Aug. 8, 2009. Philadelphia. Hot on the heels of the landmark UFC 100 card one month prior, the company makes its debut in the City of Brotherly Love.
Somewhere in the sellout crowd of 17,411 at the then-Wachovia Center was a 16-year old from Texas named Kevin Holland who was watching the UFC live for the first time.
Holland was in town visiting his father’s side of the family for the first time. While he had started training in martial arts, he wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool UFC fan. But like an untold amount of others, he had been drawn in by the spectacle of the Brock Lesnar-Frank Mir fight, which was one of the UFC’s first events which truly transcended into the mainstream, and he was curious to see the product live when he had the chance.
“I wasn’t this huge UFC fan, but I saw the whole thing the month before with Brock Lesnar, and when I got the chance to go, I was like, yeah, let me see what this was all about,” Holland told MMA Fighting. “But truth be told for much of the show I wasn’t all that into it, it was like whatever.”
Then came a moment which is regularly name-checked on the short list of magic moments in UFC history: Reigning middleweight champ Anderson Silva, going up in weight, finished former UFC light heavyweight champ Forrest Griffin with the MMA equivalent of Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch.
“I came into that fight rooting for Forrest!” Holland excitedly recalled. “And then Anderson started doing his Matrix thing, started slipping punches like I’ve never seen, and then he struck like a cobra coming out of a basket. I was mesmerized. That’s when I knew. I knew.”
A decade later, Holland has established himself in the UFC, and the UFC has announced a return date in Philadelphia, a March 2 date at the Wells Fargo Center which will be the company’s second card on linear ESPN cable.
And while Holland knows he’s not in a position to go making any demands at this stage of his career, he wants to make it abundantly clear that 10 years after he saw Silva do his thing, he wants to go back to the city which got him into MMA.
“I want this for all the right reasons,” Holland said. “It’s 10 years from when i was last there. My family is still there and I want to fight in front of them. And it’s on ESPN. I want to be active in 2019 and this is where I want to get started.”
Certainly, Holland has already proven himself a fighter worth watching. The former Contender Series winner earned far more praise than a losing fighter usually receives following his UFC 227 decision loss to Thiago Santos, largely because of the circumstances: Holland took the fight on short notice, and while Santos was the clear winner, he kept taking Holland to the mat rather than stand with him, which must say something considering Santos has been knocking out light heavyweights since.
Still, Holland didn’t let the praise, which included rave reviews by UFC president Dana White at the post-fight press conference, get to his head.
“At the end of the day, all they’re doing is blowing smoke,” Holland said. “Yeah it’s nice to say good things about you, but that praise doesn’t get my wallet fat so I can’t let my head get fat. I needed to get right back to work after that.”
That, he did. Holland took a fight on four weeks’ notice at UFC Beijing and got into the win column, getting a third-round submission of John Phillips for his 12th career finish among his 13 victories.
“That wasn’t ideal,” Holland said. “You go over there and everything is different, the time is off, the food is different. But you still gotta fight and I’m glad I got to show what I can do and get a finish in the UFC.”
In Holland’s mind, that sets him up for what he envisions as a big 2019. Holland wanted to fight five times this year. While that hasn’t worked out, he still sees himself on pace to compete four times, ideally beginning with his return to Philadelphia.
“Line ‘em up,” Holland said. “There are a lot of guys here in the middleweight division who are one step away from running off to Bellator or ONE or wherever. Let me beat them one by one and build my name, and my wallet, and get me in a title position, and I want it all to start in Philly, 10 years after I got it in my mind I wanted to fight.”