Max Holloway cracks Brian Ortega with a right hand

The highlight-reel moments of spectacular knockouts, high-amplitude takedowns, and dynamic submission entries are the reason so many of us were, and remain, helplessly captivated by the sport of mixed martial arts. Moments like Anthony Pettis’ “Showtime Kick” or Ronda Rousey’s mesmerizing throws and armlocks are reminiscent of a Mortal Kombat character’s special move, enchanting us with the manifestation of Hollywood-style action and intrigue in a real-world scenario.

While such astounding events should never go underappreciated, they are not what makes a fighter elite. The skills that separate the top-tier of combatants from the rest of their counterparts are slight and momentary; they will never end up on a SportsCenter Top 10, and Dana White won’t be using footage of their implementation to sell pay-per-view events, but they are absolutely crucial in order to reach, and remain at, the highest level of MMA competition.

Being an ordained member of this highest level, Max Holloway has mastered a variety of these “invisible skills” that allow him to work his way to the knockouts and submissions that UFC executives and fans are eager to see. By employing an unparalleled level of skill in the art of creating and attacking from angles, and an equally important skill of staying off of the fence, Max “Blessed” Holloway has been able to best some of the sport’s most formidable participants.

Before his bout with the always-dangerous Frankie Edgar at UFC 240, let’s break down this pairing of Holloway’s “invisible skills” to see if they will be enough to allow the Featherweight Champion to defend his belt against one of the most experienced fighters in the division.

The Importance of Angles

Simply put, an “angle” has been achieved anytime a fighter is facing their opponent and the opponent is not facing them. As even the most novice of pugilists will instinctively seek to always face their opponent, the time frame in which an angle exists is instantaneous. Even though the duration of an angle is fleeting, it is in this short window where a fighter can deal substantial damage to their foe.

Angles are sought after in the striking arts for the same reason they are in the grappling arts: while human beings are well suited to face attacks from the front—our eyes face forward and our limbs can generate tremendous force to the front to strike attackers—we are near defenseless to attacks from behind. As the direction of attack “walks around the clock” from in front of to behind us, our capability to defend and counter-attack effectively is drastically reduced. Punches coming from an angle are more likely to land on the jaw and temple (two notoriously vulnerable areas), while a punch from straight-on will likely land on the durable forehead. Similarly, our arms and legs can strike objects in front of us with substantial power, while they are significantly weaker if they are forced to move at an outward angle. This is why every human is able to lift much larger weights when the movement is to the front (think of a leg press) than they are when the movement involves a lateral motion (think of the abductor machine).

Apparently, Max Holloway paid diligent attention during his high school anatomy class, as he is always seeking to manifest this human-vulnerability by relentlessly creating angles from which he can strike his opponent. By always attacking from an angle, Holloway’s is able to inflict a level of damage that is seldom replicated in the featherweight division.

Holloway uses two methods to construct these angles: either he actively creates them by initiating a striking and moving offline when his opponent defends, or by using a masterful level of distance management to counter when his opponent strikes first. Here we see Holloway actively obtain an angle by feigning a right kick. As Anthony Pettis bites on the feint and defends, Holloway steps his right foot outside of Pettis’ left foot. By achieving outside foot position, Holloway has obtained an angle as he is facing Pettis while Pettis is still facing where Holloway was a second before.

UFC 240: Breaking down Max Holloway's "invisible skills" 1

Here we can see the magnitude of the angle Holloway obtained. Notice how Pettis’ feet and body are facing away from Holloway, while Holloway is facing Pettis.

Here we see the active creation of an angle manifest into a more pronounced effect. Holloway feints a jab, causing Pettis to extend his right hand to parry. Having drawn Pettis’ arm out, Holloway throws a left hook around the extended arm as he steps out to his left. Pettis covers to defend the hook, allowing Holloway to move around him an achieve an almost 90-degree angle. “Blessed” seizes the fruits of his labor by landing a powerful right to Pettis’ skull.

UFC 240: Breaking down Max Holloway's "invisible skills" 2

Here we see the almost comical magnitude of the angle Holloway obtained

While actively creating an angle by striking first is a fantastic strategy, waiting until the opponent strikes first and then achieving the angle off of the counter is a slightly superior method as the opponent has committed themselves to a particular direction by striking. As they have committed to one direction, it is substantially easier for a fighter (in this case Holloway) to move around them, create an angle, and land a blow.

Here we see Holloway achieve an angle off of a counter; sensing that Pettis is about to jab, Holloway switches to a southpaw stance, allowing himself to parry the jab with his right as he steps his right foot outside of Pettis’ left. As Pettis devoted himself to moving forward with his jab, it doesn’t require much movement or energy for Holloway to create an angle and land a right hand to the side of Pettis’ face.

