The UFC might have done Max Holloway and Jose Aldo a disservice by booking them onto a card which is so utterly lacking in other stars as UFC 212. An avid follower of the featherweight division will know that this is probably the most compelling match up at that weight since Jose Aldo versus Conor McGregor and that it has been a long time coming.
Max Holloway has rattled off ten victories in a row since 2014 and finished seven of his opponents in the process. Some of these have been names as challenging and respected as Cub Swanson, Ricardo Lamas, and Anthony Pettis. Jose Aldo, meanwhile, may only fight once in a blue moon but spare thirteen seconds of misguided anger against McGregor, he has looked faultless for almost a decade. Maybe fans have been turned off by the pointless interim belt the UFC have thrown on Holloway, maybe some still see McGregor as the champion of the division, and some fans probably don't want to shell out pay-per-view prices for what could otherwise be a Fight Night card, but in terms of pure all-around mixed martial arts skill this might be one of the best MMA matches ever signed.
Max Holloway 101
Max Holloway was briefly the most frustrating prospect on the undercard. He had clear skills in every area but would be so desperate to impress that he would often start jumping into flying knees and swinging for knockouts, only to give up position. Over the last three years Holloway has continued to add to his skill set, but developed the patience and smarts to actually use those tools. One ability that has come to the fore in recent years is Holloway's ability and willingness to fight from both stances. Against Cole Miller, Holloway flowed gracefully between both, often working from southpaw to shoot the left straight down the centre on Miller. Sharper from his weak side than Miller was from his strong side, Holloway flowed beautifully that night even if it wasn't all textbook.
That was the beginnings of Max's stance switching though, it was pretty clumsy. Nowadays Holloway does his switch hitting in a smarter manner. Holloway will hide his stance changes in movement and attempt to strike before his opponent can make the mental adjustments to the different stance match up. Against Cub Swanson, Holloway showed several ways of doing this. These included Willie Pep's go-to set up, circling from an orthodox stance out to the left, before rebounding in with a southpaw left straight, and side stepping into the other stance in order to set up a back kick which just wouldn't exist from his original stance, that's how you make the most of a stance shift.
And the understanding of switch hitting works in reverse. Holloway fought almost entirely orthodox against Anthony Pettis but as soon as Pettis switched stance he would start showing looks appropriate for that stance match up. When Pettis went orthodox, Holloway would flick out oblique kicks and step in with his boxing combinations. When Pettis went southpaw, Holloway would step up and use his lead leg to punt Pettis' across himself.
On several occasions Holloway even stepped deep and attempted to cut out the back leg.
While fighting out of both stances is fairly new school, the shift Holloway made to hit Cub Swanson's body was one of the oldest in the book, a classical technique for the infighter.
Set up by the high kick which raised Swanson's hands the next time Holloway attacked. Gorgeous stuff.
Holloway's boxing has always been one of his great strengths—even McGregor got the better of Holloway through jamming his advances with low line straight kicks and forcing him onto the back foot. While he is a long, rangy featherweight, he bangs the body better than anyone in the division, whether it be shifts or in flurries along the fence. Seeing a young Holloway hook to the body with the same hand off the jab against Dennis Bermudez convinced this writer that the young Hawaiian had a heap of potential back in 2013. The other area that Holloway's boxing really shines is on the counter. Lead hooks from both stances are Holloway's bread and butter counters and he has chinned a number of scary strikers with them. Jeremy Stephens drops his hands every time he leaps in to punch and Holloway was happy to oblige him with counters. Cub Swanson's aggression proved his undoing as he ate counter right hooks from the slicker, tighter Holloway.
That being said, Holloway is twice the man on the counter that he is on the lead. It is in his shifting runs after opponents that he tends to get clipped clean. And while he can use his boxing in measured, thoughtful fashion—hooking off the jab in lovely fashion—he has a tendency to go overkill on the shifting punches which typically yield better results as occasional surprise attack.
One of Holloway's slickest methods, and one which has earned him a good few of his stoppages, is to draw the opponent forward and attack their body as they step in. He can do this nicely with knees:
But Holloway often looks to kick the body as his opponent steps in to punch. This can be with the standard round kicks, particularly from opposite stance, but against Anthony Pettis, Holloway drew his man onto a perfectly timed back kick which allowed him to pick up the TKO.
Jose Aldo in Brief
What can you say about Jose Aldo that isn't covering old ground? We have already written numerous articles on his continuing brilliance in the featherweight division. Aldo's best performances have typically come against wrestlers who are forced to stand with him. With some of the best takedown defence in the business—feeding the single and limp legging out almost any time an opponent shoots—Aldo's distance management is also responsible in large part for his success. Aldo at his best is about patience. That can alienate many fans who wish he would leap in with jumping knees as he did against Cub Swanson and swing wildly for the stoppage as he did in his early WEC days, but you can't argue with results.
