UFC 218 is headlined by the first Featherweight title defense for UFC champion Max Holloway. Challenging him was to be Frankie Edgar, but instead, it’s a rematch with Jose Aldo. For this preview series, we’ll look at the career of the champ through the lens of his career losses. All fight are on Fight Pass, so follow along and share your own thoughts in the comments.
THE OPPONENT: Poirier was just 3 years into his pro career at this time, and was fast rising, with a 3-0 record in the UFC. This win would boost him to headlining status and his superb fight with The Korean Zombie.
WHAT HAPPENED: Holloway came into this at just 20 years old, and as an aggressive striker. And he looked great at first, using striking to hang with Poirier, and even gain the advantage. So Poirier shot for a takedown, and again, Holloway looked good with strong takedown defense. Then Poirier got him to the mat and that was the end of looking good. Holloway was way out of his league on the mat, with Poirier eventually locking up a super nasty triangle/armbar combo.
LESSON: You need a ground game. Period. Holloway here is like one of those strikers on TUF, where they focus on how to keep the fight on the feet, knowing that if it’s not, you’re doomed. To be fair, Holloway was good at keeping it standing, and good while it was standing. But this is the UFC, and that’s not enough.
DID HE LEARN?: Basically, yes. He double-downed on his takedown defense, elevating what was already a very good part of his game to an excellent part (we saw this in his very next fight when he stuffed Pat Schilling’s takedown game flawlessly). It wasn’t until facing Dennis Bermudez 4 fights later that someone actually tested his grappling, and when they did, Holloway was clearly improved. More on that below.
RELEVANCE TODAY: Virtually none. He was super green on the ground, and he’s moved past that.
#2 - Dennis Bermudez (10-3) def. Max Holloway (7-1), SD (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
May 25, 2013 - UFC 160: Velasquez vs. Bigfoot 2
THE OPPONENT: TUF finalist Bermudez was on a three fight win streak here and coming in off a win over Matt Grice in an absolutely awesome fight. (Never seen it? Then go fix that now) This was the middle of a 7 fight win streak that saw him knocking on the door of contention, but he’s just 2-4 since that run.
WHAT HAPPENED: First things first, I don’t think Holloway lost this (though I’m also not entirely sold that he should have won his previous fight with Leonard Garcia). Max clearly won round 1, Bermudez round 3. So the decision comes down to round 2, which seems like an obvious Holloway round unless you really, really value a late Bermudez takedown. And it was the takedowns that made the difference here, as Holloway fended most of them off, but got caught in the back half. Once on the mat, he was much better defensively than against Poirier, but Bermudez is a good controlling wrestler, and was able to keep him down.
LESSON: Regardless of your level of takedown defense, there are some guys who will still take you down, and still be able to hold you down. And, importantly, judges really really like that. So you need a plan to deal with that.
DID HE LEARN?: For the takedown part, not immediately, as he was also taken down and out-maneuvered on the mat next fight. For the judges part, for sure, as he became much more focused on the finish after this.
RELEVANCE TODAY: If he was fighting Frankie Edgar as originally planned, maybe some. But against Aldo? Unlikely.
THE OPPONENT: It’s weird seeing this, as McGregor is just Conor McGregor, red hot prospect, not yet THE NOTORIOUS CONOR MCGREGOR!!! This is Conor’s 2nd fight in the UFC - he would injure his knee here and be out for a year, then return against Brandao and the rest is history. In retrospect, it’s actually really cool this fight happened when it did - a neat piece of history.
WHAT HAPPENED: I mean, it’s McGregor, and he just did his McGregor thing. His striking was on point, and he used his strange assortment of strikes to befuddle Holloway. In round 2, he hurt his knee, so switched to a ground game and there, while it wasn’t as flashy, it was still dominating. Holloway got nothing off at all here.
LESSON: Sometimes you fight one of the best in the world, and when you do at 21 years old and 9 fights into your career, you lose. It happens. That said, the same issue with being taken down and controlled remains.
DID HE LEARN?: Yes, clearly. His grappling game is significantly improved, he’s added levels to his striking... today’s Max Holloway is a far superior fighter to this one, and you have to think getting in there with McGregor played a role in that improvement.
RELEVANCE TODAY: Honestly, none. Conor is a freakish machine here and Holloway (and all of us) really had no idea what to make of him. Until Holloway faces another ridiculous phenom, this won’t have much relevance.
There is indeed a commonality here in Holloway’s penchant for being taken down and out-grappled. But it’s been 11 wins straight since these fights, some of them showing off high level ground skills. I felt like Rogan was too quick to proclaim Holloway’s ground game as terrific, but it’s clearly on point today, and he’s not going to get taken down and subbed against Aldo. If Aldo wants to win Saturday night, he’ll have to outstrike Holloway - only McGregor (and, well, Leonard Garcia kind of) have succeeded there, and with Holloway’s strides since, it doesn’t seem a likely outcome.
Join us here at Bloody Elbow Saturday night for live fight night coverage of Max Holloway vs. Jose Aldo 2 at UFC 218.