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Question and Answer: The Tactics of Jose Aldo and Max Holloway

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Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down the adaptive tactics of Jose Aldo and Max Holloway before their title fight at UFC 212.

MMA: UFC 200-Aldo vs Edgar Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Aldo versus Max Holloway is, perhaps, the finest featherweight fight the UFC has ever put together. Aldo won the featherweight belt in the WEC in 2009, and held it until his shocking, 13-second knockout defeat at the hands of Conor McGregor in 2015. Now, with McGregor holding the lightweight belt and chasing more lucrative opportunities in the boxing ring, the featherweight strap is back around Aldo’s waist, and, judging by his effortless dismantling of Frankie Edgar last summer, he is as sharp and confident as ever. Perhaps more so.

As a young contender, Aldo was renowned for his explosive Muay Thai. In the WEC, he knocked out every opponent in his way, and repeated the feat against defending champion Mike Brown. The onslaught of finishes has subsided over the course of Aldo’s championship run, as Jose has adjusted to the new, more difficult challenge of keeping his belt, but in the process he has become one of the finest tacticians in the history of the sport.

Enter Max Holloway. Undefeated in his last 10 fights, the Hawaiian fighter has outclassed his opposition. His ledger includes such impressive names as Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Jeremy Stephens, and Ricardo Lamas. Last December, he added the name of former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis to that list, and in so doing, the interim belt to his waist.

When we talk about great fights, what we are really talking about are shifts in momentum. Adaptation is the mark of the truly great fighter. When adversity rears its head, the master tactician does not simply forge ahead unchecked; he adjusts, and finds a way to intelligently turn the flow of the fight in his favor. This has been the modus operandi of Aldo’s entire UFC career, both in and outside the cage, and while we have yet to see Holloway stand up to any kind of sustained punishment, it seems he is cut from much the same cloth.

As such, the matchup between them in the main event of UFC 212 is fascinating. We have the best defensive fighter in the sport squaring off against the most relentless offensive fighter in the division, and both men have the skills and wills to adapt to whatever the other brings. Of all the possible results, the only one which seems truly unlikely is a shutout. The momentum will shift; Jose Aldo and Max Holloway will shift with it.

In this analysis, we will look at the the fight as a series of questions and answers—the problems with which both men will be presented, and the ways in which they will be able to respond. Let’s get into it.

HOLLOWAY: Combination striking

In this fistic debate, it will likely be Holloway’s combination striking which forces Aldo to make the first adjustment. With similarly impressive statistics on both sides of the board, one stark difference between these two stands out: Holloway’s output. On average, Holloway throws 13.19 significant strikes per minute, landing at a rate of 43 percent, or 5.67 significant strikes. Aldo also connects on 43 percent of his attempts, but makes far fewer, throwing only 7.63 significant strikes per minute, and landing 3.28.

To put it simply, Max Holloway loves to throw lots of punches. He understands his range, and he likes to stay within it, where his fast hands and intelligent targeting allow him to land shots with regularity. They aren’t the hardest shots in the world, but that matters little when there are so many of them.

1. With Ricardo Lamas (in white) backed into the fence, Holloway advances, fighting Lamas’ lead hand with his own.

2. Seeing Holloway’s arm outstretched, Lamas looks to go around it with a hook. Max pulls back, raises his arm and stops it short with a long block.

3. His pull having put his weight on his back foot, Holloway now throws it forward behind a left hand that just grazes Lamas.

4. As Lamas pulls back himself, Holloway follows with a jab, which also just touches the eyebrow of Lamas.

5. Stepping forward slightly, Max’s next shot is a left hand, which hits the shoulder instead of the chin.

6. Pulling his weight back once more, however, Holloway’s next punch—a right hook—glides over Lamas’ shoulder and catches him clean on the temple.

7. Feeling the pressure, Lamas throws up his guard and tries to crowd Holloway.

8. Holloway steps back to maintain his ideal distance, and mashes Lamas’ guard with a right jab . . .

9. . . . followed by a left straight.

10. Now that Lamas’ hands are committed to the high guard, however, Holloway can attack the opening. As Lamas moves away, Holloway steps into orthodox and throws a left shift to the floating ribs (insert shows the footwork).

11. Retaining his orthodox stance, Holloway hop-steps to keep the defensive Lamas within his range, and nails him with another body shot, this one a left hook.