Aldo's boxing has improved in leaps and bounds over the years and nowadays he does most of his best work, like Holloway, on the counter. Much of Aldo's game is built around the pivot—whether he is hiding his right leg and blading his hips to present the single leg to a shooting opponent, or getting off line of attack and returning with a left hook to the dome. Frankie Edgar's straight line charges sent him flying past Aldo time and time again in their two matches. On the ground Aldo is, and always has been, a virtuoso performer as well. When he effortlessly mounts fighters of Ricardo Lamas' calibre, seemingly on a whim, it makes fans wonder why he doesn't drag the fight to the ground of his own accord more often.
Jose Aldo's career has been built on patience. If his opponent doesn't come to him, he almost always sits back until they do. He might fire in a quick low kick or two, or a jab, but—aside from his favourite right straight-left hook to the liver-right low kick combination—his telling strikes tend to come in retaliation. For Max Holloway, who often gets away with loopy, shifting punches by the skin of his teeth, this could be problematic. The one notable instance of Aldo getting riled up and off his game came against McGregor, but McGregor had months of build-up and a world tour with Aldo to irritate the champion before that bout. With that being said, the few moments of offence from McGregor before the knockout were exactly what you would want to see from a longer fighter trying to draw Aldo out—low line side kicks and long left straights.
That same low line side kick kept Holloway from stepping in on McGregor in their fight and when Cub Swanson began throwing it at Holloway, the Hawaiian responded in kind and showed that he had actually spent some time working with it since the McGregor bout. He even went to that classic two touch back kick.
Holloway also showed low line side kicks and oblique kicks as he agitated Pettis into leading. They could certainly be of use here, making the most of his length against Aldo and beating Aldo's favourite right round kick to the mark and convincing Aldo to push in to avoid having his knee stomped on for rounds at range. Aldo's tendency to reach on his right hand is something we touched on in Killing the King: Jose Aldo back in 2013, but it rarely comes out anymore spare the occasions when he is irritated into leading. Even against Ricardo Lamas, who refused to lead for most of their fight, Aldo was patient and controlled.
Again when talking about beating Aldo, most are reluctant to mention low kicking with the champ. This is because of the strange belief that being good at low kicks automatically comes with perfect defence of low kicks. Aldo's love of the pivot and the lead hook often see his lead foot toed inward and his leg in prime position for kicking. Feinting Aldo into a pivot or counter hook might expose this target more readily. Frankie Edgar's low kicks went completely unanswered when Aldo was obsessed with pivoting off line in their two bouts.
While Aldo has shown himself more than capable of checking kicks, he gets himself in position to do so, and when he does that it takes him a little further away from his pivot and offers opportunities as he is one leg or rooted in order to take the kick. Holloway has shown himself to be smart enough to use kicks and faked kicks to get himself into boxing range.
If Holloway can get Aldo bracing for kicks or raising a leg to check, this could be a game changer because Aldo's footwork has otherwise been spotless when he is left to his own devices.
While the consensus on Aldo has always been that tiring him over the rounds is the best option, it might be in Holloway's interest to start picking up points in the kickboxing exchanges early. By staying active and working at range Holloway has a better chance of making Aldo fight for five rounds, rather than sit back and conserve his lead as he so often does. If Holloway can begin to bang the body he might be able to make that late fight gameplan a reality, but waiting for Aldo to tire himself out of his own volition has never been a great plan to hang your hat on. That front kick to the body that Holloway loves could certainly accomplish the task of out pointing Aldo and digging to the body at the same time.
It is worth noting that while Aldo has a one inch reach advantage on Holloway, range in a fight is dictated by a few factors. Reach is one, another is height. Punching up or down reduces effective striking reach, punching level with the shoulder maximises reach. As Holloway often fights from a longer, crouched stance his four inches of height on Aldo might not make much difference. Though height advantages can be brought to lever nicely for a fighter with a good counter lead hook, leaning in to draw the punch and away to stretch it out, as Nate Diaz did so successfully against Conor McGregor in their first meeting.
Jose Aldo is probably going to sit back and look to counter as he always has. If Holloway is running in with awkward shifting blows each time that might turn into an easy night of work for Aldo. If Holloway is actually using his tools to pick at Aldo and getting ahead on points, Aldo might be best looking to cut the cage on the Hawaiian. While Jeremy Stephens and Cub Swanson had little success, following Holloway around the cage, Aldo's performance against the reluctant Ricardo Lamas is encouraging. Much of Holloway's best work comes from stepping back and drawing opponents onto him. With the cage immediately behind him Holloway would struggle to do this and it would give Aldo the chance to land his blows. As we mentioned when discussing Glover Teixeira's failure to prevent Alexander Gustafsson from circling out, low kicking the trailing leg as the opponent runs off the fence is a great means of damaging the leg while they are occupied and unable to check.
Cutting the cage and keeping Holloway in front of the fence would create chances to step in and wrestle for Aldo. As Holloway is a fighter who makes use of a great deal of movement to manufacture exchanges and to get in and out, time spent pressed against the fence is time not spent meeting him in his A game. As good as Holloway's takedown defence has looked recently, he hasn't dealt with many top flight takedown artists and Aldo can summon some surprising wrestling chops when he needs to.
This fight, as with any great match ups, raises a ton of questions. While the rest of UFC 202 is so-so, the main event is one which this writer has been looking forward to for a long time. Whatever the result, get back here on Monday for the breakdown.