Louisiana’s Kurt Holobaugh (17-4 MMA) made the most of his second chance.
Headlining the first episode of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, it was a collision of action fighters when Holobaugh faced off with Bellator vet Matt Bessette, who was riding a seven-fight win streak.
Three minutes into the first round, Holobaugh earned his contract with a volley of hot murderballs to the head and body. A stiff right hook slumped Bessette in violent fashion.
Highly recommending watching the full fight with sound. That last shot is disgusting.
But Kurt Holobaugh is much more than a brick-fisted slugger. He can box technically, sharpshoot with kicks, and his ground attack is a nonstop series of submissions. Combine all of this with a furious pace and outstanding cardio, and it’s no surprise Holobaugh is a crowd pleaser and nightmare opponent.
Relive Holobaugh’s MMA journey of violence ahead of his preliminary bout with RFA champ Raoni Barcelos through brief analysis, plenty of GIFs, and an interview with the man himself.
This is Fighter of Interest, where underrated, under the radar, or underappreciated fighters from an upcoming event are brought to light.
Holobaugh was first exposed to the UFC renting videos from Blockbuster (RIP) before events were even on pay-per-view.
“I always wanted to be a boxer growing up, I knew it was something I could see myself doing. It fit perfectly.”
Commentators have long alluded to the “new wave” of fighters coming up that have been training the complete game from day one, not rooted in one base. “Back in 2008, I started training in mixed martial arts. My first class was jiu-jitsu, right after that my second class was kickboxing. I knew the whole time, it’s always been my dream to be a cage fighter.”
“I like to go forward the whole time, I like to put the pressure on these guys. I don’t think a lot of them can handle the type of pressure I put on. Eventually they break, that’s when I go in for the kill.
Holobaugh trains out of Gracie Barra Louisiana, where he works with professional boxers as well as elite grappling coaches.
On the feet, Kurt is constantly slipping and weaving with his head, moving his feet, and ripping to the body like a pro. “I like to say I’ve got a good boxing background for MMA. But I’ve never done any kind of amateur, or professional boxing. I’ve got some teammates that box a little professionally, so I work with them a lot.”
The fruits of his labor are apparent. Check out Holobaugh slaying a training partner with a looping body shot. Sound on for the full experience.
Otherwise, Holobaugh is pressing the pace, and throwing volume. If grappling is initiated, he’ll attack submissions regardless of position.
“If you go back and look at my record, I think I’ve got like eight submission wins. Mainly, those submission wins came from guys trying to take me down. I’m putting too much pressure on them, I’m hitting them with too many big punches.”
It was this style that resulted in a “Fight of the Night” worthy performance against Pat Healy, which put Holobaugh on the map.
After winning five straight fights in Strikeforce (RIP), former welterweight Pat Healy was set to take on Gilbert Melendez, and then Jorge Masvidal in early 2013. Two weeks before the event, Masvidal pulled out with an injury.
To the rescue came Kurt Holobaugh. Traditionally a featherweight, Holobaugh racked up an impressive 9-0 record with eight finishes on the Louisiana regional scene. A +400 underdog, most didn’t give Kurt a fighting chance against the stifling wrestler.
Preconceptions went out the window as Holobaugh came out firing off combinations, forcing Healy to grapple defensively. Much to his surprise, Kurt was just as game on the ground.
Keep in mind, this was 2013 Strikeforce. They had most of the best lightweights outside the UFC. Healy was in competition with Melendez, Masvidal, Thomson.
While Healy was able to rack up time on top, Holobaugh never stopped his motion, enforcing a hellish pace.
It’s worthy of note that much of Healy’s top control was a result of Holobaugh giving up position going for subs.
Although Holobaugh took the fight on two weeks’ notice, it was Healy who faded in the third round. Kurt’s impeccable conditioning swung the momentum his way, and he continued to press Healy to engage.
Healy was about to break before that grappling exchange on the cage.
The takedowns were not there, Healy appeared to be swinging just to create space. But when he was able to enter a double leg on the cage, Holobaugh countered with an armbar from the back position. He continued to fight hard, but the time Healy spent on top earned him the victory in the eyes of the judges.
The fight is ranked as the #42 “Best MMA Fight of the Year” on Tapology. As Strikeforce folded, Holobaugh’s performance was impressive enough to earn him a chance in the UFC.
UFC 159 vs. Steven Siler
His shot came against “Super” Steven Siler, an unassuming Ultimate Fighter product who had gone 3-1 in the UFC thus far, most notably upsetting Cole Miller, after taking out Micah Miller to make the TUF house.