UFC 240: Breaking down Max Holloway's "invisible skills" 3

Notice the direction the two fighters are facing, as evidenced by their feet

In this more dynamic example, Pettis starts the engagement by stepping in for a cross-jab-cross combination. Holloway evades by moving backward, causing Pettis to overextend as his right-hand misses; Holloway punishes his foe for this mistake with a powerful right hand.

UFC 240: Breaking down Max Holloway's "invisible skills" 4

From this angle, Holloway’s punch lands on the side of Pettis’ face

Although this angle is less pronounced than the previous examples, notice in the screenshot the angle that is created when Pettis’ punch failed to connect. As his body over-rotated, he is no longer facing Holloway; this causes the strike to land on the side of Pettis’ head, as opposed to the front.

So why isn’t the rest of the UFC roster constantly creating angles like Max Holloway? One reason is that the Featherweight Champion has an extraordinary ability to measure and control the distance between him and his opponent, allowing himself to just evade their strikes, avoiding any damage and placing himself in a perfect opportunity to counterattack from the angle. Notice in the above clip how Holloway avoids Pettis’ right hand by mere inches, placing himself in the perfect position to counter. Any closer and he would have been hit, any further and he wouldn’t have been able to respond with an effective counterattack. As most other fighters do not possess this degree of distance-management aptitude, they are unable to achieve and exploit these angles as often as Holloway

One tactic that an opponent could implement to eradicate Holloway’s superior distance-management and angle-creation abilities would be to back him up to the fence where he movement and ability to evade is stifled. If he is unable to move backward, Holloway would be deprived of the capability to evade strikes and attack from an angle. As the capability to move freely is of the utmost imperative to Holloway’s game, he takes an incredibly proactive strategy to avoid being placed on the fence, allowing his strongest skills to remain unrestricted.

An Ounce of Prevention

As having the necessary space to move backward is crucial for Holloway to evade damage and counter-attack from an angle, it is imperative that he remains in the open space of the Octagon where his movement is unhindered by the cage. Not only does being close to the fence provide his opponent an opening to pin him against the cage ( which would stifle his striking ability entirely), but merely being within a few feet of it means he doesn’t have the required space to retreat when his opponent charges forward with strikes. If Holloway can’t retreat to properly manage the distance, this will simultaneously allow his opponent to hit him and prevent an effective counterattack. Having recognized the detrimental effect on his offensive capability being next to the fence creates, Holloway is constantly seeking to return to the center any time he is backed up inside “the warning track,” the black line on the canvas that mirrors the cage wall.

Maintaining proper cage control often goes underappreciated as it is neither violent nor sexy, but it truly is what separates the good fighters from the elite. Here we see Pettis push Holloway inside the warning track with a teep; knowing that being this close to the fence stifles his offensive and defensive capabilities, Holloway immediately seeks to return to open space by moving right, then circling back to his left as he throws a double jab to keep Pettis off him.

Such a skill will never end up on a highlight reel or be used by the UFC marketing department in their next promo, but it has allowed Max Holloway to reach (and remain at) the upper echelons of the all-time pound for pound rankings.

Here we see the champ pressured back again. As Pettis attacks, Holloway throws a quick counter, but foregoes subsequent strikes and chooses to return to the center where he has re-established the full potential of his skillset. A lesser fighter would have taken the short-sighted approach of continuing to strike on the counter, perhaps inflicting some damage, but remaining trapped up against the fence. Being the advanced pugilist that he is, Holloway chose the smarter of the two options and reclaimed the open space.

A “Blessed” Combination

What makes Max Holloway such a formidable fighter isn’t that he is incredibly good at creating and capitalizing upon angles, but that he is seldom deprived of this capability as he is incredibly skilled at remaining off of the fence. If either of these skills existed on their own, it is likely that Holloway would be somewhat of a journeyman, never able to contend with the featherweight greats. But by developing both of them to a degree that surpasses the rest of his competition, he has created a scenario in which his opponents are rarely able to hamper his strongest attribute, allowing him to bludgeon challenger after challenger as he maintains a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest MMA fighters ever.

That being said, Frankie Edgar is going to be looking to take Max Holloway out of the striking element entirely, either by pinning him on the cage or placing him on the mat. As for whether Holloway can continue to replicate his success against yet another one of the sport’s greats, or whether the rest of the featherweight division has finally solved the Holloway puzzle, we will just have to wait for UFC 240.

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