At just 25-years-old, Max Holloway has blossomed from a frustrating prospect into the man to beat in the featherweight division. At UFC 212, against the greatest featherweight who ever lived, Holloway went from strength to strength and forced a merciless stoppage in the third round, long after the point had been proven.
A controlling and complete victory was not an easy one, however. Holloway was on edge from the very beginning and was minding his Ps and Qs, well aware of Aldo's ability. In fact most who watched the first round would have given it to Aldo—his flurries were more explosive, more impressive, and did more to affect Holloway than anything Holloway achieved in the opening stanza. The telling blow of the first round was the result of Aldo's favourite stabbing double attack. Just as against Chad Mendes, Aldo rammed in a couple of jabs until he saw Holloway's right hand reaching for parries, then he stepping in, jutted his shoulder out as if to jab, and swung a left hook around the side. The blow clipped Holloway's chin and the Hawaiian's eyes were widened for an instant as Aldo dived in to do some more hurting.
But this highlighted the important facet of Max Holloway's performance and what his coaches seemed to want from him. Max Holloway wasn't in there to stop Aldo from being Aldo, in fact he was there to encourage the champion to 'Aldo' harder than he ever had before. And so the theme developed throughout the fight, whenever Aldo shellacked Holloway's guard or shoulders with a lightning fast counter, Holloway would circle off and immediately re-engage with a legitimate strike or a feint. While he is the best featherweight who ever lived, Jose Aldo loves nothing more than to get his man timid and sit back on a lead. At 202, each time Aldo brought the crowd to its feet with a showing of his tremendous speed and timing, Holloway would implore him to do it again almost immediately.
Holloway created pressure on Jose Aldo: keeping the champion moving and ready to slip on a hair trigger. One of the ways in which Holloway enabled himself to do this was by mitigating the constant threat of Jose Aldo's legendary right low kick. He did this by fighting from an almost Wyatt Earp-esque stance, with his knees forced well out and his hips square, circling out to his right whenever he repositioned.
Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson and Anthony Pettis all buckled Holloway's lead leg with low kicks as he darted in and out. Against Jose Aldo, Holloway stood with his lead knee bent and never toed his lead foot inward. It didn't seem as though Holloway was preparing to pick his lead leg up and check kicks, as much as he wanted to take kicks and step in. The purpose of keeping the lead knee heavily bent and pointed forwards or even outwards is that as the opponent kicks the kick will ride up the quad, allowing the receiving fighter to step inside of it with punches or catch the kick at his hip and look for a takedown. When Aldo threw a low kick he was still able to buckle Holloway's leg to a degree, but Holloway did indeed step in to catch Aldo with a right hand when the kick came. The fact that Aldo never threw another kick suggests that the threat of Holloway stepping in on it was an effective deterrent.
Much of Holloway's work in the early going was simply to keep scoring points on Aldo. No loading up, no heavy connections, just showing him looks to keep him working and guessing. For a fighter who prides himself on his defence, the very act of being outpointed can take a mental toll and have him reaching for parries he probably shouldn't. The jab and the body jab were effective—alternated with feints and occasionally setting up a right straight to the body. These attacked the centreline of the squared Aldo, and Holloway's variety and refusal to overcommit kept him from suffering the same fate as poor old Rolando Perez.
Aldo's leads scored better with the crowd, but Holloway would clip him with short counters. The turning point of the fight came in the second round. Aldo snapped off a scintillating counter combination, Holloway circled out, and suddenly Aldo's mouth was open and Holloway was standing considerably closer.
From then on Holloway simply picked the champion apart. The constant showing of the jab encouraged Aldo to slip punches that weren't there:
And Holloway began to take advantage of Aldo's reactions, catching him as he leaned, or when Aldo went to his favourite pivot, punting him in the body.
The difficulty Aldo was having with the feints became clear as he began ducking into clinches after a slip rather than attempting to counter which would risk him taking a follow up punch. Holloway worked out of these clinches with a single collar tie and landed decent blows on the exits.
The fight ending blows (spare a couple of minutes of almost unanswered punches on the ground following the knockdown) were simply a pair of one-twos as Aldo's head movement slowed and Holloway became more certain that the champion's counters weren't going to bother him.
For years the notion of Aldo slowing the later rounds has been something that his opponents cling to, but many of them seemed keen to wait on him rather than making him work on the way there. Holloway was able to put himself in harm's way, come out of the exchanges unhurt, and keep Aldo biting down on his mouthpiece and slipping punches when he would normally be taking his time and pacing himself.
The performance was easily one of the finest of the year, and ranks up there with Cody Garbrandt's title winning effort for complete mastery of a reigning champion. The featherweight division was already rich with talent, but with Max Holloway at the top of the heap the future just got even brighter. For Jose Aldo this is by no means the end and it does nothing to tarnish his legacy that he lost here. At the fall of a Fedor or a Silva or an Aldo, it is always best to let the crushing defeats remind you that this is why a decade of dominance is so remarkable. No one fights off the fall forever, but for a while even the most cynical fan was beginning to believe that Aldo could.