Let’s try this again, shall we, Mr. Holland?
In his first UFC main event just three weeks ago, Kevin Holland left a lot of his supporters feeling flat as he was out-wrestled and out-worked by the more experienced Derek Brunson. It was a humbling lesson for the exciting middleweight, who went 5-0 in 2020, but spent most of his first fight of 2021 talking and struggling to get off of his back as opposed to getting to show why he’s one of the promotion’s breakout stars.
He goes from one top contender to another, stepping in on short-notice for an injured Darren Till to face Marvin Vettori. Vettori had a strong 2020 campaign as well, competing just twice, but scoring a submission win over the dangerous Karl Roberson and then earning a dominant decision over Jack Hermansson. Holland and and Vettori have long had mutual animosity, so this matchup is as personal as the originally scheduled UFC Vegas 23 headliner.
Vettori stays in position for a future title shot with a win, while there’s no guessing what Holland will do should he rebound from his recent loss. He may finally make an oft-discussed drop down to 170 pounds or just keep messing around at 185 and end up fighting for a championship himself.
In other main card action, featherweights Arnold Allen and Sodiq Yusuff put their unblemished UFC records on the line, Sam Alvey drops back down to middleweight to face short-notice replacement Julian Marquez, Nina Nunes returns from maternity leave against fellow mom-fighter Mackenzie Dern, and Mike Perry fights Daniel Rodriguez in a welterweight contest.
What: UFC Vegas 23
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, April 10. The card begins with a single early preliminary bout on ESPN+ at 11:30 a.m. ET and continues with a seven-fight preliminary card starting at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN+. The five-fight main card airs at 3 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN+.
I’m still a believer in Kevin Holland.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never particularly enjoyed the in-cage chatter (not that I feel it has any effect on his actual performances, more so how they’re perceived), but there’s no denying his talent. You don’t win five UFC fights in a year and knock off guys like Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Joaquin Buckley, and Anthony Hernandez on gusto alone. Holland is good.
What’s his ceiling at middleweight? That’s another question. He’s a contender (again, he knocked out Jacare!), there’s just reasonable doubt that he can continue to give up size and still be effective. Especially when it comes to the division’s better wrestlers, a category that I would place Marvin Vettori in.
Vettori might not have Division-I credentials, but he’s incredibly strong and does an excellent job of not forcing the action. He’ll happily stand and bang, while also imposing his will on Holland if “Trailblazer” allows him to cut off his angles. There are three keys to Holland winning this one: Move, move, and move some more.
Brunson was a nightmare matchup for Holland. A more experienced veteran wrestler with a knack for squashing hype. We still don’t know what Vettori is. He’s skilled and fiery, the latter attribute possibly being to his detriment if Holland can get into his head. On paper, he should beat Holland.
So it’s time for the AK Lee special where I go the opposite way for no discernible reason. Holland by knockout. I just have a weird feeling.
How does one even begin to separate these blue-chippers?
Seriously, I could be talked into any number of outcomes here. Submission win for Sodiq Yusuff? Sure. Arnold Allen by TKO after a blistering combo? Sure. A razor-thin split decision either way? Absolutely. There’s a reason these two have yet to meet their match inside the octagon. They haven’t shown many weakness and that’s why both seem destined to challenge for a title someday.
But someone’s progress will be slowed Saturday and I think it will be Yusuff’s. When two fighters are this evenly matched, I’ll defer to the one with the experience edge, which is Allen in this case by a slim margin. Not that Yusuff has had an easy ride so far, but I’ve just seen Allen pushed into deep waters a few more times and I’m impressed by how he’s thrived in those situations.
No surprise, I’m going with the razor-thin split decision option here and Allen keeping his win streak alive.
This is Sam Alvey’s last chance to prove he can still compete at the UFC level. A return to 185 pounds should theoretically also mean the return of the KO power that once made him one of the best middleweights not signed to a major promotion. That was a while ago and “Smile’n Sam” put some folks down when he made it to the UFC as well, but it’s fair to say he didn’t pack quite the same punch at light heavyweight.
On Saturday, he runs into Julian Marquez, who knows a thing or two about finishing middleweights. While the talented Glory MMA representative has definitely lacked consistency, he’s also shown a knack for both putting away opponents early and late game dramatics. He’s becoming a guy that you can never count out no matter how it looks like the fight is going.
Against Alvey, I actually expect Marquez to get ahead in the opening round and keep that up for the rest of the fight. Having to cut that extra 20 pounds can’t be easy for Alvey and if this goes to the third round, Marquez’s advantage could become even more pronounced.
Good for Alvey for shaking things up and doing whatever he can to stick around in the UFC, but I think Marquez sends him on his way.
Kudos to the matchmakers here for putting together a matchup that’s both worthy of Nina Nunes’ ranking prior to her taking a long layoff and the strength of Mackenzie Dern’s recent performances. This is the perfect test for Dern at this stage of her career.
Any notion that Nunes can just be overwhelmed by grapplers went out the window a long time ago. She convincingly beat both Claudia Gadelha and Randa Markos, and gave the undefeated Tatiana Suarez everything she could handle in their UFC 238 encounter. If Nunes can survive an elite wrestler like Suarez, then Dern is going to have to work hard to get this fight to the ground.
I see this fight playing out in a similar way, which means Dern’s athleticism and grappling should serve her well in the early going. She’s shown she can take a punch, so she should be able to weather the storm of Nunes’ standup and get inside for takedowns and heavy punches of her own. As the fight drags on though, I don’t like Dern’s chances if she can’t get the submission.
Nunes is such a smart fighter, she should be able to avoid falling into any of Dern’s traps and keep this one standing or at least avoid getting into too many positions where Dern can work her nasty submission game. In that scenario, I like her odds of outlasting Dern and winning a decision. Dern has the skills to be a future champion, but I think this will end up being a loss that she learns a lot from.
As potent as Mike Perry’s punching power is and as much as he’s improved since making his UFC debut, he still has difficulties dealing with more technical strikers and I expect that narrative to play out again on Saturday. Daniel Rodriguez has the defensive skills to avoid a firefight with Perry—not recommended for anyone at 170 pounds—and a few inches of reach to aid him in keeping Perry at the edge of his punches.
Perry is a constant KO threat, but Rodriguez has an excellent chin and enough wrestling to put Perry on his back if “Platinum” gets too aggressive. If Perry can show the flashes of patience and precision that he has in the past, he can certainly get the better end of a decision here, otherwise a three-round fight should favor Rodriguez.
Rodriguez on points.