Top UFC middleweight contender Marvin Vettori will look to extend his winning streak to five when he faces Kevin Holland in the main event of this weekend's UFC Vegas 23 event.
The Italian fighter is somewhat of a darkhorse in the ever-crowded 185-pound division, often overlooked by the majority of fans and pundits alike as someone who could potentially unseat current UFC middleweight king Israel Adesanya. The two have a history as well, first meeting at UFC on FOX 29 in April 2018 where Adesanya won a split decision. Vettori hasn't lost since that first meeting with the Nigerian champion and was hoping a victory over a bigger name like Darren Till on a national stage like ABC, would've been just the mainstream boost he needed to secure his rematch with Adesanya. However, the road to the top of the MMA world hasn't been a smooth one for Vettori and another bump in the road would come on March 30 when Till was forced to withdraw from the bout due to a broken collarbone.
Vettori is an agent of chaos at this point though, he started a six-month suspension in April 2019 due to a USADA violation from an out-of-competition test for testing positive for ostarine, while then dealing with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the multiple re-scheduling of his fight with Karl Roberson, taking a fight with Jack Hermansson on a week's notice, and now losing the main event opportunity against Till to now only get a high risk-low reward last-minute matchup against polarizing contender Kevin Holland. The experience of constant uncertainty he now has makes it not that surprising to see Vettori take the matchup with Holland who just lost a one-sided unanimous decision to Derek Brunson at UFC Vegas 22. Even with the lower value the fight now has for him, Vettori's response to the news of Till's injury in the following tweet embodies his headstrong attitude towards pushing for the eventual rematch with Adesanya.
Always do my part 100% and these bunch of pussies can’t make it.— Marvin Vettori (@MarvinVettori) March 30, 2021
Im next in line for the title, whoever has something to say show the fuck up in 2 weeks so I can whoop your ass and shut you off for good
Outside of the surface level storylines though of Vettori being overlooked as a contender, the thought of another shot at Adesanya, or his seeming willingness to fight anyone on any sort of timeframe is what a win over Holland on Saturday night would do for the fighter's home country of Italy and the MMA movement there. Fighting has been historically one of the most celebrated forms of human artistry and accomplishment, it's something as cliche as it may sound truly is engrained in all of our DNA. While visceral, primal, and brutal in many ways, fighting is also weirdly familiar as well as an embodiment of the ultimate display of the limits of the human spirit.
Many nations celebrate their fighting history, whether it be the way the Mexican and Puerto Rican people take such pride in the long lineage of boxing greats produced from their countries or the way we've seen the Irish people rally around Conor McGregor's rise to stardom putting a spotlight on the fighting culture of Ireland. Michael Bisping did something similar for the United Kingdom after winning season three of The Ultimate Fighter in June 2006, former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov started an MMA surge for his home country of Dagestan, and now we've even seen most recently with UFC champions Francis Ngannou, Kamaru Usman, and Israel Adesanya the same thing happening in Africa. I believe the fiery 27-year old Mezzocorona, Trentino, Italy native can have a similar impact on his homeland, a place more known for its pizza, wine, and art than it is for its rich fighting tradition.
The Italian fighting culture gets often disregarded, but it's one that is extensive dating back to the days of Gladiatorial Combat during the Ancient Rome era. Across the country, there are various styles of combat and martial arts, all defined by each region they're practiced in. You've got Paranza Corta a style of Sicilian knife fighting, Bastone Napoletano a stick fighting discipline from Naples, Istrumpa a form of wrestling out of Sardinia, and Kick Jitsu a combat sport that combines kickboxing and jiu-jitsu which is popular in Calabria and Tuscany. There's also the unique yet brutal sport of Calcio Storico a combination of bare-knuckle fighting, rugby, and soccer played in a yearly event in Florence that originated over 600 years ago. COPA90 Stories did a piece on the men who partake in the sport still to this day back in July 2017.
The country also has a long history of celebrating boxing champions such as Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Ray Mancini, Nino Benvenuti, and Arturo Gatti but that same production of talent and support hasn't converted to MMA yet. Outside of longtime Bellator and UFC veteran Alessio Sakara or current UFC fighter Alessio Di Chirico, Italy has failed to deliver any real talent onto the biggest level of the sport. Outside of the Venator Fighting Championship, there are no real developmental promotions in Italy for young fighters to hone their skills, and Vettori himself even said after his UFC debut at UFC 202 in August 2016 that once Sakara left the promotion, the MMA scene in the country went into a "medieval age", that is until Vettori showed up. His 6-2-1 record inside of the Octagon is the highest winning percentage for any Italian fighter in the promotion's history and he was the first Italian fighter to headline a UFC event when he faced Jack Hermansson at UFC Vegas 16.
Vettori is from Mezzocorona, a small mountain village in the northern part of Italy that has a population of under 5500 people as of October 2017. There was no real clear route for him to becoming a potential UFC champion, the sport wasn't popular in Italy while Vettori was growing up, and nor was there any real influence for him from his own country to take from or aspire to be like. Former Pride FC heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko is what inspired Vettori to enter the sport and after training at five to six different gyms in Italy, he made the move to King's MMA in 2015 to train in Huntington Beach, California to maximize his potential as a fighter.
