Max Holloway strike Brian Ortega at UFC 231

Max Holloway is in a fairly unusual position as a champion off a loss; after his destruction of Brian Ortega in December of 2018, Holloway looked to claim the interim lightweight championship, only to come up short against Dustin Poirier in one of the best fights of all time. Holloway’s back to usual business at UFC 240, defending his title back at 145 pounds against a contender he’s been scheduled to face twice already, and a win would put yet another great name on his resume (even if the value of beating that name in 2019 might be somewhat in doubt). If there was any undeserved doubt after UFC 236 regarding whether the Blessed Era was ongoing at featherweight, Holloway’s fight at UFC 240 is a good place for those to be silenced.

Holloway’s opponent in Edmonton is Frankie Edgar, a former lightweight champion who moved down to featherweight to find great success. With Alexander Volkanovski’s ascent, Edgar’s shot at Holloway seems more an expression of gratitude from the UFC than anything else; while his wins at featherweight haven’t aged well, Edgar did risk his #1 contender spot (to disastrous effect) against Brian Ortega when his title shot fell through, and the following win over Cub Swanson (then top-5, now unranked) has somehow left Edgar grandfathered into a rapidly-changing title scene over a year later. Regardless of the circumstances, a win over Holloway would leave Edgar one of the rare two-division champions and cement him as one of the greatest fighters to have ever lived.

Blessed Era

While staying at lightweight might’ve been a better call for Max Holloway’s health (considering his brutal cut to 145) and he didn’t look diminished in his fight against Poirier, Holloway still holds the featherweight championship; with a historic winstreak at his original division and a new crop of potential opponents on the rise (spearheaded by #1 contender Alexander Volkanovski and including skilled hopefuls such as Kattar and Magomedsharipov), Holloway has a chance to surpass the legacy of Jose Aldo at 145 with a few more high-level wins. It can start with Frankie Edgar, the best win on Aldo’s resume and a man who has represented the highest level of MMA for an absurdly long time; a finish over Edgar would (at least in name) be one of Holloway’s strongest wins.

Holloway’s strongest asset is his boxing, and in an MMA context, Holloway’s boxing is undeniably top 3 in the world; while his loss to Poirier has brought criticism of Holloway’s pocket defense, against all but the most elite boxers in MMA, Holloway has proven extremely difficult to consistently hit, and he’s also one of the most relentless offensive threats MMA has ever seen. Most of it stems from one of the strongest jabs in the sport; Holloway’s jab can be used as a power shot, but it’s mostly used as a setup the way great jabs tend to be. Holloway’s jab is used to set a rhythm that he can later break (for example, starting with a regularly-paced 1-2 against Ortega only to switch to doubling and tripling up on the jab to line up the straight, feinted jabs into straights, and double-straights as he angled around Ortega to bypass his shoulder roll as the fight progressed), and also to manipulate his opponent’s defense; the latter was pivotal against the defensively masterful Jose Aldo, as Holloway’s fast and noncommittal jab was used to draw Aldo’s head-movement to punish it with harder shots as he was out of position. Holloway’s 1-2 can be aimed at the body or the head with varying degrees of intensity, and it only becomes more useful as the fight goes on (as Holloway builds on all the threats he’s shown throughout the fight).

Max Holloway cracks Brian Ortega with a right hand
Max Holloway strikes Brian Ortega at UFC 231 (UFC/Getty Images)

In his wins over Aldo (the rare boxer in MMA with comparable skill to Holloway), Holloway’s best weapon was his pace, and Holloway has done a great job throughout his career responsibly pushing a torrid tempo while reducing his opponent’s capacity to keep up with him as the fight progresses. Holloway’s jab was consistently in Aldo’s face forcing him to react and look for counters, and if his opponent is backed to the fence, Holloway absolutely buzzsaws them without a single second to rest (as he did to finish Brian Ortega late in their fight). However, the best tool for Holloway to emphasize his cardio edge is his body work; Holloway is one of the most prolific body-attackers in MMA, and it does a great job wilting his opponent as the fight progresses. This ranges from his body jab (that he can build into straights and hook combinations at the midriff) to the body kicks that he can draw his opponents into (Pettis with the spinning back-kick) or end combinations with. Holloway’s 5 round fights give him plenty of time to both adapt to his opponent and wear them down with attrition, which means that they rarely (in fact, only once) go the full distance.

