and audacity of pressuring Jacare in his comfort zone.

Holland has all the makings of a star. The UFC is never interested in leveraging a fighter’s public profile beyond milquetoast branding, so the onus is on the fighters to be charismatic, and promote themselves. Most fighters need a device: trying to be an artificial ‘heel’ (like Chael Sonnen or Colby) or just lacking self-control (the Diaz brothers, McGregor, etc), their personalities attract more people. But some fighters simply are, and that’s enough. Think Jorge Masvidal, or, Mr. Holland.

With his discussions with the commentary booth mid-fight, goofballing, or offbeat comments, Holland brings a Three Stooges sensibility that doesn’t feel forced. That doesn’t mean I endorse everything he says. If he thinks he has a gift of gab, some of his gab should be gifted silence. With his comments toward Israel Adesanya, he’s playing the game too.

If I’m sympathetic it’s because I don’t think fighters like him don’t come around too often: fighters that seem abnormally comfortable in one of the most physically hostile environments. These are fighters that aren’t just loose, but lost within themselves: laughing, giggling, and generally just treating a facepunching contest like a kid in the sandbox, positioning his GI joe’s on top of household items.

For boxing fans, the sport is old enough to gift us these strange pugilists every so often. Even if you’re not a boxing fan, watch this fight with Emanuel Augustus. It’s absolutely spellbinding. At certain points it doesn’t even resemble boxing, but some sort of performance art. More madness than method, Augustus was also talented, however.

Derek Brunson is not a gimme by any stretch. But Holland is being setup to fill a star’s shoes. There’s gonna be pressure on Holland. His talent, his talking, and the division’s lack of winning contenders will see to that. So there’s gonna be a fanbase. There’s gonna be hype. Maybe one day there might even be a belt. If there isn’t, I don’t think Holland will even care. They say you can’t hide who you are in the ring, or in the cage. If that’s true, Holland’s just here to have fun.