12. The body opens up the head. Holloway plants his feet and cracks Lamas on the ear with a right cross.

13. A left jab follows.

14. Lamas ducks under the next punch and covers up, once again trying to smother Holloway’s work.

15. Defying his efforts, Holloway takes a slight angle and welcomes Lamas with a double collar tie . . .

16. . . . from which he lands a thudding knee to the body.

When you need 16 frames (and one insert) to cover a single sequence of strikes, you know you are dealing with a seriously busy fighter—we don’t even need to discuss the fact that Holloway actually followed his knee with yet another combination of punches as Lamas reeled back into the fence. But make no mistake: Holloway is no mindless volume puncher. He picks his shots beautifully, and works to keep himself safe even as he seeks to prevent his opponent from doing the same.

Consider the way that Holloway selects his strikes in this sequence. He attacks constantly with both hands, following Lamas’ head by adjusting the range and trajectory of his punches. Note that, as Lamas repeatedly tries to change the distance, Holloway adjusts to keep him right on the end of his strikes. When Lamas moves forward, Holloway glides back, peppering Lamas with short punches to keep him from gaining any offensive momentum. When Lamas retreats, Holloway stays on him, happy to shift from one stance to the other even as he continues to throw. And when Lamas covers up, Holloway answers intelligently. He touches his guard with two quick punches just to convince him that—yes—he needs to defend his head. With the message taken to heart, Holloway immediately follows to the body. When Lamas covers up again, Holloway keeps him guessing by grabbing a quick clinch rather than repeating his previous tactic.

Thoughtful variety is the very basis of Holloway’s offensive game. When the initiative is his, he does everything in his power to maintain it, never giving his cornered opponent an opportunity to do anything but react.

ALDO: Counter punching

A question demands an answer, and Aldo’s answer will be his counter punching. As we saw in the last sequence, Holloway is a smart tactician: he will not stand around and allow Aldo to hit him in the pocket. He will adjust, and find new ways to create openings (we will examine one of those ways in the next section), but if Holloway’s greatest advantage is his volume, these periods of reassessment can only benefit the champion.

Aldo’s counter punching is built on his remarkable defense, his clean footwork, and his masterful control of distance. There are layers and layers to everything he does. Take a look.

1. Chad Mendes (in blue) moves forward behind a series of feints.

2. To ward him off, Aldo steps in with a spearing jab. Mendes just manages to slip it.

3. As he looks for a cross counter, however, Aldo adjusts. He looks for a left hook, pulling his head out of range as his weight transfers to his right foot.

4. A subtle hop-step takes him completely out of range, and Mendes whiffs on his follow-up left hook.

5. Aldo steps forward, returning to his fundamental distance—just a short step beyond jabbing range.

6. He takes that step now, snapping out another jab as he moves diagonally to his right . . .

7. . . . in order to line up a straight right hand. Mendes throws up his guard and blocks.

8. Staying in range, Aldo slips, anticipating another counter right hand.

9. It comes, but later than the champion expected. Unperturbed, he pulls back again, beginning to take an angle as the blow goes whizzing past his nose.

10. As he pivots, Aldo takes care to guard the right side of his face should Mendes follow with another left hook, loading weight onto his lead leg as he swivels to keep a glove between his jaw and Mendes’ fists.

11. With his weight forward, Aldo easily rips it back and smashes Mendes on the chin with a left hook of his own.

12. And this punch is followed by another pivot, giving Aldo a perfectly secure angle as his opponent stumbles off balance.

Here, we see Aldo meeting an aggressive fighter who shifts stance and throws in combination—very much like Holloway. Where most of Holloway’s opponents have attempted to counter by planting their feet in front of him and throwing bombs, however, Aldo stays perfectly composed and executes a sequence of nuanced defensive moves.

Defending in layers is one thing. Fitting those layers together in perfect concert is another. Aldo’s defense is systematic, like a flow chart with limitless branches. Whether he successfully or unsuccessfully anticipates an attack, he always has another technique at the ready. He slips to the left, and is ready to slip to the right even before he knows that he needs to. He pivots, and is already prepared to receive a follow-up attack on his guard. When Mendes throws a different strike instead, Aldo immediately answers with a laser-guided punch, which itself is followed by yet another defensive move.