Kurt has been open about dealing with personal problems ahead of the Siler fight. While he didn’t look quite himself, especially on the feet, it was an excellent effort nonetheless.
It was a rough start, Holobaugh’s forward pressure was stifled by Siler’s excellent thai clinch, from which he was able to land knees and drive a slower pace. But as Siler’s confidence grew, opportunities arose for Kurt Holobaugh.
It still boggles my mind that Kurt didn’t get another shot after this.
A deep guillotine counter changed the complexion of the bout. Siler became more aggressive, to win back the round, which played right into Holobaugh’s offense.
Nasty ground and pound followed after Siler was badly hurt and threatened with another tight choke.
Did I mention his ground and pound is excellent as well?
The third round would clearly decide the winner. Siler had noticeably slowed, Kurt was picking him apart. Siler missed with a high kick, and Holobaugh nailed him with a counter hook just like in round two.
It’s a shame headlockshead and arm throws are so risky, because they look sweet when they work.
Holobaugh naturally flowed into a head and arm clinch position, and felt a throw was there. Unfortunately, that attempt gave Siler his back, where he rode out the rest of the round. Siler’s back control in the first and third rounds awarded him the bout, and Holobaugh was released.
It was a great performance, but not even close to his full potential.
New Life in Titan FC
Holobaugh took about a year to get wins in regional promotions, bouncing between 145 and 155. After defeating a tough wrestler in Eric Marriot in Titan FC, Holobaugh found a new home.
Kurt’s reputation as an action fighter, in addition to his Strikeforce and UFC experience, catapulted him up the rankings. He was set to take on Lloyd Woodard in a number one contender bout.
Woodard fought the best lightweights in Bellator, he even held a win over Patricky Pitbull, albeit via injury default. His aggressive style led many to believe the Holobaugh fight could be an absolute war.
It lasted 15 seconds.
Holobaugh injured his knee at some point. I wholeheartedly believe it was during the celebration.
A one punch KO is always impressive, but Holobaugh did it moving backward. Not only was he in reverse, it was while Woodard ran into him following a lead leg kick. Holobaugh had to retract the kick back into his stance and fire off an overhand from the other side while being pressured.
Exchanges like this are why Holobaugh loves to low kick off his lead leg.
“I mainly use my lead leg because it’s super fast. I can set things up behind it. I’m really good at getting it out there, and getting it back before these guys can throw anything back at me. It’s got some power behind it too.”
Titan FC Featherweight Title Bout
UFC fans may be familiar with Des Green, who has gone 2-2 with the promotion with wins over Josh Emmett and Gleison Tibau.
Green won the Titan FC featherweight title against Holobaugh’s old nemesis, Steven Siler. Green already held wins over veterans and talents in Miguel Torres, Rob Font and Mike Richman.
Des Green’s style is directly opposed to that of Kurt Holobaugh. Pressure, volume or pace are not in his vocabulary. Instead, Green likes to keep his distance, and act opportunistically to strike or shoot takedowns.
The Titan FC commentary team believed that Green was the striker in this matchup, and that he should avoid grappling with Holobaugh. Everyone soon learned there are no easy roads against Kurt Holobaugh.
Green reliably retreated at the first sign of danger. This meant Kurt would have to be creative in his setups, and continue to bring the fight to Green.
You don’t often see lead low kicks cutting with power like that.
When Green entered on strikes or combinations, Holobaugh stood his ground and countered effectively.
Des Green is focused on scoring points. He doesn’t like to take risks, but will open up more if he knows he’s behind. Feeling the numbers were not on his side, he started to engage a bit more often. His planted feet made Holobaugh’s low kicks all the more impactful.
Credit to Green for eating that headkick.
Without frustration, Holobaugh did not stop chasing down his prey.
Was that a knockdown or a slip?
Both men settled in for the championship rounds. Holobaugh showed off his varied tools, moving his head brilliantly and striking off the back foot.
There may be a perception of Holobaugh as “just” a gritty brawler. He’s clearly smooth and technical.
Against an unwilling opponent, Holobaugh had one of the best performances of his career. He continued to chase down Des Green, who had no answers. When the final bell sounded, Holobaugh had no doubt the title was his.
By the fifth round, Des Green didn’t want to fight Kurt Holobaugh anymore.
It was a different kind of showing for Holobaugh, his kicking game was on full display. Kurt remembers it fondly.
