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Kevin Holland takes fast track from Contender Series to UFC 227 main card

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Kevin Holland takes on Thiago Santos at UFC 228.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LOS ANGELES — Part of what has made Dana White‘s Tuesday Night Contender Series a critical success since its inception last summer has been the idea that the fights you see going down at the UFC Training Centre matter.

The stakes are high when young fighters get a chance to audition in front of the most powerful promoter in the sport. When you tune into Contender Series, you just might catch a glimpse of the next big thing.

Kevin Holland didn’t get a UFC contract after appearing on the opening card of the current season of Contender Series, when he earned a unanimous decision victory over Will Santiago on June 12. But even without a contract, Holland didn’t leave Las Vegas disappointed. Holland knew that he put on a show, and figured he would get the call sooner rather than later.

“The past couple months have been just another day man, another day in the office,” Holland told MMA Fighting. “I mean, I didn’t get the contract, but it didn’t bother me. I know that I belonged, and I knew what it takes to get there. It’s hard work and dedication, so, just because I didn’t get the contract on one night, that didn’t mean I was going to be deterred and make me quit.”

And now, less than two months later, the Ft. Worth, Texas-based middleweight finds himself not just in the UFC, but on the main card of a pay-per-view. Holland will face hard-hitting middleweight contender Thiago Santos at UFC 227 on Saturday night at Staples Center.

“I was thinking in my head, they got 228 going on in Dallas, a lot could go on here, I can get me a couple wins in and maybe they call me for the last-second card,” Holland said. “But I didn’t even have to fight again. They called me to go to 227, so I was like, hey, yippie ki-yay.”

In Holland’s mind, his UFC 227 spot justifies his performance on Contender Series. Holland is a finisher, with his win over Santiago standing as the only one of his 12 victories not to end via knockout or submission. But he also had enough self awareness not to try to hard to find a finish when it wasn’t there.

If he got the contract that night, so be it, if not, well, things worked out anyway.

“At the end of the day, Dana White Contender Series is not for joking, it is not for playing around, it is for finishes,” Holland said. “But I also knew that I couldn’t control whether I finish the guy or not, because that could put me in a bad situation, but I could control whether I entertained or not. So I went in with the mindset of, I’m going to entertain, I’m going to get paid, and at the end of the day, I’m going to go home and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get here.”

Another matter that’s not for joking is a fight with Santos, a slugger with a propensity for violence who had four straight TKO victories until his most recent bout. His last fight, though, was a knockout loss to David Branch, and in that performance, Holland saw a man who can be defeated.

“You’re only as good as your last fight, and his last fight he got knocked out,” Holland said. “Mad respect to the guy, he’s a big 185er, but at the end of the day I’m a long 185er, I’m a fast 185er, and if a car is stuck on your kid, you don’t use strength to lift that car up, you use leverage. When you look at how long these arms are, that’s leverage. So when it comes down to it, who has the power? I’ve got a lot of knockouts on my record. I’m not afraid to do anything with any man in this room.”

It doesn’t take long in talking to Holland to realize that he’s got a gift of gab — the sort that, with a couple of well-timed victories in the UFC, could give him the potential to break through the clutter and become a star.

Holland’s so talkative, in fact, that he likes to annoy his opponents with all-out conversations during their fights — something for which Santos best brace himself.

“I like to ask what they did last night, what they did last week, ask them what they’re going to do next week,” Holland said. “Then I ask them, ‘If I win, will you take me out to dinner?’

“One guy I was fighting, he was an older guy, Nael Chavez. I was amateur, and in the middle of the fight he asked me how old I was. That had to be the weirdest conversation I ever had in the fight so I was like (makes a motion like elbowing his opponent), ‘I’m 21’. He was like 40, and he was like, ‘Man, you are athletic!’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you, bro, thank you. I really appreciate that,’ and then I drop another punch. And still to this day that guy messages me and we have full-blown conversations. We became friends.”