UFC Orlando: Thompson and Holland Collide in Personally Pivotal Bout

Geoff Neal and Stephen Thompson, UFC Vegas 17
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 19: (R-L) Stephen Thompson punches Geoff Neal in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

Stephen Thompson seeks a return to form as he takes on the outspoken Kevin Holland, who is looking to get back into the win column himself at UFC Orlando.

It is always a little jarring when a contender who has been consistently successful for so long hits a slump.  Questions are inevitably raised: is Father Time starting to win the battle, is the competition catching up in the race, or is it a combination of both?  Stephen Thompson is beginning to field these questions as he returns from a year-long layoff after going 0-2 in 2021.  After spending years as one of the welterweight division’s elite contenders, fans are beginning to question if “Wonderboy” may finally be turning into “Wonder-Man” as he approaches his 40th birthday later this winter — while the competition becomes increasingly younger.

It is a fair inquiry, though as always it should be viewed in context.  Thompson’s recent losses have come to elite competition in top-ranked contender Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns.  Before that, he had successfully bested tough veterans in Geoff Neal and Vicente Luque.  While his layoff has in part come from a struggle to find the right fight for both himself and the UFC, he has remained busy outside the cage.  For example, fans will likely have recognized him in his recurring appearances as a background character in the latest season of the Netflix hit Cobra Kai.  Behind the strength of his star power and veteran status, a return to a top-ranked bout in 2023 is not out of the question should he return to form on Saturday.

Kevin Holland can control the narrative of this past September.  On a day’s notice, he accepted the terms of switching opponents from a striker in Daniel Rodriguez to one of the most formidable grapplers in the game today in Khamzat Chimaev in order to save UFC 279.  The bout lasted a little over a minute and saw “Trailblazer” outclassed on the mat before getting caught in a submission.  While it was a disheartening way to lose after the attention surrounding the event, in hindsight it could be seen as nothing more than a speed bump as he continues his route up the welterweight rankings.

Holland has enjoyed a return to form since dropping down to welterweight, stopping veteran Alex Oliveira and the always tenacious Tim Means in the past twelve months.  Now tasked with taking on another high profile former title challenger, with a win Holland would enter 2023 in a great spot to work his way towards the upper echelon of the division.  Considering that the division has a big five that would need to sort itself out, a chance to get matched up with an outlier would be highly possible by next year’s end.

While most fans are excited at the prospect of the two strikers clashing in the center of the Octagon, the biggest x-factor will be if Holland looks to pursue a takedown and implement a similar strategy as the last two fighters to best Thompson.  While not a natural wrestler stylistically, Holland should look to either change levels when Thompson overstretches throwing strikes or by trying to get a body lock and pushing Thompson to the fence.  Thompson should look to get in-and-out with short combinations and avoid long exchanges with Holland in the center of the Octagon.

Currently, the welterweight division is awaiting the decision on who will compete in the number one contender match-up early next year.  The sixth ranked Thompson has recently faced Belal Muhammad, which means a victory over Holland could see him get a contender such as Colby Covington should the former interim champion be available.  A Holland victory opens up a number of scenarios as well with almost every contender ranked in the top ten being a potential fight depending on the schedule.