He now is in a rarified position to become a pioneer for the sport in his home country, potentially impacting the youth of Italy and creating a new generation of fighters similarly to what we saw Bisping do in helping to pave the road for the next wave of great British talent like Darren Till, Leon Edwards, Tom Aspinall, Arnold Allen, Lerone Murphy, Paddy Pimblett, Nathaniel Wood, and many others. Vettori becoming the first Italian UFC champion could create a wave of support across Italy for the sport and also ignite an increased interest in MMA from the Italian people, ultimately leading to a rise in contenders from the country. Obviously handling business against Holland and winning will be the main spark for a possible MMA boom in Italy, but Vettori also has the charisma and personality that should make him either endearing or polarizing to the masses.
Once again in the same way that Bisping and McGregor could make themselves marketable while also captivating the mainstream fanbases and their own countries at the same time, Vettori easily could follow that blueprint in creating his own stardom. The intensity, fieriness, stubbornness, and passion he exudes are encompassing of the Italian people and mirrors both of the former European UFC champions. This was on full display in his post-fight interview with Jon Anik after his victory over Hermansson.
"Fuck ya now I'm in the mix too now motherfuckers!," Vettori exclaimed. "This is for every Italian that believes in me, for all the Italians that are struggling, this is so important to me man."
I'm not sure it's his "We're not here to take part, we're here to take over" Conor McGregor moment, but for me, it had the same feeling. Marvin Vettori is also a fighter that I personally have become invested in and regularly root for. This is not something that is uncommon as we as fans naturally gravitate towards certain fighters the longer we watch and eventually develop our own preferences of who we want to see succeed. But with Vettori, it is more to me than just being entertained by his fighting style, personality, or simply rooting for him to win, he's a fighter I can't help but relate to in two pretty significant ways.
The first being our shared mentalities of having proverbial chips on our shoulders. Vettori has made it no secret that he feels slighted in many ways and hasn't been credited for the work he's done, even telling MMAFighting recently that he feels disrespected by the media attention YouTuber Jake Paul has gotten now as a pro boxer. I have those exact same feelings constantly, although I don't have nearly the justification or talent Vettori does to feel slighted. But in my life, I'm always looking for a reason to feel that way, especially within my writing career I've often felt I haven't gotten the opportunities I should've or credit for certain things I've written. I also have this innate urge to prove people wrong who I felt have doubted me in some way throughout my life, but often I'm fighting against an opponent that isn't real and really only getting in my own way.
Vettori has managed to use these emotions instead as fuel to now drive himself to the top of the UFC's middleweight division, instead of alienating himself from opportunities as I've done. Some call him angry and say he has a temper, they may be right as Italians have the stereotype of being known to be hot-headed at times, but I think those people mistaken anger for passion and drive. He's turned the doubt or supposed anger into an intense focus and will to succeed, accepting all challenges that may come his way, and now letting the work speak for itself. It's something I can't help but be envious of and hope to obtain myself one day. Vettori has gotten out of his own way and now poses as one of the most interesting threats to Adesanya's crown.
The other way I connect to Vettori is simply put through my Italian roots. My great, great grandparents were all immigrants from Italy with three of them coming to America through Ellis Island. My great, great grandma Carmela Storina's story is the one I've always taken the most interest in and become the most attached to. She was born in 1885 in Calabria, Italy, and came to the United States in 1902 as an orphan at just 17-years old as part of an arranged marriage and knew no English. She ended up having 10 kids and provided for them by selling vegetables she grew at open markets, mainly doing this as essentially a single mother. In an effort to make more money, she would see what produce was in low supply beforehand, buy up those vegetables, and then resale them at a higher price.
Her determination to overcome the circumstances she was presented with, combined with an undeniable work ethic is something I remain in awe of. It's also something that reminds me of Vettori and what he's dealt with to get to the opportunity he now has ahead of him against Kevin Holland at UFC Vegas 23. He hasn't complained about the constant delays of fights or last-minute replacement opponents, he's just buzzsawed whoever the UFC has put in front of him. Watching his ascension up the middleweight ranks has helped remind me of my great, great-grandma, her story, and made me prouder than ever of my Italian heritage. It's helped me become more appreciative of a lot of things and re-focused my mind on what's important, which is something I can't really thank the Italian contender enough for.
What's most important though for Vettori is the task at hand against a very dangerous, unique, dynamic fighter in Holland who has all the skills to beat him and nothing to lose. Obviously, a title shot and rematch with Adesanya will be at play with a victory for Vettori or the possibility of rebooking the Till matchup, but most importantly is the chance to continue the pursuit of starting an Italian MMA revolution and push for an eventual UFC event in Italy. It's a responsibility Vettori welcomes and as he told Morning Kombat's Brian Campbell, it's an honor he is more than willing to have bestowed upon him.
"It's not pressure man, it's an honor, " he said. "I wanna show to the world how Italians fight, the fighting Italian spirit. It's an honor to like pave the way, it's cool when people follow the sport in a country just because of a guy. It's been a lot of hardness because obviously being a pioneer comes with a lot of struggle, but it's an honor right now and it's awesome to just represent the fighting that's in Italy and Italians and show it in the cage."