“That fight with Desmond Green, that’s absolutely what I think won me the fight. I kept on kicking inside, kicking outside. Just not giving him a chance to set up anything in front of me. Those kicks were really a gamechanger in that fight.”
Holobaugh’s first title defense was against the freakishly strong Division 2 All-American wrestler Andre “The Bull” Harrison.
It was not an easy matchup on paper, Holobaugh had struggled with spending too much time on his back, and Harrison is a takedown artist like no other. To that point, the first round was ugly. Harrison got to Holobaugh’s legs at will, and continued to put him down.
But after the first round, conditioning became a factor. Holobaugh continued to throw and attack at a high rate, while Harrison’s activity dwindled. His stagnation was what gave Kurt time to set up and lock in a tight triangle from guard.
He held that triangle for about three minutes, and it was Harrison who gassed from it.
Originally, the lock was on the opposite side. Kurt wasn’t able to adjust the lock to choke both sides of Harrison’s neck until much later in the round, when his legs had a little less juice. The two spent at least three minutes in that position, most would expect Holobaugh’s legs to be completely spent. But it was Harrison who came out looking fatigued.
While Harrison still managed to complete takedowns, it was a different fight. Holobaugh never stopped his pursuit, rattling Harrison’s jaw on several occasions.
Credit to Harrison for fighting two more rounds while completely exhausted.
This pattern continued. The question was, did the judges consider Harrison’s time on time round-winning criteria? He had little to no effective offense from that position, it was Holobaugh who continuously went for submissions and struck from bottom.
You can see here that Kurt would rather use a takedown attempt as a submission opportunity than stay standing. This is a testament to his mindset, but would change in the future.
In the final round Holobaugh pushed forward, landed solid combinations, and even came close to securing a ninja choke against the cage.
A fifth round ninja choke finish would have been so sweet.
But MMA judging is flawed. Although Holobaugh clearly had a majority share of the offense in at least three rounds, Harrison won a unanimous decision.
Holobaugh took another fight at featherweight outside of Titan FC. He faced off with Bellator standout “Frodo” Khasbulaev in Russia.
The stocky Russian grappler was simply too physical, and controlled large portions of the fight on top.
Changes were in order. “I originally came to the conclusion of going back to lightweight after the fight with Frodo Khasbulaev in Russia. That was just such a tough weight cut, such tough travel, and I felt like it wasn’t worth it.”
It was not difficult for Holobaugh to diagnose why he was losing. “If you go back and look at my losses, they were mainly from good wrestlers. I was being controlled on the ground, losing ground battles. I almost land a ton of submissions, but sometimes you’ve got these big strong wrestlers, they’re on top of you and it’s hard to get up.”
Return to Titan FC
Kurt’s first Titan FC bout at lightweight was against a Muay Thai specialist in Luciano dos Santos. The American Top Team fighter was not the caliber of opponent Holobaugh had grown used to, but it was a dangerous matchup.
The key for Holobaugh was to keep dos Santos uncomfortable, and on the retreat. Fortunately, that comes naturally.
He landed a mini H-bomb there.
Kurt’s pace and body work took over quickly. No matter what dos Santos did, he continued to throw in combinations and make it ugly. Holobaugh’s volume only increased as the fight went on.
You can watch dos Santos die a little inside after every exchange.
It was a matter of time before dos Santos broke. At the end of the second, Holobaugh landed a clean overhand that left his opponent stunned. He swarmed, digging shots to the body before finishing up top. Seeing dos Santos had quit, the referee mercifully intervened.
Just a casual unanswered 30-strike combination.
Holobaugh excels at finishing in this position.
“When you put a guy against the cage, he has nowhere to go except left or right. I’m gonna cut him off either way he goes. When I put you against the cage, that’s when you’re gonna look for me to go for the finish.”
vs. Yosdenis Cedeno
Titan FC was clearly giving Holobaugh time to refine his game, because they gave him another striker. This time it was UFC veteran Yosdenis “Pink Panther” Cedeno, a Cuban karateka.
It was an exciting clash of styles, Cedeno exploded into striking attacks while Holobaugh chipped away with combinations as usual.
This time, however, Holobaugh initiated the grappling exchanges, taking Cedeno down and transitioning to the back with ease.
For one round, Cedeno looked like somebody I could really get behind. Then he gassed.
Cedeno tired, as all of Holobaugh’s opponents inevitably do. He attempted to stave off Kurt’s assault with takedowns, but it only put him in further danger.
