On Friday, we looked at three examples of the brilliant, angular footwork that Max Holloway used to outmaneuver, outwork, and outright befuddle Brian Ortega at UFC 231.
This was one of those fights which becomes more and more one-sided in review. For four rounds, Holloway landed seemingly endless salvos of strikes. Literally hundreds of blows to the head. Dozens of body shots. The featherweight king threw two hundred more strikes than his opponent and more than doubled—nearly tripled, in fact—the number that actually connected. He found the mark on a full 59 percent of his 490 significant strikes, all while stuffing nine of Ortega’s 11 attempted takedowns (and quickly scrambling free of the two that he managed to secure).
There was no respite for Ortega. He was thoroughly outclassed, to the point that his sheer grit was becoming a dangerous liability even before the ringside doctor made the wise decision to call the contest off. T-City himself recognized this fact. Posting to his Instagram after the fight, he said: “Doctor stopped it and I agree. Broken nose and a broken thumb I was willing to die in there. Last night was Max’s night.”
There is no shame whatsoever in losing to a fighter like Max Holloway, however. Max’s performance was far more complimentary to himself than it was damning of Ortega’s abilities, or his potential. The fact that Ortega withstood so much of the best offense the best-ever version of Holloway had to offer was impressive, in its own right. That he managed to hunt for devastating counters and timely takedowns in the midst of all the chaos really was something else.
No stranger to dropping rounds only to come back in shocking fashion, Brian began building layers into his attacks as the fight went on. In round three, Ortega had already eaten more than a hundred strikes, but he was busily calculating his own opportunities, all the same. In our first example, he finds an opening that even the keen-eyed Holloway can’t predict.
1. Ortega steps into range as Holloway is leaning forward.
2. He leads with a left hook, forcing Holloway to block.
3. As Ortega looks to follow up with his right hand, Holloway shoots a counter jab. Both men miss.
4. Loathe to let Ortega reset after a nothing exchange, Holloway keeps the pressure on, flicking out a jab.
5. He follows it with a right hand.
6. But though Ortega is still scrambling to regain his stance, he knows to expect the right hand after the jab, by now. He narrowly slips the punch.
7. Next, he dips down to his right. Holloway continues to barrel forward, likely thinking of framing off and returning to middle distance.
8. But instead of staying low, or coming back with his own predictable right hand, Ortega nearly decapitates Max with a spinning back-elbow.
Brian Ortega has a knack for snatching strange and unexpected finishes out of thin air, often well into a tough fight. Like Yoel Romero, also known for his many third-round finishes, Ortega’s approach often seems a little... random. It can be difficult to follow his train of thought, the way we can with more orthodox fighters. It would be tempting to call Ortega’s comeback nature lucky, but his consistency suggests that, much of the time, he is seeing things we struggle to see.
In this exchange, we get a pretty clear glimpse into one small part of his thought process. Recall the final example in the first part of this article. Holloway used his punches to time Ortega’s head movement, peppering him with flicking blows until his position was sufficiently compromised to justify dropping a bomb on him. In this sequence, Holloway appears to be prepared to do something very similar after Ortega evades his right hand. His eyes are on Ortega’s moving head, his hands ready to frame off his bent-over foe and create enough space to start firing off straight punches.
Whether a fighter wants to see them this way or not, punishing sequences like the one we broke down last week are always learning experiences. When Ortega was set upon in the first two rounds, he not only recognized that he needed to adjust, but set himself apart by what kinds of adjustments he chose. Many fighters, having been put on the pointy ends of those punches dozens of times already, would look to disengage, or tie Holloway up. Ortega, on the other hand, thought, How can I knock this guy out while he’s busy trying to set me up?
So he finds a sneaky, unpredictable attack—from the very position that Holloway has previously exploited. That Holloway only absorbs the considerable impact of Ortega’s triceps, narrowly avoiding the point of the elbow, probably has something to do with his “Blessed” moniker.
All the same, it has to be reiterated: this was a dominant showing by Max Holloway. Ortega tried his hardest to stage another round three rally, but he was at a severe disadvantage. It had taken him some ten minutes to really adjust to the patterns in Holloway’s attack. Holloway, on the other hand, took a fraction of that time to survive and suss out Ortega’s comeback efforts and break him right back down.
We already showed Ortega’s growth from round one to round three. What better way to demonstrate Holloway’s tremendous talent than by showing his adjustment to Ortega’s tricky spinning elbow less than five minutes later?
1. Wilting from his efforts in the third round, Ortega circles around Holloway.
2. Max steps in, comfortable abandoning his position for an attack, because he notices Ortega crossing his feet. He traps Ortega’s lead hand.
3. Then connects with a straight right to the head.
4. Next, a straight left shift.
5. Ortega dips, and Holloway examines him briefly, likely looking to follow with more punches.
6. Instead, Ortega shoots a high double leg.
7. Holloway grabs and overhook and frames against Ortega’s neck, pivoting to redirect the shot.
8. He forces Ortega to separate, and immediately pursues him with more punches.
9. Ortega partially blocks this right hand.
10. But the left shift gets through again.
11. Holloway continues jabbing as he finds his stance again, but he can sense Ortega’s head dropping away a little too dramatically.
12. As Ortega throws his spinning elbow, Max has already sidestepped out of its path.
13. Ortega misses by a mile, and Holloway, utilizing some tricky triangular footwork, ends up still facing his off-balanced foe, now from a southpaw stance.
