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UFC Vegas 38: The Hype Machine is Broken
Johnny Walker and Kevin Holland were each talked about as title contenders, now they're trying to find their place in their respective divisions.
Johnny Walker and Kevin Holland feel like perfect bedfellows as half of this weekend’s final two pairings, as they’ve shared a similar experience as emerging talents hastily depicted as title contenders only to stumble hard and still be trying to figure out where they stand in their respective divisions.
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Walker burst on the scene towards the end of 2017, registering a two-minute stoppage win over Khalil Rountree Jr. in his promotional debut. The timing was perfect for the towering Brazilian whose “nom de punch” was easy to remember and whose charisma reverberated through the television, as Rountree Jr. was four months removed from violently knocking out kickboxing legend Gohkan Saki at UFC 226 and once again generating buzz as someone to watch in the light heavyweight division.
The Brazilian newcomer, whose given name is Walker Johnny da Silva Barra Souza, battered Rountree Jr. with short elbows from the Thai plum to earn the finish, then hit a perfect backflip in the center of the Octagon as he celebrated. He was instantly a person of interest in the eternally shallow 205-pound weight class and his buzz only increased when he wiped out Justin Ledet in just 15 seconds less than three months later.
When he ran through Misha Cirkunov, who was ranked in the Top 10 at the time, in just 36 seconds at UFC 235, the hype machine kicked into overdrive, with people talking about Walker as a serious threat to Jon Jones and the Brazilian’s every comment about the dominant champion being parroted for clicks without much pushback. Three wins in a touch under five months with one win over a fringe Top 10 fighter and folks were genuinely discussing this man’s chances for beating arguably the most gifted fighter to ever grace the Octagon.
In his next appearance, Walker got knocked out by the perpetually underrated and overlooked Corey Anderson in just over two minutes, instantly ending any conversations about his title prospects, and four months later, he dropped an uneventful decision to Nikita Krylov, unable to contend with the inconsistent divisional stalwart’s grappling-heavy approach.
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Holland entered 2021 with more buzz than anyone else on the UFC roster, elevated to “Next Big Thing” status following a 2020 campaign where he registered five wins in eight months, culminating with a unique first-round knockout win over respected veteran Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at UFC 256.
He became a favorite figure of fight fans and media — someone unique in a vast pool of sameness, who provided his own in-fight commentary track and could be positioned as an example of UFC President Dana White is a terrible judge of talent because he didn’t sign Holland to a contract following his victory over Will Santiago Jr. on the Contender Series in the summer of 2018.
Snippets of White’s comments about Holland’s penchant for talking were shaped into “I can’t believe Dana didn’t sign this guy because he talked too much” arguments when the truth is Holland fought a lazy, mildly disinterested fight, as he’d done on a couple different occasions prior to and during his five-fight winning streak. But his new champions hadn’t noticed that because they weren’t really paying attention when he was toiling on the undercard of another Saturday Fight Night event, edging out Gerald Meerschaert and Alessio Di Chirico on the cards in fights that he probably could have and should have won handily.
But that win over Souza, his talkative approach in the cage, and the chance to stick it to the UFC President for not initially signing him convinced a lot of people that Holland was poised to be the next contender in the middleweight division.
Two fights in a four-week stretch earlier this year delayed and then derailed all those hopes and projections, as Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori out-worked, out-hustled, and out-lasted Holland in consecutive five-round decision wins where his suspect wrestling defence and alarming indifference at times were on full display.
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Both Walker and Holland stand out as quality examples of the never-ending rush to declare someone a contender and capitalize on their “It Fighter” status without taking complete stock of what they’ve accomplished and scrutinizing whether all the praise and attention being heaped upon them is truly merited.
Walker’s highlight reel finishes, post-fight celebrations, and overall charisma caused people to inflate the value of his wins, with each successive victory prompting more and more people to climb aboard the bandwagon because it looked like a really fun ride. His magnetic personality and readiness to speak about challenging Jones only made him more of a media darling, and not many people wanted to publicly question whether too much was being made of a fighter whose best win came against someone whose best win came against Nikita Krylov.
He was favored over Anderson even though Anderson had beaten talented, tenured members of the light heavyweight Top 15, including Jan Blachowicz, Glover Teixeira, and Ilir Latifi, and it took all of two minutes and seven seconds for “Overtime” to end Walker’s run of success.
