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Every year, the wonderfully unpredictable sport of mixed martial arts gives us a handful of fighters breaking through to new levels of achievement and popularity. That breakthrough can take different forms. Last year, Jorge Masvidal authored one of MMA’s most incredible mid-career reinventions, as he went from solid veteran and hardcore fan favorite to one of the biggest stars in the sport, and the proud owner of a belt he had willed into existence. Before that, Israel Adesanya began 2018 as an undefeated prospect and virtual unknown; four wins later, “The Last Stylebender” ended the year as a middleweight title contender and a budding superstar around whom the Ultimate Fighting Championship could build Australian cards.
This year, of course, has been dominated by COVID-19 and its impact on the sport at every level, but while the coronavirus has made just about everything more difficult and dangerous, breaking through might be the lone exception. The enormous turnover in high-level MMA, the sheer number of bout cancellations and last-minute matchup changes led to an unprecedented number of previously obscure fighters getting opportunities to shine. Think of Joaquin Buckley, who bounced back from a loss in his UFC debut to rack up “Knockout of the Year” candidates—one of them a short-lister for the best knockout of any year—in his next two fights. Kalinn Williams debuted on ultra-short notice with next to no fanfare, knocked out his first two UFC opponents in a combined 57 seconds of cage time, and might have won this category had he been able to keep that incredible streak alive against Michel Pereira in December. And any discussion of 2020’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” would of course be incomplete without Khamzat Chimaev, who took the sport by storm, winning three fights in dominant fashion and earning a Top-5 matchup—all in the second half of the year.
However, for a combination of straightforward accomplishment and rising star power in this most turbulent year, nothing tops the 12-month body of work put in by Kevin Holland. The gregarious Californian by way of Texas became just the third fighter in UFC history to go 5-0 in a calendar year, picked up three “Performance of the Night” bonuses, moved from prospect to contender and crashed the middleweight Top 15. Beyond simply winning fights, Holland made the most of the moment, displaying his unique charisma in and out of the cage in a way that had only been made possible by the production changes foisted onto the promotion by the pandemic. “Trailblazer,” indeed.
When 2020 dawned, before the coronavirus was much more than a back-page story making its way to the front, Holland was a promising up-and-comer who was 3-2 in the UFC and had lost his last fight of 2019 to an apparently more promising up-and-comer in Brendan Allen. By the time of his first fight of the year, against Anthony Hernandez at UFC on ESPN 8 on May 19, the pandemic was very much a thing, the UFC was still scrambling to figure out how it would put on fights. Holland blew his fellow Dana White's Contender Series alum away in just 39 seconds with a pair of hellacious knees to the body that might have been enough to finish the fight all by themselves, followed up by a stream of punches on the ground.
With that opening statement made, Holland then became an early beneficiary of one of the most notable dynamics of the COVID-era UFC, namely that fighters who were willing and able to fight often would be afforded the chance to do so. Holland was scheduled to turn right around and face Daniel Rodriguez a week later, but was forced to withdraw due to a training injury. He returned instead on Aug. 8 against fellow breakthrough fighter Buckley, getting the better of a fantastic slugfest before blasting “New Mansa” with a right-handed killshot that ensured that all three of Buckley’s fights in 2020 ended in “Knockout of the Year” contenders. Getting into his groove, Holland returned just six weeks later to face Darren Stewart, who had won on the same August card. Holland prevailed over the Brit by split decision in an odd fight that was characterized by lots of jawing, but not as close as the outcome makes it sound.
After two wins in six weeks, Holland accepted another short-notice booking, this one on just five weeks’ notice, agreeing to face the red-hot Makhmud Muradov at the UFC’s first-ever event on Halloween when Krzystof Jotko withdrew. That would have been arguably Holland’s toughest test to date, but when Muradov tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced off the card as well, in stepped Charlie Ontiveros—normally a welterweight—on two days’ notice. Facing the latest of late replacements in a nearly no-win scenario, Holland did what a contender would be expected to do, finishing Ontiveros quickly and emphatically with a slam TKO that left Ontiveros writhing in agony on the canvas.
Already making waves as the first UFC fighter to win four fights in 2020, Holland continued to ride the wave of opportunities presented by the coronavirus and general MMA pandemonium. The week after the Halloween horror show, when an injured Darren Till was forced out of his main event tilt with Jack Hermansson on Dec. 5, Holland agreed to step in, but was then diagnosed with COVID. Holland switched places with Marvin Vettori, who had been scheduled to fight on Dec. 12. The Italian would replace Holland in the Dec. 5 headliner, while Holland would take Vettori’s place, fighting Ronaldo Souza on the 12th.
So it was that on Dec. 12, Holland stepped into the Octagon for the fifth time, with all five matchups having been booked, changed or postponed due to the coronavirus. Four straight wins had brought him to a matchup with “Jacare,” a perennial contender for a decade and easily the most prestigious name Holland had faced thus far. Facing the biggest test of his career, Holland passed with flying colors, knocking out the grappling legend in under two minutes with a salvo of punches from bottom position, starting with a looping hook thrown from the seat of his pants that delivered ridiculous force and precipitated the finish. The year’s journey was complete, as the 28-year-old Holland finished 2020 in Sherdog’s middleweight Top 10 as well as the UFC’s official rankings.
Holland’s ascendancy in 2020 was about more than just the wins, however. For as much as his remarkable schedule was shaped by COVID, the pandemic also afforded him a chance to shine in other ways. One of the most noticeable changes for fans has been the empty venues, where nearly every word uttered by fighters, referees and cornermen is clearly audible. In this environment, Holland’s constant chatter made a splash; his back-and-forth verbal exchanges with Buckley and Stewart were memorable, but he saved the best for last. Against Souza, perhaps the most credentialed jiu-jitsu practitioner ever to cross over to MMA, Holland found himself on his back, with “Jacare” kneeling over him. Caught in one of the most daunting positions imaginable in MMA, Holland could be heard saying, “I had a dream about this last night!” with a laugh.
Seconds later, Souza was out cold, and the last thing he heard was that joyous off-the-cuff exclamation from perhaps the most in-the-zone fighter in the sport. Only time will tell whether Holland can continue to build on his streak in the year to come, but for now he is Sherdog’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” for 2020 by a landslide.