The Poirier fight showed a few areas where Holloway’s tendencies can be exploited, but even that was only by another one of the strongest boxers in MMA. Poirier’s southpaw-stance and handfighting gave Holloway real trouble working off the jab (and while Holloway can work well from both stances, he tends to do more consistent work from orthodox), and the excellent counterpunching of Poirier kept Holloway from being able to work in the pocket freely. The final piece was Poirier’s strong pressure game and his ability to get through Holloway’s meticulous distancing; while Holloway’s footwork on the outside is excellent (laterally active, good pivot, angles out of exchanges), Poirier was able to cover distance through his own shifting combinations and levers, hurting Holloway multiple times through the first two rounds. Regardless of all that, the fight was extremely close; even against a stylistically unfavorable opponent with a massive edge in size and power, Holloway had an argument to a draw and hurt Poirier at multiple points (a check hook in round 1 and pure volume in rounds 3 and 4), which speaks to just how good he is.

The Answer

Frankie Edgar has proven to be elite in both lightweight (at the time) and featherweight, but he still remains underrated as an all-time great; where two-division champions at weak divisions are able to proclaim themselves the greatest of all time, Edgar’s consistent success at two of the stronger divisions in MMA often goes unnoticed during those discussions. Part of it is just the nature of lower weight-classes, where success doesn’t often manifest in long dominant reigns that inspire those claims, but another part is just Edgar’s skillset going under the radar for the majority of the public; Edgar has always gotten credit for his scrappiness and his ability to fight bigger opponents with shocking success, but very little as one of the smartest and most adaptive fighters to ever compete. Even on the decline and getting a title shot he doesn’t seem to deserve, Edgar is a formidable foe, and a win over Holloway would put him on the shortlist as one of the greatest to ever do it.

The current iteration of Edgar’s best weapon is unquestionably his top game; despite being (arguably) a natural bantamweight fighting at featherweight, Edgar is one of the most dangerous wrestlers at the weight class, and a fighter without ironclad takedown defense (i.e. most fighters who aren’t Jose Aldo) will likely be in for a long night against “The Answer”. Edgar’s top game was on full display in his fight against Yair Rodriguez, as well as his first bout against Cub Swanson; much of the Swanson fight was Edgar working to flatten him out with a crossface from half-guard and beating him up from there (and doing even more damage when Swanson started to concede mount and the back in the later rounds), and while Rodriguez mostly kept Edgar inside the full guard, he still couldn’t stop Edgar from posturing up and raining down blows as he was pressed against the fence. Edgar is a uniquely damaging top controller, he can take subs if they’re given to him (as Swanson did late in the fifth), and he’s extremely difficult to get up from underneath.

Much of Edgar’s craft is shown in how he gets on top, as Edgar has long been one of the best at using his striking to set up his takedown attempts; in fact, the concept of the wrestleboxer as a cohesive fighting style (rather than just someone who can wrestle and also box) was largely a product of Edgar’s work in using one to set up the other and in transition between the two. A lot of Edgar’s improvement in this sense in later years has been a product of his improvement as a boxer; Edgar’s finish of Chad Mendes (as unlikely as it was) showed his ability to pocketfight beyond just his typical darting flurries, and his body punching hid his takedown attempts more than just his dipping jab did. Edgar’s jab doesn’t just function as a cover for his shots, but also as a way to create openings; Edgar can read and force reactions out of his opponents by feinting the jab (as he did to Urijah Faber), and can also draw counters with his jab to shoot underneath (as he did against Cub Swanson in the fifth round, jabbing in while waiting for the counter right hand and picking up the leg as it came).