Holland being hustled into “Next Contender” status might have been even more abrupt and uncalled for because part of what contributed to his buzz was this transference of hype after Joaquin Buckley lit up Impa Kasanganay. Buckley landed the Knockout of the Year and suddenly Holland’s third-round stoppage win over the newest viral sensation took on greater weight, while his win over Souza was treated like he’d beaten “Prime Jacare” and not the “struggling, twilight of his career, just turned 40 Jacare” that was standing across from him.
But it was a great finish against a former contender everyone holds in high esteem, and so it was treated like a major breakthrough when it was more like a good win for a guy on the come-up, which showed once he stepped into the Octagon with actual contenders.
The ironic thing with Holland’s rapid ascent is that very few people were pushing Brendan Allen as someone to pay close attention to in the middleweight division during his rise, even though Allen actually earned a contract on the Contender Series by beating a fellow top prospect (Aaron Jeffery, who returns to DWCS tonight), and submitted Holland when they fought the previous October.
Both men are examples of not scrutinizing the quality of their wins, but instead marvelling at the ferocity if their finishes in Walker’s case and the volume of victories Holland amassed in an eight-month stretch, and once they stepped into the cage with quality opposition, their winning ways came to an abrupt end.
This happens all the time — fans and media latching onto fighters trending in the right direction that have generated some buzz, while skimming over competitors that have earned more meaningful victories, but done so with less fanfare or flash, and many times, the unheralded athletes end up rising beyond their more talked about counterparts.
Walker is a perfect example, as his win over Cirkunov at UFC 235 vaulted him into “Is this the guy to beat Jon Jones?” conversations, while Zhang Weili’s quality effort against Top 10 stalwart Tecia Torres received minimal attention, only for the Chinese strawweight to unseat Jessica Andrade and claim championship gold in her very next fight.
Bantamweights Sean O’Malley and Cory Sandhagen debuted 57 days apart and each won their first two fights inside the Octagon. The flamboyant and boisterous O’Malley was deemed a rising star and covered ad nauseam following decision wins over Terrion Ware and Andre Soukhamthath, while the low-key Sandhagen received little media attention following stoppage victories over Austin Arnett and Iuri Alcantara.
Nearly three years later, Sandhagen is one of the five best bantamweights in the world and potentially fighting for an interim title next month, while O’Malley still hasn’t faced or beaten a Top 10 opponent, although he remains the more frequently discussed and mentioned fighter of the two.
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What’s going to be interesting to see is how people react if one or both of Walker and Holland earn victories this weekend.
Walker enters his bout with Santos off a first-round stoppage win over Ryan Spann in April, when the two engaged in a frenetic back-and-forth that lasted less than three minutes and saw each man staggered multiple times. His one-sided loss to Krylov last March should put a cap on how excited folks get about him, even if he comes out and runs through “Marreta” this weekend, in part because he had little to offer Nikita Krylov, but also because the 37-year-old Santos enters on a three-fight losing streak and appears to be trending in the wrong direction from a professional standpoint.
Holland is fighting for the first time since his loss to Vettori and looking to snap his two-fight skid, yet it still feels like a victory over Daukaus — a solid prospect who is 1-2 in the UFC thus far — will result in a series of “Kevin Holland has figured it out” pieces on Sunday and Monday that declare he’s righted the ship, especially if he shows improvements in his wrestling.
The funny thing is that both are legitimate talents with an abundance of upside that could become major factors in their respective divisions in the 12-18 months if things break their way — it’s just that they were dubbed contenders far too quickly.
Neither was as good as they were made out to be during their respective ascents and each is better than their efforts in their individual two-fight skids suggest.
Walker and Holland stand as a pair of shining examples of how everyone is far too obsessed with finding “The Next Big Thing” and capitalizing on whatever athletes are trending and generating traffic in the moment to really scrutinize whether they’ve truly identified the best emerging talents on the roster, and how that practice needs to stop.
Too many truly talented fighters are being overlooked and under-discussed while less-accomplished competitors are held out as key names to know.
Followers counts mean more than whom you’ve actually fought, and declaring yourself to be great means more than actually proving it inside the Octagon.
The Hype Machine is broken.