Try as they might, though, those in the top five were either committed to other bouts or simply said no, so the best the UFC could do for the seventh-ranked Brunson was to offer him a fight against No. 10 Kevin Holland.
It wasn’t the fight Brunson wanted, or felt he deserved after upping his winning streak to three after stopping Shahbazyan, but Brunson is nothing if not practical.
“It is what it is and I’d rather not dwell on whether I like the fight or not,” said Brunson, who meets Holland on Saturday in the main event of UFC Vegas 22 at Apex. “Doing that kind of takes my energy away from the fight. I had asked for a top five guy over and over. Guys turned it down and I was told a lot of the guys weren’t available.
“The guy called me out and this is the only fight the UFC was willing to make. So I have the fight and now it’s up to me to go out and perform and win it.”
Brunson has largely been quiet as Holland has kept up a constant chatter in the media. Holland has repeatedly referred to Brunson as a "gatekeeper" and as “Bumson,” though Brunson just laughed it off.
He’s been around far too long for that kind of tactic to work on him.
And as he looked at what Holland’s done, including his 5-0 run in 2020 that got him Fighter of the Year consideration, he sees his own areas to poke at.
“It’s disrespectful for him to talk that way, but if that’s how he wants to promote himself and his fight, good for him; go crazy,” Brunson said. “He can promote himself and the fight however he wants and that doesn’t change the simple fact that I have to go out there and do the job. Whether he was being nice and respectful or whether he’s been trash talking me, it wouldn’t change a thing when the bell rings.
“He’s talking like he’s this world beater, but his strength of schedule hasn’t been all that impressive. He beat one guy who was 11-7 [Charlie Ontiveros] and that guy never would have been in the UFC were it not for COVID. That’s nothing against that guy, it’s just that the UFC is the best in the world. What does beating up a regional guy prove? You have to be the best of the best to make it to the UFC. He was supposed to fight a really tough Russian guy and the guy caught COVID, so [Holland] had a lot of fortunate events that helped him. I respect the hell out of Jacare [Souza], but he beat a 41-year-old Jacare and not the prime version of the guy. Let’s be real here.”
But Brunson acknowledges Holland’s talent and believes the winner will be well-positioned for at least a No. 1 contender’s fight given everything else going on in the division.
The division, he believes, is as wide open as it has been in a while given champion Israel Adesanya’s loss to Jan Blachowicz in a light heavyweight title fight at UFC 259.
“Before that fight, we didn’t know whether Adesanya was going to go up to 205, or win this fight at 205 and then go to heavyweight, or what he might do,” Brunson said. “Nobody knew. It was an unknown. Now, we know he’s staying at 185, and things are so different now.
“Before you’ve been beaten, there is this whole mystique behind you. It was like Conor McGregor. And guys like that feel invincible. But once he’s been beaten, everyone else goes, ‘Oh, so that’s how to beat this guy.’ So the important thing now is to keep winning to get into position to get that opportunity [to fight for the title]. I don’t feel I’m far off.”
It would be a lot easier if one of those ranked above him had said yes, but given the megaphone Holland has suddenly gotten, a win over him will carry weight, and Brunson may yet wind up where he wanted to be after beating Shahbazyan.
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