There were a lot of mixed emotions, heading into UFC 231, at least for us fans of Max Holloway.
Earlier this year, Holloway stepped up on short notice to replace Tony Ferguson, hoping to add the lightweight strap to his collection. His opponent was to be Khabib Nurmagomedov, who may yet prove to be the best lightweight in the world. Despite moving up a weight class, Holloway simply could not make the 155-pound limit with only six days to prepare. The doctors forbade him to fight.
Then, the defense against Brian Ortega was made. During the final weeks of that camp, the cut to 145 seemed almost as difficult as the quick drop Max had attempted just three months earlier. Worse, doctors determined that Holloway was suffering from “concussion-like symptoms.” Was it the weight? The hard training? The deliberate wars with Jose Aldo that earned him his title?
For a fighter accustomed to performing up to four times a year, Holloway’s 2018 calendar remained frustratingly empty. With the physical issues came struggles with mental health. Holloway himself talked candidly about the bouts of depressed isolation brought on by his year of setbacks.
So when the Ortega matchup was rescheduled for UFC 231 on December 8, some of us were worried. Not only about Max’s chances against Ortega, deemed a dangerous enough contender that he actually rose to favorite odds heading into the bout, but for his well-being, too. Some simply fretted over the risks. Others pored through Holloway’s pre-fight media appearances, arguing over what was punch-drunkenness, and what was merely patois. Even having avoided speculation, I myself could not help but ask: should Max be fighting at all? Should he fight ever again?
There may yet be reason to fear for Holloway’s long-term health — even more so than we ought to for all professional fighters — but the champion returned to form last Saturday. Holloway landed a UFC record 290 significant strikes, more than tripling Ortega’s output until the ringside physician had seen enough, and called the bout off before the fifth round could begin.
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It’s a strange thing when, in your chosen sport, you spend the lead-up to a bout concerned for the health of one athlete, and end it fearing for the other’s. Fortunately, for the present both Ortega and Holloway seem healthy and prepared to continue their careers. Which does make it just a little easier on the conscience to enjoy what was a truly spectacular fight.
More to the point of this article, Max Holloway cemented himself as one of the best fighters, pound-for-pound, on earth. With a mystifying mix of fundamentally sound and wildly unorthodox technique, an unshakeable confidence, and a cool professionalism all too rare in this sport, Holloway is a pleasure to watch, and endlessly fascinating to study.
My Heavy Hands co-host Phil Mackenzie made the critical observation before the fight that Holloway’s footwork would give him a tremendous advantage over Ortega—for reasons we will explore in this piece. He was absolutely correct, but even with that salient thought in my head, I was not prepared for the brilliant moves the champion showed throughout this title defense.
So, let’s take a look at some angles.
Here, Max shows off some defensive footwork, then uses it to his offensive advantage.
1. Holloway circles around Ortega.
2. As Ortega moves in with a pump feint, Max checks his fist with an open palm. Getting the distance.
3. Ortega changes levels and darts forward, looking for the takedown.
4. Max dips down himself, matching Ortega’s level to protect his hips.
5. Simultaneously, he hop-steps, retreating and pivoting around to Ortega’s right in one smooth motion.
6. Max is out of range, but Ortega responds to the evasion lazily. Slowly, he turns to face Max’s new position.
7. The champ takes advantage of the opening. He throws away a jab, using the distraction to take a long step into range.
8. Then plugs Ortega, only just getting his stance back, with a straight right to the chin.
Angles were everything against Ortega, for a number of reasons. Here we see an example one of the bigger ones. Ortega is a pressure fighter. Even though he likes to counter, he rarely does so effectively off the back foot. Instead, he uses aggressive footwork to put pressure on his opponents and draw out the kinds of shaky leads that every counter puncher craves.
As far as pressure footwork goes, however, Ortega is still closer to being a novice than he is a master. Cage-cutting is an essential tool in any swarmer’s kit. When pressuring, a fighter cannot only think of his position relative to that of the opponent; he must be aware of his position relative to the cage itself, and likewise for his foe. The goal is to keep the opponent between himself and the fence, and himself between the opponent and the open space in center cage. This means side-stepping, for one, and pivoting on the back foot, for another. It means understanding distance to the degree that the pressure fighter does not expose himself while cutting off lines of retreat. When attacking, it means combining forward movement with lateral—the opponent must be walked into strikes, which means learning to throw while moving the feet diagonally.
This last point is where Ortega still falls short. Though he has shown flashes of real boxing brilliance, and is perfectly capable of cutting off the cage when he puts his mind to it, Ortega almost always attacks (and retreats—but we’ll get to that) on straight lines.
Holloway made evading and countering Ortega’s attacks look laughably easy—because, for him, it was. In the sequence above, Holloway knows by frame 2 that he may need to take an angle to evade an attack, because Ortega allows him to touch hands and gauge the distance. He reads the level change, reacts accordingly, and still knows that he has enough space to get out of the way. The movement he uses (watch the GIF for a better look) is what’s called a hop-step, a shuffling of the feet which allows him to retreat and move off to his right at the same time. It is a favored move of Conor McGregor, and even the Notorious might be envious of the fluidity with which Max executes it.
