Why the Best is Blessed: An Analysis on Max Holloway 1

MMA is a game of inches. It is the fastest-growing sport in the world and every time someone manages to make a breakthrough, break a record or accomplish something new, their rivals are right on their heels ready to overcome it. Kamaru Usman, who fought this past weekend has given up 0 seconds of time in the bottom position, as have three others before the first to give any sits at 3 seconds. By the time you scroll all the way to the 10th least time, it’s still only 15 seconds. This is why when you look at the game of Max Holloway it’s astounding to see how far ahead he has broken through in the skills pertaining to his game- pace, strikes, and volume.

UFC 268 was held last weekend and delivered every bit as we hoped it would. Funnily enough, Holloway had to be mentioned at least once when Daniel Cormier accidentally stated that Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler had broken the record for most strikes in a fight (237), later cheekily addressing Holloway while correcting himself that it was for a three rounder as Holloway and Calvin Kattar had managed 581 strikes in their five-round fight of last year.

The even crazier stat we got from last Saturday night is that UFC 268 set a record for the most strikes landed in a single event at 1,973 which is about 150 more than UFC 238 in second place. Now get this, the number of strikes landed by Max Holloway against Kattar is 447, just slightly less than one quarter the total landed at UFC 268, and Holloway’s total strikes in the UFC record is about 200 strikes more than Georges St. Pierre in number two, twice the average of 100 between each person on the ladder. Even more impressive, in terms of significant strikes Holloway dominates at 2,618, a far cry from Frankie Edgar’s second place 1,799.

What I’m trying to get at here, is how unprecedented Holloway is at his particular style, but it’s the way he puts up these numbers that is really interesting.

Style Breakdown

Max Holloway leans towards the striker category of mixed martial arts, however in a way that his striking works cohesively in a well-developed style for the entirety of MMA. What I mean by that, is although Holloway is more adept on his feet, he has developed a unique grappling style that plays with his desire to strike, and an ability to finish on the ground that complements the usual consequences of his striking game.

The first aspect of his style that sticks out is his mastery of distance control. Holloway may very well be the very best at giving up the minimal distance in evading strikes, in order to re-enter and counter with as little effort as possible. Often you will see him slide just slightly out of range at the moment of his opponent’s attack, when he does so he will hop back onto his rear leg and cock it at the ready, springing off for a quick re-entry and strike. To the same extent, he may be the best at landing flush from each range, for such a tall and lanky fighter at 145lbs, Holloway’s ability to arc his hooks in the pocket are impressive, especially his ability to step in where others may stuff himself but land with perfect accuracy.

Typically, with some exceptions in his last two fights, Holloway has a three-tier game plan. He uses the first round or so to test his opponents, using long-range strikes that do not necessarily land to hurt, but they gauge range and reactions and pick up on his opponent’s timing. Once that is cleared, step two is a growth in creativity, often where Holloway will begin throwing his spinning techniques and playing with attacks not normally seen at various ranges. One of the best examples of this is his ability to spin into a back kick directly from hooks in the pocket, which he times off his opponent’s reactive shell via the hooks.

Once Holloway has his timing and range, and the unorthodox techniques act to make his opponent extra hesitant or disoriented, Holloway picks up the pace further and it is this volume in the latter half of the fight that breaks his foes. Between the creativity and volume, it’s not only difficult for his opponents to react correctly, but also keep up reacting, keeping them multiple steps behind in the battle.

Finally, his unique style of grappling only serves to enhance this striking game. For the most part, traditional wrestling, body locks, double or single legs are the most preferred way to engage in grappling in MMA. This is because the closer you can stick yourself to your opponent the more control you have when it hits the floor, this is not the philosophy behind Holloway’s approach. If he is the one to attempt to get his opponent down, more often you will see him look for a trip or sweep as if he is striking. He will step long behind his opponent, almost into a ‘Horse Stance’ from traditional martial arts, and send his opponent toppling over his knee. The long step-through is extremely similar to the movement used both in his low kick and his long step into body hooks. He will also, in striking combinations, step his far opposite leg outside and across his opponent from boxing range and sneak a push from within the punches, tripping his opponent backward.

By utilizing these sorts of techniques rather than your traditional wrestling, Holloway sneakily blends in his attack towards the floor inside his striking exchanges. It also offers him space, where he usually ends up standing over his grounded opponent, rather than falling directly onto them or into their guard where he may be less comfortable. From there he can ground and pound from his feet or simply use the takedown to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm and allow them to get up and him to reset.

The other half of the Holloway grappling style is his reactive submission game. His volume as discussed before will often lead to a panicked opponent, shooting both because either they feel that striking is a losing battle, or out of unthought desperation. Either way, the submission that Holloway has particularly become accustomed to attacking is the guillotine, which caters directly to the panicked nature of the opponents Holloway typically finds himself engaging with. When he commits to this neck attack, rarely does he jump guard as is normal practice, rather instead putting in the effort to walk into them, or roll on top so as to keep the ability to disengage if needed, in the case the neck is lost.

Earlier in the article, I made the distinction that his style is ‘typical’ of Holloway because a few things have changed as of recently. While he continues to increase in work rate and accuracy as the fight goes on, the potential error to this approach is in the early rounds. Against Brian Ortega, Holloway took a lot of shots throughout the early fight, but immediately after, this narrative was forgotten behind how dominant Holloway became in the latter rounds, possibly clouding the opportunity for criticism. Against Alexander Volkanovski the first time, Volkanovski won the first three rounds relatively clearly before Holloway was able to make up some difference in the final two. Between these two fights, the one trend now seemingly visible at the highest level is, Holloway may not have the luxury of giving up early rounds against such competitive rivals. So, the big difference in the second Volkanovski fight, and the following fight against Kattar, was how early Holloway got off, landing at a high rate and putting emphasis on the first half of the fight.

Although officially a loss to Volkanovski, the majority of MMA fans seem to agree that Holloway should’ve gotten the nod in fight two, and his performance against Kattar is undoubtedly one of the greatest in UFC history so it seems fair to say this adjustment was a good one. However, with it only coming in his last two fights, there is still room to see how it impacts many more style matchups as he continues to hunt down the title he once held.

Saturday’s return

Max Holloway returns this weekend to take on fellow contender Yair Rodriguez. This will be a battle between two of featherweight’s most dynamic and creative fighters so expect fireworks. However with Yair Rodriguez’s affinity for the highlight reel moments, also expect Holloway to fill those gaps in between the Mexicans attempts with tons of volume, potentially leading us to a classic Max “Blessed” Holloway performance.

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