Derek Brunson has five losses over the past seven years. Every single one of them has come against a former or current UFC champion or perennial contender — Israel Adesanya is the UFC middleweight champion, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza is the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, Robert Whittaker and Anderson Silva are former UFC middleweight champions, and Yoel Romero is a longtime middleweight contender.
No one in the UFC’s 185-pound division has a better strength of schedule than Brunson. On Saturday, Brunson meets the red-hot Kevin Holland in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. If Brunson wins, he cements himself as a contender. If Holland wins, it’s a signal that he is at the top level of fighters in the division.
ESPN has Brunson ranked No. 9 in the world at middleweight. Holland is attempting to break into the top 10 and earn a signature win for his still-budding career.
Brunson (21-7) has won three in a row. Most recently, he toppled another prospect, Edmen Shahbazyan, in a third-round TKO last August. The North Carolina native, who trains out of Sanford MMA in Florida, sports a 12-5 UFC record but has not yet fought for a title. Brunson, 37, owns wins over Lyoto Machida, Uriah Hall and Chris Leben.
Holland (21-5) tied the record in 2020 for the most UFC victories in a calendar year (five). The Texas native has won five straight — four of those by KO/TKO. Holland, 28, has won eight of nine overall since his UFC debut loss to Thiago Santos.
Also on the card, heavyweight slugger Tai Tuivasa faces late-notice fill-in Harry Hunsucker, women’s strawweight prospects Cheyanne Buys and Montserret Ruiz square off, and welterweight Song Kenan meets Max Griffin.
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim recap the action from Las Vegas.
Watch the fights on ESPN and ESPN+.
Fight in progress:
Women’s bantamweight: Marion Reneau (9-6-1, 5-5-1 UFC, +180) vs. Macy Chiasson (7-1, 4-1 UFC, -220)
Lightweight: Grant Dawson (17-1, 5-0 UFC) defeats Leonardo Santos (18-5-1, 7-1-1 UFC) by third-round KO
Santos went for a leg lock late. It seemed like a nothing sequence. Dawson was on top and Santos tried to knock him off balance with a lazy heel hook.
It ended up being a tactical mistake that cost Santos the fight just before time expired.
With Santos on his back grabbing at the leg, Dawson ripped off five hard hammerfists to Santos’ face. The blows were so hard that Santos was rendered unconscious — and Dawson was ruled the winner via knockout at 4:59 of the final round. Dawson’s victory is now tied for the latest finish in UFC featherweight history with Yair Rodriguez’s back-elbow knockout of Chan Sung Jung in 2018.
Two judges already had Dawson ahead, so he would have won even if he didn’t get the finish. But that doesn’t take away how dramatic the stoppage was.
“It was crazy,” Dawson said in his postfight interview. “We didn’t know who was winning. … It could have been [one round apiece]. We had no idea.”
Afterward, Dawson called out veteran Clay Guida for a future bout. This was Dawson’s first lightweight fight in the UFC, moving up from featherweight. Dawson said he weighed just under 180 pounds in the Octagon, rehydrating nearly 25 pounds after Friday morning’s weigh-ins.
The story of the bout going into the third round was that Dawson was having trouble imposing his will on Santos on the ground. Dawson is a very capable grappler and excellent finisher on the mat. But Santos is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and the grappling coach for the likes of Jose Aldo. The ground game was a stalemate at times and other times Santos was actually getting the better of Dawson, who at 27 is 14 years his junior.
Santos seemed to have control late in the second when he nearly got Dawson’s back and then landed a hard right hand. Dawson responded by hitting Santos with a spinning back kick before the second-round bell, perhaps foreshadowing his buzzer-beating finish.
In the third round, Dawson actually got Santos on his back and had top control for an extended period of time. The finish came with Dawson posturing up out of half guard and then raining down those hard blows on an Santos.
Dawson has won eight straight, including his first five in the UFC. The Nebraska native, who trains out of Glory MMA in Missouri, has six finishes in his last eight fights. Santos, a 41-year-old Nova Uniao product, had a 13-fight unbeaten streak broken. He had not lost since 2009 and never before in the UFC until Saturday.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Middleweight: Trevin Giles (14-2, 5-2 UFC) defeats Roman Dolidze (8-1, 2-1 UFC) defeats via unanimous decision
Following a closely contested bout, it was Giles who managed to keep a three-fight win streak alive, as he defeated Dolidze via unanimous 29-28 scores.
