Saturday night marks a crossroads for several UFC veterans.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the UFC Vegas 22 main event, which sees longtime middleweight contender Derek Brunson take on Kevin Holland, one of the division’s recent breakout stars. It feels like we go through this cycle with Brunson every couple of years, watching him rise up through the ranks only to eventually be outpaced by newer names. At 37, this could be Brunson’s last chance to prove that he’s not just a gatekeeper.
A lot is on the line for the brash Holland too. He’s always talked a big game, but he backed it up and then some with a spectacular 2020 campaign in which he became just the third fighter in UFC history to go 5-0 in a calendar year (along with Neil Magny and Roger Huerta). This is hardly a make-or-break fight for Holland, who likely has many years of title contention ahead of him.
The returning Gregor Gillespie finds himself in a pivotal fight when he meets Brad Riddell in the co-main event. Gillespie’s elite wrestling and ground game made him one to watch at 155 pounds and he won his first six UFC fights in dominant fashion. Then he ran into a Kevin Lee head kick and disappeared for over 500 days. He has a favorable matchup in the striking-inclined Riddell, but the gritty Kiwi is 3-0 in the UFC so far and if Gillespie shows the slightest sign of rust, Riddell could bump him back in the rankings.
Two other veterans with a lot on the line are Marion Reneau and Leonardo Santos. Reneau, 43, is the oldest fighter on the UFC roster and a fourth straight loss would all but guarantee that she gets shown the door like several other stalwarts have over the past few months. Santos, 41, hasn’t lost a fight in almost 12 years, but inactivity has rendered him a non-factor in the lightweight contender picture and if he’s downed by featherweight transplant Grant Dawson, the matchmakers aren’t going to invest much time in helping him get back up.
What: UFC Vegas 22
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
There’s so many ways this one could play out. Derek Brunson could come storming out of the gates and hand Kevin Holland his first knockout loss. Holland’s unorthodox striking and rampant trash talk could baffle Brunson and bait him into making a fatal mistake. Brunson could emphasize his wrestling and grind out a win. Holland could counter with his grappling and hit a sub out of nowhere. It’s a great matchup!
I’m leaning towards some mixture of those two best case scenarios for Holland, though I’m not confident that he finishes Brunson. Holland’s first five-round fight in the UFC will likely see a lot of wild swings in both directions as the fighters jockey for physical, technical, and mental advantages. My gut tells me Holland will struggle with the more seasoned Brunson at first (this is Brunson’s fifth UFC main event), before settling into a groove after round two. If there’s anyone who has the mindset to disregard a deficit on the scorecards, it’s Holland.
Brunson should look to put the pressure on Holland as much as he can, whether it’s holding Holland down on the mat or backing him up to the cage with combinations. Holland is at his most dangerous when he can let loose—especially if his mouth gets going too—and it’s imperative for Brunson that he doesn’t let Holland have any fun in there.
I think Holland having this extra time to work benefits him and while he won’t exactly make a concrete statement that he should jump the line for a title shot, he’ll get an important win.
Holland by a narrow decision.
Gregor Gillespie vs. Brad Riddell — postponed*
(*The originally scheduled co-main event between Gillespie and Riddell has been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols. Song Kenan vs. Max Griffin has been moved into the co-main event spot.)
Gregor Gillespie got slept badly in his most recent appearance and that’s led to a lot of people sleeping on his chances of becoming a contender again. At his best, “The Gift” is one of the lightweight division’s truly elite grapplers, which should make him a perfect foil for Brad Riddell.
The City Kickboxing standout is going to have a difficult time keeping Gillespie off of him for three rounds and he’s yet to face a wrestler anywhere near Gillespie’s caliber. Cardio and toughness are not issues for him, so it will take a lot for Gillespie to break him down, but Riddell is also going to expend a lot of energy fighting takedowns and scrambling to get up off of his back. He has the striking to punish Gillespie, especially if Gillespie gets off to a slow start. I just don’t see him having the power to deter Gillespie from doing what he wants to do.
It might not be pretty, but Gillespie should lean heavily on his wrestling as he looks to shake off 16 months of rust. He’ll get it done and remind fans why he was once thought of as a dark horse challenger for Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Cheyanne Buys is debuting with considerable hype following a memorable Contender Series contract win and Montserrat Ruiz impressed in her most recent Invicta FC appearance, so there’s a lot of room for growth with these two fighters.
Buys is the justifiable favorite here. She’s a high-volume fighter with solid pop in her hands and a motor to back all that up. Her height advantage will be more pronounced when it comes to the kicking game and her length could help her if this goes to the ground, which it certainly will if Ruiz has her way. Ruiz is a straightforward striker who will flurry with the purpose of getting inside to either brawl or find an opening for a takedown.
I like Buys’ chances of keeping this one standing and if she can do that for three rounds, she has the advantage. Her striking is more varied and I think she outlasts Ruiz in a fast-paced fight. Don’t be surprised if they steal the Fight of the Night award.
Speaking of Fight of the Night candidates, this one might fall just short of that honor if only because of Adrian Yanez and Gustavo Lopez’s propensity for quick finishes. You can bet these guys will both be hunting for an extra $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus instead.
I’ll lean slightly towards Yanez here because I see him as being more durable. He also has a reach advantage and every inch will count in a battle that will primarily take place on the feet. Yanez has a better flow when he gets going as opposed to Lopez’s more compact and powerful style, but regardless, once the hands start flying it will boil down to a battle of wills. Though it’s anyone’s guess as far as who will blink first, I expect Yanez to land harder and more often. Lopez is tough, but has shown some defensive deficiencies in the past, and I predict Yanez puts him away in the first or second round.
We could be in for a striking chess match here as Song Kenan takes on the equally tactical-minded Max Griffin. There’s certainly potential for a fun scrap here, but it could take time to develop as these intelligent welterweights feel each other out.
Song likes to control distance and counter-strike, which fits well with Griffin, who likes to get in and out with his boxing. Griffin’s most optimal path to victory is to frustrate Song and possibly tire him out over the course of the first two rounds. There are questions marks around Song’s cardio. He’s big and strong, which is reflected in his punching power, but also in his decision losses.
Griffin is no stranger to the scorecards and that could be both to his benefit and to his detriment here. If he can’t outwork Song, it’s only a matter of time before Song lands a telling blow and finishes with strikes or maybe even with a sneaky submission on the ground; if Griffin does set the tone early, he could ride that success to a win on the cards.
This pick really depends on how much improvement you believe Song can make heading into just his third fight in about two and a half years. I’m confident he’s trending upwards.
This is normally the part where I write, “Anything can happen at heavyweight.” And that’s true, don’t ever forget it. But Tai Tuivasa should win this fight.
Credit to Harry Hunsucker for stepping in on three days’ notice as a replacement for Don’Tale Mayes, of course. The past Contender Series hopeful is coming off of a sweet knockout on the regional scene, and he’s a classic big man fight finisher with all 10 of his pro bouts ending in the first round.
Keep in mind, only seven of those bouts ended in Hunsucker having his hand raised. Tuivasa has eight knockouts to his name, all in round one. Do you see where this is going? Tuivasa has the size, speed, and technique advantage in this matchup and as long as he doesn’t goof around, he’ll be celebrating with another shoey (gross) in no time.
Tuivasa by first-round KO.
Macy Chiasson def. Marion Reneau
Leonardo Santos def. Grant Dawson