Max "Blessed" Holloway (5-1) became the youngest entry on the UFC's roster when he debuted against Dustin Poirier at UFC 143 at just 20-years-old. Not only was Holloway laughably inexperienced with just 4 pro bouts under his Big Kids belt, most of which transpired -- not in Strikeforce, or Bellator, or MFC -- in Hawaii's little known X-1 promotion. Oh, and he had a month to train for a top featherweight contender who was on a 4-fight roll and undefeated in the Octagon at the time.
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Still, having undertaken MMA training as a sophomore in high school, Holloway forged a man-sized premiere. More than holding his own, the fearless Hawaiian steered Poirier backwards with neatly unfolded combinations, then put him in full-on retreat-mode with flying knees and front kicks.
Poirier's recourse was fight I.Q. and wrestling (or just getting the fight out of the standing position as quickly as possible), which paid off in the form of a late-round triangle/armbar. Though distinctly lacking any edge-of-your-seat knockout power, Holloway cemented his potential in his sophomore effort -- a one-sided decision over Pat Schilling -- as well as the consistent prescience of Bloody Elbow's Scouting Report.
Justin "The American Kid" Lawrence, who recently turned 22, was accompanied by a big rep when he signed up for the FX channel's inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Live. He was a 2-time Golden Gloves champ in boxing, a 2-time national kickboxing champion and a 2-time Pan American kickboxing champion, which is a whole lot of impressive 2-times for such a young kid. Additionally, Lawrence trained at Black House with otherworldly assassins like Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and the Nogueira brothers. Which I imagine is like being in The Matrix; literally.
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Competing as a lightweight, Lawrence was the first pick on the reality show and favorite to win it all. As advertised, well traveled fighters in James Krause (now 16-4, competed in the WEC and Bellator) and Chute Boxe BJJ coach Cristiano Marcello (now 12-4, competed in Pride, holds an unsanctioned submission victory over Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett) fell by violent TKO. Lawrence was knocked out of the running by the eventual winner, the emotionally inspired (and inspiring) Mike Chiesa. Lawrence will make his featherweight debut against Holloway, a fellow striking prodigy, on Saturday night.
Holloway has conducted himself with an eery level of maturity and composure thus far, particularly with his airtight kickboxing and technical takedown defense. He's confident staying in the pocket to dodge blows and return fire with angles and head movement. He throws a ton of different looks at his opponent: he switches stances, pumps a crackling jab and backs it up with stiff rights while shuffling left; he throws front kicks, roundhouse kicks, flying knees and elbows. He doesn't over-commit, he has excellent balance and he knows when to turn up the heat and when to back off and reset.
While Lawrence also boasts a stellar kickboxing base that's augmented by sound wrestling, he's been more offensive-minded and has established sturdy submission defense. Based mostly on Holloway's lack of KO-power and career finishes (1 TKO, 4 decisions), the primal ferocity of Lawrence's stand up gives him the more MMA-attuned style. Holloway's striking is accented by ranginess, finesse, intelligence and a wide range of fundamentals; Lawrence's by explosive combinations and skull-cleaving aggression.
However, that equation could prove fateful for Lawrence: upping the aggression and offensive output also increases risk from a defensive standpoint, especially against a coldblooded tactician like Holloway, who will also impose 3" of height (5'11" vs. 5'8") and reach (70" vs. 67") and what seems like a better range-game.
Both fighters go downstairs to punish the body regularly and their left hooks are an integral weapon, often employed when advancing from out on the fringe to inside the pocket. They actually have quite a similar arsenal but their styles contrast sharply in mood and mentality: Lawrence is highly assertive with frenetic pressure; Holloway stays coolly collected and whittles away with scalpel-like precision. Lawrence bursts forward with devastating high and low roundhouse kicks; Holloway flicks out a variety of quicker kicks with frightening output while cutting endless angles. Lawrence is a head-hunter, pouncing with fight-ending hooks and overhand rights; Holloway plunges long jabs while staying on the move or sets his feet and unlatches a heated combination before gliding out of range.
I see Holloway giving Lawrence a stiff test here. The only reason I'm not taking him for the upset is his lack of striking power. If he had that, it might out-weigh Lawrence's superior level of opposition (the aforementioned TUF fights), how convincingly he demolished them and his advantage in offensive wrestling. Without it, even though I wouldn't be surprised if Holloway exploited his gangly reach and landed the higher volume of effective strikes, I think Lawrence's power and aggression will make the bigger impression on the judges.
My Prediction: Justin Lawrence by decision.