Watching Max Holloway fight, it's easy to forget that he is one of the youngest fighters on the UFC roster. Since joining the promotion in 2012, Holloway has fought an impressive 12 times. And while early losses to Dustin Poirier, Dennis Bermudez, and Conor McGregor suggested that Holloway was destined to spend his career as a gatekeeper to the truly elite, the young man from Waianae, Hawaii has rapidly improved, to the point that he is now unquestionably standing inside that gate and not looking back.
This Sunday, August 23rd, Holloway will face Charles Oliveira, a young, creative, dangerous fighter vying to erase the memory of his own string of losses to more accomplished fighters. In other words, Oliveira's experience in MMA has been almost exactly like Holloway's. But where Oliveira is a grappler still coming to terms with his standup skills, Holloway moves and throws like a man with three times as many years in the sport.
MIXED (MARTIAL ARTS) BAG
Holloway's is one of the most eclectic, individually tailored striking styles in all of MMA. While at times he grows overconfident in his ability to throw and land low-percentage, high-risk techniques, he is nonetheless very successful thanks to an approach that incorporates aspects of classic boxing, the so-called "traditional" martial arts, and the "neo-footwork" endemic to MMA, of which I wrote a few weeks ago (a topic I'll be revisiting as we draw nearer to footwork extraordinaire Demetrious Johnson's seventh title defense).
First, let's look at the basic, fundamental things that Holloway does very well. First and foremost, he possesses a formidable, educated jab, and the footwork to make it consistently effective.
1. Holloway stands a step away from Dennis Bermudez.
2. Timing Bermudez's metronomic upper body movement, Holloway steps forward and catches his opponent with a jab.
3. He then pivots to his left, sliding out of the way as Bermudez counters with a right hand.
4. While Bermudez is still adjusting, Holloway flashes another jab in his face, just to secure his new position.
5. Immediately Bermudez leaps in again, but Holloway easily adjusts, taking a step back out of range . . .
6. . . . and firing a right hand over the top of Bermudez's missed left hook. Bermudez successfully dips under the punch.
7. Wary of being countered himself, Holloway once again pivots to his left, snapping a jab across Bermudez's face as he does so.
8. This allows him to exit on yet another angle, forcing Bermudez to reset once again.
Pivots and jabs aren't usually eye-catching, flashy maneuvers. They're not "sexy," as Kenny Florian might say, and so these fundamental techniques often go under-trained and misunderstood. How many fighters in MMA throw more lead rights and kicks than jabs, even though the latter can be instrumental in making the former effective? How many fighters unconsciously lose their stance every time they are forced to retreat? How many of them back up in straight lines over, and over, and over?
Holloway's jab is superb, not because of the way he throws it (though his technique is quite good) but because he's taken the time to understand it in context. He knows how and when and why to throw his jab. Holloway jabs his way into range, and covers his exits with the same punch. He stops rushing opponents in their tracks, and distracts them with quick flickers of his left hand before delivering clean, powerful crosses and hooks. And when he needs to reset, he does so by moving on angles, keeping more linear opponents from tracking him down the way a mongoose eludes the jaws of a snake.
And it's on this foundation of sound, strategic boxing that Holloway builds the more eccentric parts of his style. It's no coincidence that this man with one of the best jabs in the sport also possesses one of the most effective spinning back kicks.
1. Holloway stands deliberately on the end of Will Chope's considerable reach, baiting him to throw.
2. When Chope obliges Holloway is ready, catching his long left hook on his right forearm and simultaneously stepping forward, moving past the fringes of Chope's reach . . .
3. . . . and into range for an inside right hand.
4. Holloway follows his right with a left cross, the straight punch clipping Chope before he can unwind a looping left hook of his own.
5. As Chope does throw his left, Holloway is ready to block it and pivot away.
6. Feeling that he has the initiative, Holloway moves right back toward Chope . . .
7. . . . and feints a jab. Having just been peppered with punches, Chope flinches and throws both hands out to keep Holloway from punching him.
8. Which exposes his lengthy torso to a thudding back kick.
Holloway's fight with Chope (and his bout with the similarly long-limbed Cole Miller) are a great testament to his adaptability. Normally the taller and longer man, Holloway has nonetheless adapted his style to larger foes very well thanks to a firm grasp of distance. Operating behind his jab, Holloway quickly adapts to whatever opponent he faces, learning the distance of each opponent on the fly and adjusting his attacks and defenses accordingly. In this sense, the jab--and the feints that go along with it--is a data collection tool, and Holloway makes great use of that data.
Again, it's not the technique behind Holloway's back kick which makes it so effective--it's the context in which he throws it. The concept of using punches to set up kicks is nothing new, but Holloway does so exceedingly well. That's because his style has real depth; there are no veneers. Each layer is as deep as the next, which means that Holloway's punches have real threat behind them. His kicks, and knees, and elbows likewise. Holloway's approach is such a pleasure to watch because it is purely systematic, one thing leading clearly and logically to the next.
Which makes it even more impressive that Max retains an aura of creativity and improvisation.
I've written about the stance-switching tactics of Max Holloway before, but it doesn't hurt to reiterate: Holloway is one of the very few fighters in all of combat sports who appears to be just as comfortable in one stance as he is in the other. Earlier in his career Max could be seen defaulting to his orthodox stance, but that apprehension appears to have completely melted away by now, to the point that Holloway will often spend more time jabbing, moving, and countering out of southpaw than orthodox.
Here's one example from Holloway's most recent fight against Cub Swanson.
1. Holloway stands at range with Swanson, measuring with pawing jabs.
2. Feeling comfortable with the distance, Holloway feints and lunges forward.
3. Changing levels, he slides under Swanson's attempt at a counter jab, and shifts the position of his feet.
4. Now in a southpaw position, he has lined up his left hand with Swanson's center line, and fires an uppercut into the pit of his stomach.
5. As Swanson bends over to cover up, Holloway stabs him in the exposed ribs with a right hook.
6. He then uses his southpaw stance to exit on an angle different from that on which he entered.
This Hagler-esque shift was one of many such maneuvers that Holloway used to confound Swanson, himself no stranger to stance-switching. The difference between Holloway's switch-hitting tactics and Swanson's became clear as the fight wore on. Cub, like many other fighters in MMA today, often switches to fire off one of a handful of techniques from the southpaw stance. His left kick from this position is very powerful, for example. When pressured, however, he will always switch back. And against crafty opposition, those switch-footed attacks become less effective as the fight wears on.
That's because anything Cub does to set up his lefty strikes is mere artifice. He might flash his right hand, but a smart opponent will quickly learn that he's not committed to it the way he might commit to his orthodox jab. He might feint, but the opponent soon understands that he's only really threatening two or three attacks from that position. In other words, Cub Swanson doesn't ever fight like a southpaw; he fights like someone pretending to be a southpaw.
Holloway differs in that he understands the ins and outs of every position he adopts. No matter what attack confronts him, he feels comfortable defending it from either southpaw or orthodox. He might switch if he feels that one gives him an advantage over the other, but he never changes out of desperation, or because he's running out of ideas.
If all of this sounds a little sycophantic, I apologize--but there is real pleasure for an analyst such as myself in studying and breaking down the subtleties of a game like Max Holloway's. On Saturday, Holloway will be faced with a very dangerous opponent in Charles Oliveira--one of the most offensively potent adversaries of his entire career. It's a testament to his skill that instead of wondering if he'll be able to figure Oliveira out, I'm simply waiting to see how he will.