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MMA Junkie’s 2020 ‘Male Fighter of the Year’: Kevin Holland beats five men, and COVID, in historic run

Sometimes, when picking a “Fighter of the Year,” it’s easy to go with someone who has recently become a champion or an existing champion who claimed a couple of eye-catching title defenses. But belts aren’t a cast-iron requirement for this accolade, as this year’s male winner demonstrates.

Kevin Holland has not (yet) reached championship level, nor has he competed in a UFC title fight. But what he did over the course of 2020 is transform his career from entertaining mid-card talent to bonafide contender through a remarkable series of performances.

In 2020, Holland fought five times and won each of them to tie the record for the most UFC wins in a calendar year. Some wins were closer than others – he admitted to Dana White immediately after his split decision over Darren Stewart that he thought he’d lost – but his performances were the sort of displays that ensured his fights were must-see TV.

Holland kicked off his year with a 39-second TKO finish of Anthony Hernandez at UFC on ESPN 8 in May, then, after bouts with Daniel Rodriguez and Trevin Giles fell through, he took on hard-hitting debutant Joaquin Buckley at UFC Fight Night 174 in August.

Despite Buckley arriving to the UFC on the back of two big knockouts in LFA, it was Holland’s crisp striking that proved superior as he knocked out Buckley with a rapier-like right hand to claim a third-round finish.

A split decision win over Stewart followed at UFC Fight Night 178, after which we saw the usually confident, outgoing Holland freely admit that he thought he’d lost the matchup. However, he took his performance and turned his frustration into a big win in his next outing as he finished Charlie Ontiveros by first-round slam at UFC Fight Night 181 a month later.

Holland’s four-fight winning streak, coupled with his willingness to step in against anyone, even on short notice, opened up a golden opportunity as he was handed the chance to face middleweight contender Jack Hermansson at UFC on ESPN 19. However, that chance slipped away when Holland tested positive for COVID-19.

Holland isolated himself, rested up and eventually got cleared to fight one week later against another big name in former Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo Souza. It was the biggest fight of Holland’s UFC career, and “Trailblazer” stepped up and delivered his biggest performance as he produced a highlight-reel finish of the Brazilian, knocking out “Jacare” from his back to claim a “Knockout of the Year” contender and register his fifth win of 2020.

It meant Holland ended 2020 with five wins in a record 210 days, shattering Neil Magny’s previous mark of going 5-0 in 266 days in 2014. Holland’s run consisted of four finishes and three “Performance of the Night” bonuses as he marked himself as one of the UFC’s most entertaining fighters of the year. But, perhaps more importantly, he finished the year as a legitimate contender. The man Dana White once referred to as “Big Mouth” is now a big threat at 185 pounds.

For these reasons, Holland was the pick for MMA Junkie “Male Fighter of the Year” in 2020.

Holland already has his first fighting assignment of 2021 booked, and will take on Derek Brunson on March 20. If “Trailblazer” can carry his 2020 form into 2021 and kick off his year with a win, don’t be surprised if he’s knocking on the door of a title eliminator fight by the summer.

Honorable mention

Deiveson Figueiredo

(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

A close second in the vote among our staff, Deiveson Figueiredo’s year was a rollercoaster ride that ended with him holding the UFC flyweight title.

After beating Joseph Benavidez, only to be denied the title due to missing weight, Figueiredo then produced an even better performance in the rematch to claim the title, then finished Alex Perez at UFC 255 to register his first title defense. He then made a record turnaround21 days later to put his belt on the line at UFC 256 and retained his title after his epic battle with Brandon Moreno was scored a majority draw.

Jan Blachowicz

(MMA Junkie)

Perennially underrated and often cast as the underdog in his bouts, Jan Blachowicz registered two resounding wins in 2020 and finished the year as the undisputed UFC light heavyweight champion.

He finished former nemesis Corey Anderson with a thumping first-round knockout at UFC Fight Night 167 in February and, after Jon Jones vacated the light heavyweight title, Blachowicz stepped in to face top contender Dominick Reyes for the vacant crown.

Reyes was the betting favorite heading into the bout at UFC 253, but Blachowicz’s legendary “Polish power” prevailed once more as he finished the American via second-round TKO to capture the title and become only the second Polish fighter, after Joanna Jedrzejczyk, to win UFC gold.

Blachowicz now faces a huge test in his first title defense as he gets set to take on undefeated middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in a champion-vs.-champion clash at UFC 259.

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