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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 223’s Max Holloway

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight kingpin, Max Holloway, will step up on six-day notice to challenge unbeaten Dagestani smashing machine, Khabib Nurmagomedov (25-0), this Saturday (April 7, 2018) at UFC 223 inside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Ferguson’s injury may have reduced a great deal of mixed martial arts (MMA) fans to tears, but it created a vacuum for Max Holloway to step up and be a complete bad ass. The odds are against Holloway. He’ll be facing a larger and seemingly unstoppable brute of a wrestling specialist, one who has been preparing for Saturday night for months. The bright side here is that Holloway is undoubtedly one of the best conditioned and most skilled fighters in the world, so the potential for an upset should not be overlooked.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Despite being one of the biggest Featherweights on the roster — which gives him height and reach advantages over most foes — Holloway maintains an absurd pace. Holloway fires dozens of rangy strikes per round and never lets up, keeping his excellent form the whole time.

Boxing is really the core of Holloway’s diverse stand up game. He may throw spinning kicks and flying knees, but none of that would matter without the base from which he builds. Hell, look at his original title win over Jose Aldo, where a 1-2, pull, 1-2 ended the champion’s reign. That’s nothing complicated on paper, but it was remarkably effective thanks to Holloway’s distance and crisp punching (.GIF).

Boxing begins with the jab, and Holloway uses his jab quite well to control range. Opposite shorter men looking to close the distance — a fair number of his foes — Holloway’s footwork and jab are enough to maintain distance. Against fighters willing to strike from the outside, Holloway moves in behind his jab well to set up his combinations (like in the above Jose Aldo .GIF).

Holloway builds off the jab very well. In contrast to his varied kicking assault, Holloway's combinations are generally fairly simple. He mostly relies on his jab, cross and lead hook, but Holloway uses feints and high activity to make his boxing more than formidable. In addition, Holloway uses the jab to hide stance-switches, which can make his combinations very tricky.

Hooking off the jab is a signature technique of Holloway. Most fighters alternate left hand-right hand-left hand in perpetuity, which means a hook off the jab — two lefts in a row — helps disrupt the defense by upsetting expectations. Holloway digs to the liver off the jab commonly, and his right hand that follows the jab-hook has a great chance of landing.

In the Aldo rematch, Holloway did a fantastic job of both adjusting to his opponent and building from fundamentals. Early on, Holloway kept his arms out wide, prepared to intercept the power left and right hook counters of Aldo. That allowed the jab to connect a bit more easily for Aldo, but jabbing with a longer fighter is quite difficult. Meanwhile, Holloway was constantly feinting with his hands or firing straights. Early on, they rarely connected cleanly, but Aldo senses were eventually dulled by the feints and slowed by fatigue. Holloway soon began hooking off the jab, which in turn allowed his jabs to connect more often.

Before long, Holloway had found his range, while most of Aldo’s punches were not landing. Holloway grew more confident, firing extended combinations more often. When Aldo began to back away from the pocket in search of rest, Holloway would use his cross to transition into Southpaw, continuing the combination (usually with a right jab or right hook followed by a left cross).

Aldo found no rest.

Aside from hooking off the jab, Holloway will commonly roll to close the distance and land multiple hooks to the mid-section. Once he's in this close range, Holloway keeps his guard high and strikes at whatever is open. This has become a common finishing technique for him, teeing off on his opponent's tired body as they cover against the fence (.GIF).

One of the other more notable techniques of Holloway is his ability to draw his foe into counters. He’s a very active striker who’s willing to work from the pocket, and that causes his opponent to expect him to be in range. After touching his foe with a straight shot, he pulls back before returning fire. When his opponent comes up short, Holloway is in range to counter (.GIF).

That .GIF is three years old and against the unheralded Akira Corassani, but it’s the same technique Holloway used to stop Aldo.

Holloway is a smart kicker with a wide variety of techniques. For the most part, he sticks to smartly set up roundhouse kicks. For example, he’ll get his foe moving backward or take an angle before chopping at the leg. In addition, Holloway will take advantage of being in the opposite stance of his opponent and attack with power kicks to the body (.GIF).

A big addition to Holloway's game over the years has been his spinning back kick. It's another excellent technique that works the body, and Holloway sets it up well. Usually, he’ll look for this strike when his opponent is trying to take a breather or is backed into the fence, as he’s more likely to land (.GIF). Recently, Holloway has began throwing the spinning wheel kick as well, which builds off the threat of the back kick.

Another interesting technique in Holloway's arsenal is him jump knee to the body from Southpaw, which he landed on Cub Swanson numerous times. Holloway managed to leap into a brutal strike to the mid-section each time he threw it, capitalizing on his opponent’s crouched posture. After landing, he would follow up with strikes.

All of the above is great technique, but Holloway’s conditioning is another massive weapon. Whether he’s working the outside or drowning his foe in pressure, Holloway attacks at a far higher rate than his opponent can match. Between volume and body shots, Holloway quickly wears away his opponent until a lapse in concentration ends the bout or the damage becomes too overwhelming.

Wrestling

Holloway’s UFC career began with him getting thrown to the mat and submitted. Even then he was fighting hard to stop the shot and forcing Dustin Poirier to chain wrestle, but now his combination of improved kickboxing and pure wrestling have made him a very difficult man to take down.

It’s been literal years since Holloway’s back hit the mat.

Holloway really isn’t one to actively change levels and hunt for the shot or even look to trip from the clinch. However, he did utilize a step behind trip opposite Anthony Pettis, sliding his lead leg behind Pettis’ then backing him over it. It was a lower energy way to trip Pettis to the mat and further assert his dominance, as well as cause Pettis to burn up the gas tank by scrambling back to his feet (.GIF).

More important, Holloway's takedown defense is excellent. Simply put, Holloway does every element of takedown defense very well, and that starts with his stand up. Thanks to his good habits of maintaining a healthy distance — or hiding his ability to close distance with footwork — and keeping his feet under him, Holloway is rarely caught out of position and is difficult to shoot against.

When his opponent does get in on his hips, Holloway sprawls well or will get his back against the fence. From there, he continues to widen his base while scoring with occasional punches and elbows.

Finally, Holloway does a very nice job limiting the amount of time he spends on his back. When he is brought down to the mat, he quickly bounces back up or wall-walks. While this does take a fair amount of energy, Holloway has an extremely deep gas tank. Meanwhile, his opponent -- who's likely been eating body shots the whole night -- just did a ton of work with very little payoff, leaving him in prime position to eat more punches and kicks.

While Holloway’s strong counter wrestling hold up at 155 pounds opposite the division’s best wrestler? We’ll see.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Holloway’s bouts rarely end up on the ground because he doesn’t want them there. When he's on his back, Holloway isn't searching for submissions — he's trying to scramble back to his feet. That said, Holloway has demonstrated at least one wrinkle of his submission game inside the Octagon. He's become very aggressive with his high elbow guillotine choke, which is responsible for two of the wins on his current streak.

The first came at the end of a back-and-forth battle with Andre Fili. After hurting the Californian with a spinning kick to the body, Holloway moved in and fired off a combination. The wounded Fili shot in for a single-leg takedown, and Holloway seized the opportunity by snatching his neck and falling into the choke. When Fili attempted to roll out, Holloway hung on long enough to force the tap (.GIF).

More recently, Holloway repeatedly attacked Cub Swanson with the same guillotine. Holloway rocked and dropped Swanson multiple times in their bout, and he usually followed him to the mat and tried to force the choke. In the third round, Holloway finally locked it in and advanced into mount. From there, he cranked on his opponent's neck and broken jaw until "Killer Cub" submitted (.GIF). Finally, Holloway countered Lamas’ double-leg attempts with his guillotine. He was able to gain top position twice thanks to this submission, and he even attempted a transition into the north-south choke at one point.

Conclusion

Holloway enters this bout riding a 12-fight win streak over excellent competition, so it’s hard for me to see him as a major underdog no matter the circumstances. Given the sudden nature of this match and the unpleasant style match up of a larger wrestler, most will view Holloway as a long shot at best, but that only makes the potential gain of becoming the latest “champ champ” even sweeter.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter and former amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.