Some of this can be attributed to sheer speed: Aldo is a superbly gifted athlete, and there are few fighters who can react with as much speed and explosiveness. Much of it can be attributed to technique: Aldo’s weight is always balanced, his feet ideally positioned to accept whatever adjustment needs to be made. And then, some of it comes down to training: the champions movements are practiced and sure. Though he is forced to react in the moment, he is never merely improvising. Each technique is drilled into Jose’s subconscious through years and years of repetition. Perfect practice makes for perfect execution, and Aldo’s techniques are so deeply ingrained as to be indistinguishable from instinct.

HOLLOWAY: Broken rhythm

A hard counter is one of the surest ways to force an aggressive fighter to cut back on his output, but counters like Aldo’s rely on precise timing and a clear understanding of distance. The onus, then, is on Holloway to throw off those mechanisms, to give the fighting computer that is Aldo’s brain more information than it can handle at once. In essence, to take away Aldo’s counter punches, Max will need to make him hesitate. Here’s how.

1. With Ricardo Lamas following him around the Octagon, Holloway circles to his left.

2. As Lamas plants his front foot, however, Holloway changes direction. He drives forward, giving Lamas a beat . . .

3. . . . and then following with a piercing left hand to the chin.

4. Max follows with a long jab as he rides his own momentum, angling to Lamas’ left.

5. Sensing the danger, Lamas retreats, and resets.

6. Holloway advances on him, measuring the distance with his lead hand.

7. Covering Lamas’ fist with his palm, Holloway once again steps into range, but this step is quicker and more nimble, a half-beat instead of a full one.

8. The back end of that half-beat is another lead left. Had Lamas not instinctively thrown his gloves in front of his face, he might have kissed the canvas. Instead, Holloway’s punch crunches Lamas’ own gloves into his face.

Rhythm is always difficult to illustrate in still frames. To get a clear picture of the changing tempos in this sequence, watch the GIF linked below the image.

The difference between Holloway’s first and second punches is subtle, but important. As you watch the GIF, try counting out the tempo of the first attack. The step and then the punch: ONE-and-TWO—long, full beats. Get a feel for that rhythm, and then apply the same count to Holloway’s second attack. Even watching it for the second or third time, it may still surprise you. That one reads: ONE-AND-two, with the punch falling on the half-beat and the second beat left empty.

Some will tell you that it is never proper to load up on a strike, but this simply isn’t true. The trick is knowing when to load up, and when not to. In the first of these attacks, Holloway times Lamas on the way in. He is scoring a punch, but he is also teaching Lamas his rhythm. These full beats are easy to time if you know what to expect, and that is the idea. Holloway’s second punch defies the rhythm established by his first, falling on the half-beat and catching Lamas by surprise. He expects one pattern, and gets another—and he has nothing but luck to thank for the fact that his guard is up when the blow connects.

Against Aldo, these rhythm changes will serve to confuse the champion’s timing. If you don’t know when to throw, you might suddenly find yourself eating counters rather than feeding them to your opponent. Aldo knows this. Years of defending his title have made him, first and foremost, a defensive fighter. He will not expose himself to damage unless there is very good reason to do so. And while Holloway will probably not manage to immediately shatter Aldo’s world-class defense, his broken rhythm will compel the champion to think hard before committing to any technique, offensive or defensive. If he is going to react, better that each reaction require serious consideration than for Aldo to operate comfortably on ingrained technique. Fighting is a game of inches and fractions of seconds; even a half-moment of hesitation can mean the difference between a slick defense and a sudden end.

ALDO: Low kicks

Holloway’s rhythm is heavily dependent on movement. He bounces and glides around the cage, setting and breaking tempos with practiced ease. The longer he fights, the smoother his attacks become, until he seems to be hitting his confused opponent at will. It will not be necessary, however, for Aldo to play catch-up all night. He need not work hard to time Holloway’s varied attacks if he can take away the mechanisms that make those attacks possible: his legs.