Frankie Edgar (L) and Brian Ortega fight during their featherweight bout during UFC 222
Frankie Edgar (L) and Brian Ortega fight during their featherweight bout at UFC 222 (Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

The Swanson fight also showed his strong chain-wrestling; Edgar showed everything from using the shot to enter and finishing with an upper-body throw to using the knee-pick entry to get to the waistlock and switching to the double from there, which basically meant that if Swanson couldn’t stop Edgar from just getting his hands on him, the takedown was nearly a foregone conclusion. Edgar’s skill in those transitions also lends itself well to using transitions to strike; Edgar’s finish of Gray Maynard in their third fight came with a short uppercut on the break as Maynard was trying to defend a takedown, and the most effective moments he had in his rematch with Swanson in April of 2018 were largely shots on the break.

Edgar has three losses at featherweight, two to the same man (Jose Aldo), and those losses came against fighters who could keep Edgar from accessing the transitional areas where he excels. Jose Aldo’s sharp pivot and counterpunching kept Edgar from being able to set anything up with his hands or credibly enter on takedowns; Edgar’s linear charges either met with a jab (in the first fight), a counter right hand (in the second fight) or just a pivot (in both), which left him unable to play them off each other and therefore left both ineffective. The other loss was to Brian Ortega, whose submission threat on takedown attempts left Edgar just boxing him for most of the first round; while he looked like the better boxer, his running entries ran him into an intercepting elbow near the end of round 1. While it’s easier said than done, denying Edgar transitions is probably the best way to beat him, because he’s as shrewd as anyone when he gets there.

Conclusions and Capping

The best case for Holloway/Edgar is one of the most high-level fights in MMA in terms of fight IQ; both Holloway and Edgar have proven incredible adaptability over their careers, and over five rounds, both would have plenty of time to switch things up according to what the other shows them. Unfortunately, this possibility seems slim looking at Edgar’s last performance; prime Edgar would have been a very compelling challenge to the Blessed Era, but the Edgar of the Swanson rematch seemed very far from his best days. While the first Swanson fight was probably his career-best performance, the second one against a much declined Swanson saw him find a lot more trouble getting takedowns, which left his boxing less effective than it should be.

This spells bad things against Holloway, whose wrestling (while technically untested against a truly great wrestler like Edgar) will likely be helped by a comparatively massive frame and a very good clinch game; Holloway is a consistent gripfighter with a damaging clinch, so if Edgar can’t get takedowns, consistent attempts will only lead to damage. Edgar’s chain-wrestling will be difficult to implement as well, considering that he will be facing the best ring-general of his career (perhaps excepting Jose Aldo); while Edgar backed Yair Rodriguez to the fence very easily to get in on his hips and work from there, Holloway is an immeasurably tougher ask between the angles that he takes in exchanges and his sound lateral movement. Edgar’s ability to set takedowns up with his own striking will be harmed by facing a better jabber; while Edgar has a smart and versatile jab which he uses to hide his level changes, Holloway’s is the gold standard. With a massive range disadvantage and a reliance on bursting forward to make that up, there’s a very good chance that Edgar just runs into jabs and check hooks as he enters (as he did against Aldo), so his takedown attempts will likely be poorly masked.

Holloway’s advantage as a pure boxer will likely rear its head if Edgar’s takedown risk is mitigated, and Holloway is one of the most ruthless finishers (over five rounds, especially) in the entire UFC given the opportunity; this puts Edgar in a difficult position, with his durability waning and even the durability he used to have being more recovery than chin. If Holloway can pour on volume without threat of the takedown (and Edgar isn’t as potent a counterpunching threat as Aldo nor Poirier), he likely finds the finish.

Given that Holloway did get momentarily taken down by Brian Ortega (a worse wrestler than Edgar), it’s possible that Edgar can get him down as well, and that credible threat could open up his entire game; however, the style matchup is a nightmare overall for Edgar, and there are too many disadvantages he’d have to overcome to consistently find success.

Prediction: Holloway via TKO3. This writer caps Holloway at -350.

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