The difference in the middleweight bout might have been a lead right hand by Giles in the third round, which knocked Dolidze off-balance and forced him to try a desperate takedown. According to UFC Stats, Dolidze out-landed Giles in total strikes 75 to 43, but the majority of Giles’ offense was heavier punches to the head, compared to Dolidze’s offensive leg kicks. Giles also scored offense off his back, whenever Dolidze managed to take him down.
Dolidze, who was born in the country of Georgia, looked surprised as scores were read, and the fight was certainly very close. Dolidze had success in the grappling exchanges and with the leg kicks, but Giles always responded, whether it was the right hand in the final round, or powerful left hooks in the first and second.
It’s the first loss of Dolidze’s professional career, and he came in with a 2-0 record in the UFC. Giles, out of Houston, improves to 5-2 inside the Octagon, and he’s completely rebounded from a two-fight skid in 2019.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Men’s bantamweight: Montel Jackson (10-2, 3-2 UFC) defeats Jesse Strader (5-2, 0-2 UFC) via first-round TKO
Jackson goes by the nickname “Quick,” and he showed why in making quick work of a fighter making his UFC debut.
But while Jackson, the biggest favorite on the card at -700, got the TKO just 1:58 into the fight, he did not fight like he was in a rush. He was poised in walking down Strader, absorbing several calf kicks before stepping forward into a clinch, then dropping Strader with a right hook as the fighters disengaged. Strader got up from that one, but when they came together again, Jackson landed a knee, then dropped Strader again with a right hook, prompting referee Keith Peterson to jump in.
“I saw his hands drop down after I kneed him the first time,” Jackson said, “so my next instinct was to allow him to throw a knee and come over the top.”
Jackson once again showed off his accuracy. He came into the bout with the highest striking accuracy in men’s bantamweight history (59.6%) as well as the lowest rate of strikes absorbed (1.28 per minute).
The quick finish got the 28-year-old from Milwaukee back on track after seeing his three-fight winning streak ended last July.
For Strader, who is 29 and from Antelope Valley, California, the loss in his UFC debut halted a two-fight winning streak. Strader missed weight on Friday, coming a pound and a half above the bantamweight limit.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Men’s flyweight: Bruno Silva (11-5-2 1 NC, 1-2 1 NC UFC) defeats JP Buys (9-3, 0-1 UFC) via second-round TKO
Silva dropped Buys with a right hand, and Buys rolled to safety. Then Silva put Buys down with a right uppercut, and Buys somehow survived a flurry and made his way back to his feet.
But Silva would not let the resilient Buys off the hook. When Buys got up again, Silva landed a big straight right to send Buys crashing back to the mat, and referee Mark Smith stepped in to call the bout off.
The heavy-handed Silva earned himself a TKO win at 2:56 of the second round in a flyweight bout. It was Silva’s first UFC win.
“I deserve my next contract,” Silva said, adding that he wants to fight against next week. “I belong to this place.”
Silva, with former UFC double champion Henry Cejudo in his corner, had success in the wrestling and grappling departments in the first round. At the end of the first, Silva crushed Buys with a spinning back fist right at the bell. Perhaps Buys never completely recovered, because Silva was in total control in the second round.
“I know he’s a wrestler, but I train with the best wrestler,” Silva said. “Henry Cejudo was an Olympic champ. … This guy is my brother. He helps me with everything. I live with him in Arizona. So, it’s been a blessing being with him.”
The 31-year-old Silva, a Brazil native, trains with Cejudo out of Fight Ready in Arizona.
Buys, a 24-year-old South Africa native who trains in Dallas, was making his UFC debut
Watch this on ESPN+.
Still to come:
Middleweight: Derek Brunson (21-7, 21-5 UFC, +150) vs. Kevin Holland (21-5, 8-2 UFC, -175)
Welterweight: Song Kenan (16-5, 4-1 UFC, +175) vs. Max Griffin (16-8, 4-6 UFC, -210)
Strawweight: Cheyanne Buys (5-1, 0-0 UFC, -360) vs. Montserrat Conejo (9-1, 0-0 UFC, +280)
Men’s bantamweight: Adrian Yanez (12-3, 1-0 UFC, -220) vs. Gustavo Lopez (12-5, 1-1 UFC, +180)
Heavyweight: Tai Tuivasa (11-3, 4-3 UFC, -380) vs. Harry Hunsucker (6-3, 0-0 UFC, +300)
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