Jose Aldo is a phenomenal kicker of legs. Everyone knows this, to the point that commentators spend more time talking about his kicks than they do his sublime boxing or his nigh impenetrable takedown defense—even when the kicks do not figure heavily into his strategy for the fight in question. The only reason that Aldo sometimes holds back on his kicks, however, is the threat of the takedown. In his rematch with Frankie Edgar, for example, Aldo and his team predicted that Edgar, an excellent wrestler, would be well prepared to grab hold of a leg in order to put the Brazilian on his back. As such, he threw only four low kicks over the course of the 25-minute bout. That each and every one landed perfectly is a testament to Aldo’s timing and skill.

Max Holloway does not present the same threat. What takedowns he does attempt are usually scored in the clinch, and he is nowhere near as skilled a wrestler as Edgar. Nor is he very good at defending such strikes. In fact, Max has rarely bothered to check low kicks at all throughout his UFC career. Count on Aldo to have picked up on that fact, and deliver shots like this:

1. Standing in front of Aldo, Ricardo Lamas (in black) grows impatient waiting for the champion to lead.

2. He steps forward and—without set-up—throws a leg kick. Aldo very casually checks it with his shin.

3. As his foot returns to the ground, Aldo extends a fake jab, gauging Lamas’ reactions and looking for a leg kick of his own.

4. Wary, Lamas raises his shin to check.

5. Aldo adapts on the fly, stepping into range and popping Lamas on the nose with a flicking jab as he hovers in place.

6. Lamas is compelled to set his leg down and attempt a counter punch.

7. And only then does Aldo unleash a withering kick to Lamas’ thigh.

Aldo has as much variation in his kicks as Holloway does in his entire offensive game. He can throw them naked, relying on speed and efficient technique to disguise the strike. He can throw elaborate, Dutch-style combinations, ripping to head and body with punches before attacking the thigh. Or, as in this case, he can simply touch his opponent, make him second-guess himself, and then cursively smash his leg to bits.

As with Aldo’s defense and counter punching, what stands out here is the systematic way in which Aldo adapts to the circumstances with which he is presented. At numerous other points in the Lamas fight, Aldo set up his low kicks with a quick jab, drawing Ricardo’s attention upward and convincing him to retreat, at which point he would be unable to check the kick. In this sequence, however, Lamas guesses—I believe correctly—that Aldo is looking for that low kick after the jab feint. Instead of giving up and resetting, Aldo creates the opportunity he wants. His impeccable balance means that he is able to easily slide forward in order to pop Lamas’ head back with a follow-up jab, which forces him to abandon his check. Even then, Aldo throws his kick in a downward arc, ensuring that his shin would have sailed safely over Lamas’ knee were it still hanging in the way. And instead of a small step, Aldo takes a diagonal leap as he discharges the kick, placing his head safely outside the path of Lamas’ counter punch and giving him the angle to chop into the meat of the challenger’s thigh.

If Holloway’s ability to move is compromised—even by the smallest of degrees—then he will struggle to set up and conceal strikes with his usual fluidity. Aldo’s leg kicks are accurate, and brutally powerful. Two or three and most fighters have no choice but to stand more flat-footed, to move a little more slowly. One buckle of the knee, one unexpected wobble of the ankle, and the same will happen to Max.

Of course, these are only a handful of the ways in which Jose Aldo and Max Holloway will be able to thwart one another’s attacks and enable their own. Holloway is famous for his conditioning. His predilection for body punching may turn that stamina into an insurmountable advantage. Then again, Aldo is a skillful body puncher in his own right. In concert with his low kicks, these strikes could force Holloway to slow down for the first time in his career, especially as he encounters the heretofore untested waters of the championship rounds. With angular footwork, Holloway may be able to cut off the cage more effectively than any opponent Aldo has ever faced. Or, with his own footwork, Aldo may show Holloway angles the likes of which he has never even dreamed. Holloway may surprise the champion with one of his unorthodox takedowns—or Aldo may utilize his own underrated wrestling game and force Max to defend from his back.

It bears repeating: the fight will be fascinating. Fans of both fighters will have numerous opportunities to wring their hands and peek through slitted fingers as these two masters fence with one another, both seeking to gain the initiative, and neither allowing the other to hold it for long. Questions will be asked, answers will be given, and the fight will evolve before our very eyes. No matter the result, this is one of the best matchups possible in the sport of mixed martial arts.

All I know for sure is that we will be lucky to witness it.


For more in-depth analysis of Aldo Holloway, as well as the co-main event fight between strawweight contenders Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.