You’re tired and having trouble breathing? It would a shame if someone…squeezed you real hard with body triangle.
Seeing his opponent break, Holobaugh dragged Cedeno down, took his back, and finished with a rear naked choke.
“I started working a lot more wrestling. I’m working a lot more on my all-around game. When it comes down to it, I like to beat em’ up, but now I’m starting to take guys down. I’m just trying to show an all-around class of mixed martial arts.”
Titan FC Lightweight Title
Holobaugh was ready for a stiffer test, and a chance at the interim lightweight belt. His opponent was “JZ”, Gesias Cavalcante.
Cavalcante has had a storied career fighting all over the world. He’s always been well-rounded, but has leaned on grappling to get the job done. His training at the Blackzilians gym made him more of a threat than ever on the feet, however.
Holobaugh took his time in the first, touching up JZ with his jab, forcing Cavalcante to miss, and landing his signature low kicks. As the two settled in, Kurt began to walk him down and let go with more impactful combinations.
A new wrinkle in Holobaugh’s game was a lead rear straight into the clinch. He rolled under the responsive swing of Cavalcante to get a deep underhook and angle towards the back.
JZ had some success taking the fight to the ground, but Kurt was consistently able to spring back up, and put his hands on him.
“I really feel like I’m beginning to be a hard guy to hold down. From here on out, if these guys just want to take me down and hold me, I really think I’ve done a good job of being able to get back to my feet. And when I’m back on my feet, now I’m better at stopping those takedowns.”
Of course, he still tried his luck attacking submissions and reversals.
Holobaugh is great at scooping that ankle against the cage.
As Cavalcante began to wilt, Holobaugh threw with no hesitation. He doubled and tripled up with the same hand, he even spun through a round kick and grazed JZ with a nice back kick to the body.
Holobaugh was so comfortable, he took him down to finish the job.
That mounted guillotine transition was so nice.
In mount, Cavalcante was a sitting duck. Holobaugh unloaded until the referee, and JZ, decided it was enough.
JZ was just happy it was over.
LAST FIGHT: Def. Matt Bessette via KO (Punch) at 2:59 of Round 1
That brings us to the present. After four years of toiling outside the UFC, it was time for redemption. The two fan-friendly finishers were selected to headline the very first episode of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Holobaugh accepted the fight at 145. “If it wasn’t in the UFC, I felt like it wasn’t worth it to make the weight cut. So that’s what got me back to 145, the Contender Series. That’s where the offer came. I always told myself I wouldn’t go back unless it was for the UFC.”
Bessette possesses a striking style based in traditional martial arts. He’ll kick high with his lead leg, and likes to fight long. His hands aren’t too shabby, either.
But Holobaugh’s biggest advantage was boxing in the pocket, a hole he exploited immediately. Bessette hardly had room to breathe, Kurt consistently found angles to extend his combinations, throwing to the head and body while dodging attacks.
The head movement and length of combinations always gets me.
Even when Bessette had space to generate his own offense, it was either slipped or countered by Holobaugh. Kurt’s jab quickly bloodied the nose of “The Mangler”.
These are the boxing fundamentals you want to see in MMA.
We know what happened next.
Bessette entered lazily on a body shot, and Holobaugh countered over the top. Smelling blood, Kurt moved in and started slinging bricks until Bessette went down.
There was no question, Kurt Holobaugh earned a contract and was back with the UFC.
NEXT FIGHT: vs. Raoni Barcelos at UFC Fight Night 133
Raoni Barcelos has been inactive since 2016, but he was the dominant featherweight champion of the RFA, now LFA.
Barcelos has a strong background with the Brazilian national wrestling team, and solid BJJ accolades. On paper, he is the kind of opponent that has given Bessette trouble.
“You know, the guy is pretty good. I will say his wrestling background has made him a better defensive wrestler than offensive wrestler. I haven’t seen many fights where he actually shot, took a guy down and controlled him. He likes to stand up and strike, and that plays right into what I like to do. I feel like it’s a good matchup for me. I’m more experienced, I’ve fought tougher opponents, I have a slight edge in a lot of areas.”
“Not taking anything away from him, the guy is fast and he hits hard. I look forward to the fight but I think I can put him away pretty early.”
Despite the fight’s status as a clash of major regional champions, they’re buried deep on the card.
“I just found out that I am on the Fox Sports 1 prelims, that made me happy. But you would think that two of the biggest regional champions would get a little more attention, but it’s all good after this fight they’ll be talking about me for sure.”
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