In the conversation of pound-for-pound least intimidating fighter, it’s always been a toss up between Steven Siler and the inimitable Danny Boy Downes, whose sweep of all-American bangs gave him an un-ideal aura of boyishness in the cage. Yet both look like circus strongmen next to the bantamweight Chris Holdsworth, who fights this weekend against Downes’ old training partner, Chico Camus, at UFC 173 in Las Vegas.
The 26-year-old Holdsworth stands 5-foot-11, but only 135 pounds fill in that skyward frame. To say he’s somewhat gangly would be like saying a typical octagon has eight sides. His ears shoot outright in the classic Ichabod Crane sense, but before you point it out, note the vegetation about the helix…note the areas that look like silly putty…note the general gnarl. Those ears are the telltale sign of sadistic mat-gnashing!…all the tip-off you need in realizing everything else in these appearances is a pack of lies.
"It’s pretty funny you should say that," he tells MMA Fighting. "The biggest thing I learned when I was younger is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. And you know, I used to wear my Gracie jiu-jitsu shirt everywhere, and on the back of it, the words were: Looks Can Be Deceiving. And I love that shirt, it’s my favorite shirt.
"But yeah, I’m kind of a nerd. Some people say I’m socially awkward, but I’m not the guy who runs with a big crowd. I do my own thing and be quiet. For the most part, you’ll probably see me with my glasses on looking like a nerd, but I’m okay with that. I don’t want to look like a fighter. It’s not what I want to do. I want to be different."
Yet, Holdsworth is a fighter, and a damn promising one. Not only did he win The Ultimate Fighter 18 by choking out Davey Grant in the finale as member of Team Tate, but all five of his pro victories to date have come via some form of submission. His miles of limbs, which are deceptively strong in times of constriction, translate well on the floor.
And in the realm of jiu-jitsu, Holdsworth was a precocious student from the get-go, inspired to undertake the MMA journey after losing his older brother early in life. He came up under the Gracies belt system in Southern California, before earning his black belt from Marc Laimon when he was just 21 years old. Now that jitz, always there and lurking, is his bedrock.
"I definitely think that my jiu-jitsu is the sharpest, because I spent most of my time there," he says. "But striking is right up there, and every fight I’ve gotten a little bit closer to a knockout, and been able to showcase a little bit more what I have to offer. It’s been a long journey, and a lot of people thought I was just a jiu-jitsu guy, but I started with a background doing Hawaiian kempo and tai-kwon-do and stuff like that, and I did boxing before I ever did jiu-jitsu.
"So I’ve always had that mixed martial arts mentality. I fell in love with jiu-jitsu, and I spent a lot of time at that. But I’ve always worked on my striking, and it’s constantly improving."
As a member of Team Alpha Male, having a kickboxing exemplar like Duane Ludwig around hadn’t hurt, either. Holdsworth, much the same as his teammate and UFC 173’s headliner, T.J. Dillashaw, has been steadily adding striking into the bag of tricks. Even before "Bang" was in Sacramento, Holdsworth has had flashes. He did some bad things to an entity known as Gor Mnatsakanyan with his fists when he was an amateur, for instance.
He had his moments in the TUF course as well. Ludwig, who runs alternately on emotion and compulsion, has been a great tool sharpener.
"It’s going to be hard to fill Duane’s shoes," Holdsworth says of his mentor/coach, who is leaving Team Alpha Male to open a gym in Colorado. "He’s really OCD on things as far as…he’s always doing his homework, always thinking about martial arts. He’s in the grocery store in the aisle doing combos. It’s always on his mind. It’s going to be big shoes to fill, and it sucks that after so much time learning his system…and we’re going to keep learning his system, but I think his muay Thai system has been great for me as a fighter. It works really well for me. So it kind of sucks to say the least."
Holdsworth was supposed to face Kyung-Ho Kang in Vegas, but -- after an injury sidelined the Korean fighter -- now faces Camus, who himself defeated Kang at UFC 164. The Milwaukee-based Camus is riding a two-fight winning streak. He’d built a reputation at Roufusport -- from which he was recently banished for insubordination -- on general scrappiness. As such, Holdsworth says he expects a "technical dogfight" on Saturday night.
"It’s going to be a war," he says.
But what it’s really going to be is more fodder for his mother, who works TSA at the Burbank Airport. She likes to brag about her son to the passerby who are interested in such things.
"My mom has been really supportive as far as my whole career goes, amateur, pro-wise, she really gets into it," he says. "She’s constantly name dropping me, everywhere she goes she’s got to mention me. She’s really proud. She’s always running into fighters at the airport, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Herb Dean…she loves it. She’ll be there Saturday night."
His dad won’t be able to attend, but Chris Holdsworth, the most improbable looking cagefighter in 2014, credits his father for getting him into the fight game, in spite of stature, size and outward appearances.
"My dad, he’s always been teaching me from day one, and he got me into it when I was younger," he says. "Kung-fu, Vietnam veteran, and we were always watching martial arts movies growing up. He had a heavy bag in the garage, and he’d show me stuff. His favorite quote was, ‘hit him in the balls, poke his eyes out, and play marbles with them.’ My dad was always a bit of a dirty fighter."