Top 10 middleweights Derek Brunson and Kevin Holland will hook ’em up in what promises to be a thrilling headliner at UFC Vegas 22 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-main event marks the long-awaited return of highly touted lightweight Gregor Gillespie as he battles rising star Brad Riddell inside the UFC APEX. Tai Tuivasa will welcome newcomer Harry Hunsucker in a heavyweight collision, while welterweights Song Kenan and Max Griffin are set to go gung-ho.
There are also two fascinating female fights to look forward to. Bantamweights Adrian Yanez and Gustavo Lopez will lay it on the line and Cheyanne Buys will be making her UFC debut on the same night as her husband, South Africa’s own JP, when she meets Montserrat Ruiz at strawweight.
Derek Brunson v Kevin Holland (Middleweight)
“Trailblazer” is the perfect nickname for Holland (21-5), as he blazed a trail unlike any other in 2020, going 5-0 with four knockouts in bouts against Anthony Hernandez, Joaquin Buckley, Darren Stewart, Charlie Ontiveros and Ronaldo Souza.
He saved the best for last though, as his finish of “Jacaré” in December was one of the most unique knockouts you’ll ever see. It landed the rising star his third Performance of the Night bonus of the year, a place on our 2020 top 10 list and shot him up to 10th in the rankings.
A fearless finisher is the best way to describe Holland. Many fight within themselves under the bright lights inside the Octagon, be it due to the occasion, the dangers their opponent pose or both. Holland has the God-given ability to fight with a freedom as if he’s in somebody else’s body.
He and his team strategise and train for each foe with the utmost respect, but you wouldn’t know it based on his brashness. He’s a trash talker leading up to and during the fight. Once locked in battle, he treats every opponent, regardless of reputation, with what to the naked eye appears to be disrespect.
The fight against “Jacaré” is a perfect example. A former Strikeforce champion, Souza’s one of the greatest middleweight submission artists of all-time, yet Holland showed zero fear when he found himself on his back early on. That’s the type of confidence Holland fights with – a belief based on skill (he boasts a black belt in both kung fu and Brazilian jiu-jitsu) and forged in the heat of battle, which has seen him knockout 11 men and submit six more.
Despite being the number seventh-ranked middleweight in the world, Brunson (21-7) has become the division’s gatekeeper, an unenviable role for a fighter with high hopes. He’s amassed a three-fight win streak, which was enough to make him the early favourite against Holland before the odds flipped late last month.
However, most fans’ most vivid memory of him was when he served as the springboard that skyrocketed Israel Adesanya to stardom in November 2018. That crushing defeat at UFC 230 was his fifth via knockout and shone a spotlight on the remaining chinks in his armour.
He’s a good, powerful striker out of the southpaw stance and has a dozen knockouts to prove it, but he does give opponents windows of opportunity on the feet. At 37, he’s slowing down and at 6’1″, he’s two inches shorter than “Trailblazer” and will have to overcome a four-inch reach disadvantage, all of which point to a sixth straight win for Holland.
Gregor Gillespie v Brad Riddell (Lightweight)
Gillespie (13-1) has been grappling with the demons of his first-ever defeat for over a year. It wasn’t just any loss, it came via one of the most vicious head kicks in UFC history courtesy of Kevin Lee in November 2019. Naturally, it ranked highly on our top 10 knockouts of 2019 list.
Still ranked 15th, he’s a phenomenal wrestler – a former NCAA Division I national champion, and he’s not the lay and pray type. Before being put down by the former interim lightweight title challenger, The Gift’s unbeaten streak included six wins inside the Octagon, the last five of which were by finish. Of his 13 victories, six are by knockout, five by tapout and just two by decision.
His return comes against a Kiwi kickboxer in Riddell (9-1), who, himself, has only tasted defeat once. “Quake” is on a three-fight win streak, all by decision, and will be looking to shake things up by returning to his knockout roots. I’m expecting a laser-focused Gillespie to calculate his entry, take Riddell to the ground and drown him to exorcise his demons.
As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, Riddell should have a slight advantage in that regard, which in this case, should allow him to defend submission attempts. As a result, I reckon Gillespie will go to and pick up the win with his ground and pound.
Tai Tuivasa v Harry Hunsucker (Heavyweight)
A fighter’s fighter, Tuivasa (10-3) rolls with the punches, so when his original opponent Don’Tale Mayes pulled out earlier this week, he was more than happy to face any and all comers. Enter Hunsucker, who’s jumped at the opportunity to make his UFC debut.
Tuivasa is tried and tested. Hunsucker (7-3) is…not. Tuivasa’s gone toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in the heavy-duty division, including former champions Andrei Arlovski and Junior dos Santos, beating the former and falling to the latter.
The loss to Dos Santos on home soil Down Under was the first of his career and stretched to a three-fight skid, which he halted in trademark “Bam Bam” fashion when he knocked out Stefan Struve last time out last October.
After a TKO loss to Jared Vanderaa derailed his bid of earning a UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series last November, Hunsucker bounced back with a 45-second TKO win over Cory Moon in Kentucky promotion HR MMA in February.
Now, “The Hurricane” sweeps into Las Vegas with nothing to lose and determined to put himself on the map at his Australian foe’s expense. All seven of his victories are by stoppage, while all but one of Tuivasa’s wins are by knockout, so it’s safe to say the judges won’t be needed in this one. Tuivasa will take it and probably toast Hunsucker with a “shoey” afterwards.
Song Kenan v Max Griffin (Welterweight)
This should be a fun fire-fight. Griffin (16-8) has decent wrestling but Kenan (16-5) is slick on the ground (six submission wins), so this should mainly play out on the feet. Both men have won half their bouts by knockout, although, Griffin has six decision wins as well.
Griffin’s faced the better competition and holds a victory over Mike Perry, but his win over Ramiz Brahimaj last November was just the second in his last six, whereas Kenan has won four of his last five, including his last two, so I’m backing him as the underdog.
Adrian Yanez v Gustavo Lopez (Bantamweight)
Yanez (12-3) made good on his UFC debut, obliterating Victor Rodriguez with a head kick last November to extend his win streak to five, and will look to keep his momentum going. Like Yanez, Lopez (12-5) is primarily a striker but actually has one more submission win to his name than he does KOs at 6-5 thanks to his rear-naked finish of Anthony Birchak.
He bounded back from defeat to Merab Dvalishvili in his UFC debut with that first-round win last November, so this is a crucial clash that’ll shape the trajectory of his UFC career. Yanez has a three-and-a-half-inch reach advantage to go with his hot streak, which should see him get his hand raised.