There were many possible ways for the main event at UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs. Holland to play out. The veteran -- don't call him a gatekeeper -- Derek Brunson was placed in the Octagon once again to stop the rise of a star in the making. Kevin Holland, known for his 5-0 record in 2020 and his seemingly never-ending chatter in the cage, could've been a win away from a future title opportunity. If Holland could have beaten Brunson with one of his signature finishes, the sky would have been the limit.
But on Saturday night in Las Vegas, the old guard reigned supreme with a dominant performance that highlighted Holland's shortcomings. Brunson's ground game was overwhelming, and he coasted to a unanimous decision victory and a plea to get a highly ranked opponent in his next bout.
Before the main event, the theme of the Fight Night was knockouts, as six fights ended before the final bell -- including one at 4:59 of the third round. Grant Dawson's last-second hammerfist led him to victory and showed to all that his new division is the right place to be.
What's ahead for the standouts of the night? Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weigh in on the fights in Vegas.
Okamoto: Holland's skills need to catch up to his mouth
Listen, this is very obvious, "hindsight is 20/20" analysis -- but it's the truth, all right? Whenever Kevin Holland came up short in a high-profile spot, he was probably going to receive criticism -- because he talks nonstop during fights. So, this feels like low-hanging fruit, but it needs to be said. Holland is fun. He is entertaining. He is memorable. And for all those reasons, he can afford a few losses here and there. He's an entertainer the UFC can rely on. Throw him on a card that needs a lift and fans will take notice. But at the same time, all that in-fight talk can be a turnoff if you can't do things like defend a takedown. And on Saturday, Holland couldn't do that.
Derek Brunson is a very solid, highly experienced middleweight, but if Holland is going to be a star (which the UFC was clearly giving him a chance to be), this is the kind of fight he has to win. Holland had his opportunities to do it, but every time they presented themselves, Holland allowed Brunson to regain momentum. When Holland had Brunson hurt in the second round, Holland surrendered a takedown. When Brunson appeared tired in the fourth round, Holland surrendered a takedown. When he got into top position (and started celebrating about it) in the fifth round, Holland allowed Brunson to scramble and reverse position.
At the end of the day, in his first main event, Holland offered a couple of fun moments for social media, but he basically lost every round. There's a fine line between being funny -- asking Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was sitting cageside, how to defend a takedown -- and being off-putting -- asking Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was sitting cageside, how to defend a takedown. Holland has potential, in every sense of the word. A lot of it. That's what made Saturday's outing so disappointing. People see potential; they want to see it realized. And Holland didn't do that in this one.
Meanwhile, kudos to Brunson for staying the course and getting the job done. Brunson has struggled to rally fans behind him, and honestly, this still isn't the performance that will do it. But the guy has earned the right to fight someone ahead of him in the rankings in his next bout, after taking out back-to-back up-and-comers in Holland and Edmen Shahbazyan. Brunson called out Paulo Costa, specifically, and that's a fight that makes sense to me.
After the fight, Holland mentioned a potential drop to 170 pounds, which actually, could be a good sign. I'm not really in favor of athletes cutting more weight, but Holland wanting to drop suggests discipline. If he does, in fact, make the drop, there is an unlimited amount of options for him. Welterweight is full of fun fights stylistically. Pick one and let it rip, and take it serious, Kevin.
Raimondi: Lightweight is the right weight for Dawson
With one second remaining, Grant Dawson gets the TKO victory via punches vs. Leonardo Santos.
After a last-second finish of Leonardo Santos on Saturday, Grant Dawson said in his postfight interview that he weighed almost 180 pounds in the Octagon. Dawson weighed in Friday morning at 156 pounds. That's a big boy.
This was Dawson's first fight in the UFC at lightweight after moving up from featherweight -- and it was absolutely the right call. Dawson looked fantastic -- not depleted at all -- in the third round, where he really started to take over against Santos. There were no cardio issues. Dawson seemed stronger in the third than he did in the first. That's a scary proposition, considering he was already thought to be a top prospect at featherweight.
Now, the UFC's lightweight division is an absolute minefield. But Dawson has all the pieces to make a serious run. He is just 27 years old, though people in the know at James Krause's Glory MMA in Lee's Summit, Missouri, have been talking about him for seemingly the better part of a decade. And let's be honest: Dawson was probably cutting a bit too much weight for 145 pounds. When he fought in RFA, he had to withdraw from a bout in 2015 because he got first-degree burns and folliculitis from spending too much time in a Nebraska gym's hot tub.
There should be no more extended time in scalding water needed for Dawson. And a fully hydrated Dawson is a very dangerous Dawson. Santos found that out the hard way, going for a lazy leg lock as time expired in the third round on Saturday. Dawson still had enough juice to smash him with hammerfists and finish the fight via TKO with one second remaining.
Wagenheim: Ten fights. Six knockouts. What a crowd-pleasing night on a night with no crowd
Tai Tuivasa stuns Harry Hunsucker with a big right hook that stumbles Hunsucker and finishes the fight.
The most dramatic finish of all was authored by Grant Dawson, who just in the nick of time got to live out the favorite mantra of MMA fighters everywhere: Don't leave it to the judges. As the final seconds of his tight lightweight scrap with Leonardo Santos ticked off the clock, with the fighters on the canvas and Dawson in Silva's full guard, it appeared that the scorecards were going to come into play. But then Dawson landed a hammerfist that shook Silva, then another that stunned him, then another that sent Silva's mouthpiece flying. That brought the referee to jump in -- at 4:59 of Round 3.
Others got the job done much more quickly and efficiently. Max Griffin won the welterweight co-main event with a crushing right hand that left Song Kenan facedown and motionless on the mat at 2:20 of Round 1. Montel Jackson was even swifter with the finish, living up to his "Quick" nickname by flattening bantamweight Jesse Strader with a right hook at 1:58. And both of those knockouts seemed slow compared to the heavyweight handiwork of Tai Tuivasa, whose slugfest with Harry Hunsucker ended so early -- 49 seconds -- that no one had time to prepare a shoey for the big Aussie fighter.
The thing about this night's knockouts is that no one got beaten down on the way to succumbing to an accumulation of blows. Even the second-round TKO by flyweight Bruno Silva and the third-rounder by Adrian Yanez came on sudden blasts. There never was reason for fans to plead, Stop it, ref! Stop it, already! The KO artists took care of that, as it should be.