14. While Ortega, back still turned, scrambles to right himself, Max closes the distance.
15. He cracks T-City with a long left hook, and proceeds to pour it on.
Holloway’s output and attitude in the fourth round was something to behold. After promising the commentators at ringside that he would end the fight in this frame, he immediately ramped up the momentum he had already regained by the end of the last one. Intense, insane pressure forced Ortega to swing from the jump. Holloway calmly watched his strikes sail harmlessly by, without ever allowing enough space that he couldn’t immediately punish the challenger for the attempt.
The highlight of this sequence is the clever footwork Holloway uses to evade the spinning elbow. Like Ortega, Holloway is loathe to absorb any particular strike without figuring out some way to turn the next attempt against his foe. This time, when he feels Ortega starting to spin, he does not frame and leave his head hanging in the line of fire. Instead, he allows his forward momentum to continue, sliding right past Ortega as he explodes.
Note how Holloway turns his lateral movement into a stance switch without missing a beat. In frame 11, he steps in on a good attacking angle. In frame 12, he hop-steps in the same direction, letting his momentum carry him out of harm’s way. By frame 13, he has changed the orientation of his upper body without having to move his feet a single extra inch. Now standing southpaw, he has all the time in the world to watch Ortega flailing for balance and time his next attack.
There is a subtle declaration for the importance of fundamentals hidden in the comparison between Holloway’s and Ortega’s adjustments. Brian was made to dip into the same right hand many times before he could come up with sufficiently tricky ways to counter. However, his methods were more intuitive than structured. Holloway was not only quick enough to pick up on the spinning elbow threat after only falling prey to it once, he was also equipped to fill all of the gaps in between with methodical pressure. Thus, he didn’t need to come up with flashier, more unpredictable counters than Ortega. All he needed to do was make those counters miss and continue building the attack the way he always does.
To end this analysis, let’s take a look at a devastating sequence from the round that spelled the end of Ortega’s immediate title aspirations. Gifted with an inhumanly solid chin and an equally impressive power of will, Ortega never seemed close to being knocked out, no matter how many things Holloway chose to smash against his jaw.
So how does a fighter break an incredibly tough opponent, when all of his powers of pace, pressure, and angular movement aren’t enough to get the finish? The answer is simple, and painful: body shots.
1. Holloway parries an Ortega jab.
2. He slips his way inside, changing levels to get a better angle on Ortega’s abdomen.
3. A right uppercut to the spleen...
4. ...followed by a left uppercut to the liver.
5. As Ortega shells up, Holloway takes the openings he is given. His right hand shoots around Brian’s guard for the kidney shot.
6. Ortega tries an old-school counter uppercut off the shoulder roll, but Max has the inside position. He deflects Ortega’s strike while landing his own to the belly.
7. No energy left for combinations, Ortega tries to disengage. Note the angle Max has on him.
8. Ortega makes his situation worse by crossing his feet in range. Holloway lines him up with the jab.
9. The follow-up cross lands clean, spinning Ortega’s head around.
10. The strike also springloads Holloway’s left side.
11. So he follows with a leaping left hook, turning Ortega’s cranium the other way.
Holloway has been an excellent body puncher for years, now. Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, and Anthony Pettis are just a few of the men whose bodies Max has notably battered, and no one escapes a round against him without at least a light rib roasting. Holloway was having so much success finding Ortega’s head, however, that at times the body work became an afterthought. It took a helpful reminder from his cornermen—all of whom did excellent work throughout the fight—for him to return to gut-busting in the fourth.
It had the desired effect.
As devastating as he is at long range, Holloway is no less fearsome on the inside. His body work in this sequence is reminiscent of the great Roberto Duran. Note how Max chooses the angles of his strikes. Most of his body blows come straight up the middle. Ortega has little chance of defending these angles with his double-forearm guard. When he switches to a crab/shell guard, however, Holloway swings a little wider, attacking the floating ribs from behind.
As soon as Ortega tries to return fire, in frame 6, he has once again squared himself up with Max. Holloway simply keeps his punches flowing. Note how, by ensuring that he is throwing the tighter strikes—like a grappler tries to control inside hand position in any tie-up—Holloway manages to deflect Ortega’s counter without even trying, all while getting his own fist to the target.
During and between all of these blows, Holloway is continually adjusting his feet. In frame 3, he is standing almost directly in front of Ortega, more or less sharing a weak inside angle with him. By frame 7, he has revolved around his opponent to a strong outside angle, all but forcing Ortega to cross his feet on the retreat. When he does, Holloway is quick to capitalize, measuring his range and executing with perfect precision, despite the otherworldly pace.
Of the 490 significant strikes Holloway attempted over the course of the fight, 196 were thrown in the fourth round alone. 134 of them—68 percent—connected.
Max Holloway isn’t just a good fighter. He is a great fighter, exceptional even among the elite. His resume is among the very best in the sport, irrespective of weight class, and no fighter out there can honestly claim to have a more exciting style. His performance at UFC 231 was astounding, made all the more impressive for the durability and heart showed by his challenger, and the many tribulations Max had to endure beforehand.
The UFC’s official pound-for-pound rankings, such as they are, have Holloway rated fourth, behind Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Daniel Cormier. For this writer, however, Max may very well be the best on earth right now.
For more analysis like this, check out Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.