Take another look at frame 5. This is a very clear example of what we mean when we talk about angles. Simply put, an angle has been found when a fighter is facing his opponent, while the opponent is not facing him. Like a dominant position on the ground, standing angles offer many opportunities for attack. Unlike a grappler, however, a striker cannot ever expect to secure a position. Without body contact, both fighters are free to move and adjust at will. The striker must treat these expected movements as opportunities. If he cannot hold his man in place, he can at least strike him while he is adjusting, focusing on moving his feet and not yet positioned to respond with a strike of his own.
In our example, Ortega does adjust, turning to face Holloway once he realizes he is vulnerable. The movement is not that of a practiced striker, however. Ortega stands up stock straight after his failed shot, and rotates rather lazily. Holloway gives him something to react to just as he is about to get back to a sound position—and then launches his real attack immediately after.
Distance, defense, angles, and layers of attack. Just four elements of the tremendous beatdown Max Holloway gave Brian Ortega.
Holloway did not merely wait on Ortega’s attacks before using his footwork, however. He also managed to force angles on Ortega with pressure and volume. Take a look at this simple but effective sequence.
1. Holloway pushes forward an inch at a time, till he is almost in jabbing distance.
2. A quick feint allows him to close the gap, and gets Ortega to react.
3. Holloway fires a jab and bumps to his left at the same time. Ortega manages to deflect the punch with his right hand...
4. ...but ends up in this position. Max, right hand cocked, is facing Ortega, while Ortega is out of alignment.
5. The cross connects, spinning T-City’s head like a top.
Again, this sequence starts with Holloway’s keen sense of range. He slides into position, both hands outstretched. For some fighters, this posture would read as defensive. For Holloway, however, the extended arms are used to probe distance, disrupt incoming punches, and threaten.
Max uses that threat to close to striking distance. His feint takes him safely into range, as Ortega is compelled to react to anything resembling a Holloway jab, and also establishes something of an inside angle. In frame 2, you can see that Max is already facing Ortega more than Ortega is facing him. But there are layers upon layers to every Holloway attack.
His committed jab draws an even bigger reaction out of Ortega, who not only swats at the punch, but actually turns his head away, taking his eyes off his adversary. It is a nasty surprise, then, when Brian looks back to see Holloway standing at an almost perpendicular angle, already about to fire his right hand. Somewhat like a hop-step, the footwork Max hides behind his jab in this sequence is sometimes called a “bump.” Rather than sliding or pivoting to his left, Holloway quickly jumps both feet into the new position. Not only does this dynamic movement render a very quick angle change, but it springloads the legs for a follow-up attack. Note the tension in Holloway’s right leg in frame 4, and then watch the GIF to see that potential energy become kinetic as his right hand crashes straight through Ortega’s jaw.
This move was always a favorite of Dominick Cruz, but you would have to look at boxing, and fighters like Vasyl Lomachenko, to find an example of someone doing it better than Max.
This would not be a true celebration of Holloway’s technique without a look at his jab. Nor would it qualify as a proper Connor Ruebusch article were I to overlook a chance to focus on this fundamental boxing technique.
In the next sequence, Holloway uses his jab the way a grappler might use a crossface, forcing Ortega to change his own position until he is lined up for the big one.
1. Holloway and Ortega meet in the center of the Octagon.
2. Max moves in and steps off at an angle as he spears Ortega with a long jab.
3. Ortega moves his head, dipping behind his left shoulder as if expecting the right hand.
4. Holloway watches him move, then prods him with another jab.
5. This gets Ortega to move again, leaning back this time, and Holloway might consider letting the right hand go—but he is a little far away.
6. Holloway moves closer behind yet another jab, now forcing an already overworked Ortega to react again.
7. Ortega tries to pivot, but doesn’t have eyes on his opponent. Holloway cracks him across the jaw with the cross.
Note how Holloway’s feet are never stationary, even as he fires off pinpoint jabs. Contrast that to Ortega’s feet in this sequence, and you will understand why Holloway’s footwork was such a tremendous advantage. For all of his creativity, Ortega’s striking style requires him to plant his feet—either when moving his head, or throwing combination punches.
Holloway demonstrates his perfect understanding of this truth by using his jab the way he does. The first jab gives him a slight angle, and forces Ortega to move his head—which means his feet are, at least momentarily, rooted in place. The second jab, no more than a tap, gets Ortega to move his head again, while Holloway deepens his angle. The final jab doesn’t even connect. A small and futile victory for Ortega’s defense, as he is finally forced to move his feet, just at the moment that he is looking down the barrel of Max’s right hand. Ortega’s shoulder rolling is no use against an opponent standing at his side, and the cross buzzes his jaw as he desperately tries to pivot away.
Check back Monday, after Kevin Lee vs Al Iaquinta, when we will take another look at Holloway’s striking, as well as some of Brian Ortega’s own successes, in part two.
For more in-depth analysis of Holloway vs Ortega and the rest of UFC 231, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast for students of the game, still dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.