UFC on ESPN 42 breakdown: Expect ‘strange’ standup between Stephen Thompson, Kevin Holland – but also a finish

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC on ESPN 42.

UFC on ESPN 42 takes place Saturday at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. The card airs on ESPN and streams on ESPN+.

Stephen Thompson (16-6-1 MMA, 11-6-1 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 6’0″ Age: 39 Weight: 170 lbs. Reach: 75″

  • Last fight: Decision loss to Belal Muhammad (Dec. 18, 2022)

  • Camp: Upstate Karate (South Carolina)

  • Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:

+ Kempo karate black belt (5th degree)
+ 5x kickboxing world champion
+ Japanese jiu-jitsu black belt
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ 7 KO victories
+ 1 submission win
+ 5 first-round finishes
+ KO power
^ Knocked down 7 of past 13 opponents
+ Superb footwork
^ Plays in and out of striking range
+ Accurate shot selection
^ Intercepting punches and dynamic kicks
+ Underrated clinch game
^ Good head position/strikes off breaks

Kevin Holland (23-8 MMA, 10-5 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 6’3″ Age: 30 Weight: 170 lbs. Reach: 81″

  • Last fight: Submission loss to Khamzat Chimaev (Sept. 10, 2022)

  • Camp: Travis Lutter BJJ (Texas)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:

+ Kung fu black belt (2nd degree)
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt
+ Amateur MMA accolades
+ 12 knockout victories
+ 7 submission wins
+ 11 first-round finishes
+ KO Power
+ Accurate shot selection
^ Dangerous right hand
+ Diverse kicking attack
^ Better about targeting the legs
+ Improved clinch striking
^ In and out of the breaks
+ Serviceable transitional grappling

Point of interest: Accurate assassins

Nov 2, 2019; New York, NY, USA; Stephen Thompson (red gloves) fights Vicente Luque (blue gloves) during UFC 244 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Stier-USA TODAY Sports

The main event in Florida features a welterweight matchup between two fighters who have a penchant for landing precision shots.

A self-proclaimed “smack man” who has a knack for finding chins with his right hand, [autotag]Kevin Holland[/autotag] has no problem stepping into the spotlight and attempting to steal the show. That said, there is a lot more to Holland than meets the eye, as the seven-year pro seems to be steadily stringing things together since dropping back down to 170 pounds.

Holland still shows nods to his kung fu roots with the way in which he attacks the lower leg using sidekicks or crossover-knee kick variations, but has incorporated much more Thai-style leg and calf kicks after linking up with Kru Bob Perez. Although one could reasonably ask for more jabs in his approach, Holland has been a lot better about mixing in feints when operating in his preferred range.

Considering that Holland’s counterpart is not the easiest combatant to read, I suspect that feints will be a crucial ingredient for the Texan if he intends to land his vaunted right hand or leg kicks.

Enter [autotag]Stephen Thompson[/autotag].

Thompson has certainly eaten his fair share of low kicks, as fighters – both successfully and unsuccessfully – were able to use previously laid out blueprints involving leg kicks to attack their karate counterparts (e.g. Mauricio Rua vs. Lyoto Machida and Douglas Lima vs. Michael Page).

Nevertheless, Thompson is not without answers inside of the octagon, as he is still one of the few fighters to successfully translate traditional martial arts into MMA at a high level.

Aside from Thompson’s more dynamic offerings, the South Carolina native incorporates some solid boxing tactics and principles that should serve him well in this matchup – particularly off of his lead hand.

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Although Thompson can pull and return with some of the best in his class, it’s the intercepting nature of his checking shots that quietly do a lot of the leg work in regards to the alignment of strikes and angles.

With footwork often being the quiet killer in the upper echelons of combat sports, Thompson’s switch-stance stylings afford him a lot of options in regards to taking away or reducing the threats, as his lateral movement and feel for outside angles appear completely built into this game at his point of the 39-year-old’s career.

Still, Thompson is not beyond being tagged out of position and will need to be extra mindful when entering and exiting range opposite a fighter with a high potential for finding pinpoint, opportunistic shots that can end a fight.

Point of interest: Potential grappling threats

Jun 18, 2022; Austin, Texas, USA; Kevin Holland (blue gloves) fights Tim Means (red gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Moody Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Although Holland, for better or worse, has had the propensity to oblige his opponent’s grappling intentions in past fights, he doesn’t show a strong trend in regard to initiating takedowns or an offensive prioritization when it comes to ground fighting.

That said, I believe that the clinch could be a key junction for both combatants this Saturday.

Holland has been making steady upgrades to his clinch striking since losing to Curtis Millender at welterweight on the regional scene, subsequently taking more muay Thai bouts in the process. The Texan may not be the hardest to take down in this space, but he does a decent job of fighting to his frame by consistently offering up slicing elbows and dangerous knees.

However, given Thompson’s fleet-of-foot stylings, getting a good grasp could prove troublesome for Holland.

An underrated clinch fighter, Thompson wastes little time or intention when caught in close. The 12-year pro keeps a good posture that’s hard to break down, and his overhook and underhook applications appear to be well intact.

Once able to separate, Thompson usually does so with quick strikes off of the break. With the help of Chris Weidman and others, Thompson has also made strides in his wrestling ability outside of just takedown defense.

The kenpo karate black belt does not seem lost when having to scramble, demonstrating solid positional awareness in the way in which he floats and strikes in transit. And when he is taken down, Thompson shows a comfortability and competency that’s likely a nod to all his work in the jiu-jitsu realm.

Nevertheless, I still give the transitional and submission grappling edge to Holland should these two end up tangling on the mat. Holland may have a rough history opposite wrestlers, but the Travis Lutter black belt seldom seems lost inside scrambles and does well when it comes to keeping his opposition honest with his long limbs and tricky submission threats.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

The oddsmakers opened this fight at even odds, but public money has come in on the younger fighter, listing Holland -155 and Thompson +135 via Tipico Sportsbook.

Despite my official pick, I can totally understand why this betting line opened as a pick’em.

Even though we’re dealing with proven talents who prefer to strike, this fight has all the ingredients for some strange stanzas on the feet given each fighter’s propensity to either get playful or look for counters.

I’m incredibly tempted to – once again – go against the betting public’s trend of fading older fighters, but I ended up reluctantly siding with Holland in this spot.

Both fighters have similarly themed strengths and weaknesses. I just suspect that Holland can afford to make more mistakes than Thompson at this point in their respective careers.

When looking back at Thompson’s resume, I noticed that – outside of the knockdown he sustained opposite noted southpaw Darren Till – counter right hands appear to be the common culprit when it comes to him touching down on the mat.

I expect Thompson to get off to a great start by making Holland backers sweat. I just ultimately believe that Holland’s right hand will be too potent of a weapon over the course of 25 minutes. I hope I’m wrong (as this seems like it’s “dog or pass” from a betting perspective), but the pick is for Holland to score an abrupt knockout between Rounds 2 and 3.

Prediction: Holland inside the distance

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie