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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 236’s Max Holloway

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight kingpin, Max Holloway, will pack on a few additional pounds to challenge for the interim Lightweight strap opposite knockout artist, Dustin Poirier, this Saturday (April 13, 2019) at UFC 236 from inside State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.

It’s been five years and 13 fights since Holloway last tasted defeat. The Hawaiian’s run has been pretty incredible, as he’s pretty soundly beaten each of those 13 opponents, rarely looking in any sort of trouble and mostly finishing his opposition. While there are still some quality challenges to be had at 145 pounds, Holloway has been dominant enough that a “super fight” opportunity does not feel forced.

Indeed, the “Blessed” fighter has earned his chance at a second belt, and he’ll get a chance to avenge a very old loss in the process. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Throughout his career, pace has remained the most consistent weapon in Holloway’s attack. Early in his career, Holloway was something of a wild man who loved to jump into the air with flying shots. He later developed into more of a body punching brawler and further still into the refined technician that holds the belt.

All the while, Holloway won consistently be throwing way more punches than his opponents.

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. Look at original title win over Jose Aldo, where a one-two combination, pull, one-two combination ended the Brazilian’s night. That mix of straight shots and pulls is the core of Holloway’s game and seems simple enough, but Holloway lands often because of his snappy punches and range control (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. 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, 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.

Against Brian Ortega, Holloway repeatedly nailed the jiu-jitsu ace with straight punches by shifting his stance while firing straight punches (GIF), extending the combinations until he was landing at will. In this week’s technique highlight, we cover that strategy and the reason(s) Holloway is so successful with it.

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 he covers against the fence (GIF). Suddenly closing the distance to work the body is a great strategy, one Holloway has employed many times. Most notably, Holloway terrorized Cub Swanson with left kicks to the body and jumping knees, making it easy to understand why Holloway was so easily able to feint at range, force his foe to cover up, and suddenly close distance on an unsuspecting foe (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).

Holloway is a smart kicker with a wide variety of techniques. He’s settled down a lot in the last few years, as he now sticks to well set up roundhouse kicks much off time. 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 a few years back was the 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). Holloway has began throwing the spinning wheel kick as well, which builds off the threat of the back kick.

Holloway’s activity level means he’s going to eat some punches, but on the whole, the Hawaiian’s defense is quite tight. As he demonstrated against both Aldo and Ortega, Holloway is able to stand in the pocket with the best of them. Keeping his arms loose, Holloway does a nice job of blocking wide punches and slipping the straight ones (GIF) — and always looking for that pull counter.

Wrestling

In general, most everyone understands ahead of this rematch that the first fight does not at all hold any relevance to the rematch — seven years is a lifetime in mixed martial arts (MMA), particularly when both men were so early in their careers. However, Holloway’s early career loss to Poirier does help demonstrate just how much his defensive wrestling has improved: the Hawaiian fell victim to the classic power double along the fence in that fight, whereas now his takedown defense rate is an excellent 83 percent.

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).

Defensively, Holloway really does everything correctly, and that begins 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’s extremely deep gas tank is an eternal advantage. 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.

Ortega became the first person in years to take Holloway down, although his top control lasted for a few seconds at best. Given his skill set, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Ortega was looking to jump onto the back as Holloway moved to stand. It didn’t work out for the grappler though, as Holloway was prepared, looking to dig his elbow back between them and prevent Ortega from securing upper body control (GIF).

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).

A bit 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 is one of the world’s best and has spent the last couple years absolutely terrorizing the elite of the Featherweight division. While there are still challenges worthy of his time at 145 pounds — so we’re not in complete Jon Jones territory yet — Holloway also has the time to aim for a second belt while a clear top contender emerges. It’s another potential step toward all-time great status for Holloway, which seems more and more likely given his consistently incredible performances and youth.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.

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