The trend didn’t start with Max Holloway, and I doubt it’ll end with him, but nonetheless ‘Blessed’ has molded himself into the face of a mixed martial arts revolution. No, it’s not the Machida Era all over again, or whatever BJ Penn was doing in that 3rd Frankie Edgar fight. The skill Holloway put on display is already out in the MMA meta, Holloway’s just made it his signature.
Elite mixed martial arts in 2021 is all about volume striking.
For those that have been watching the sport for years, that’s hardly a surprise. Go back to 1997 and Maurice Smith landing 55 significant strikes on Mark Coleman was a revolution. A decade later and GSP put 131 up on Jon Fitch for one of the most one-sided beatings of his championship career. Striking numbers have been climbing continuously since the sport started.
But, even with Nate Diaz dropping an astonishing 238 sig. strikes on Donald Cerrone back at UFC 141, the underlying game of elite MMA at the time was not one that put the bulk of its emphasis on throwing in numbers.
Fighters like Benson Henderson, Frankie Edgar, Jose Aldo, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre might have scraped around 100 significant strikes – or a bit over – in any given five round fight, but the championship meta emphasized two things clearly: pace control, and well-rounded technical application. Fighters like the Diaz bros were both distinctly ahead of their time, and firmly caught in the zeitgeist of the moment. Put them in against championship performers like GSP or Bendo and their inability to stuff takedowns left them getting run out the building by masters of what, for its time, defined an elite performance.
To give an idea just how much the window has shifted away from those more cautious, safety-first championship styles of years past: few fans would consider Khabib Nurmagomedov a picture of modern volume striking, but the 134 significant strikes he landed on Al Iaquinta were more than Anderson Silva, BJ Penn, GSP, Jose Aldo, Demetrious Johnson or Dominick Cruz ever landed in any fight of their careers.
Even fighters like Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic are getting in on the act, with a combined 304 sig. strikes in their 2019 UFC 241 rematch. Elite fighters are simply throwing in numbers that were unimaginable to their predecessors. And the reasoning behind it gets back to an old truth in MMA. Whatever the meta may be, the underlying skill at the heart of success in the cage is wrestling.
From an era where collegiate champions dominated the Octagon with takedowns and top control has sprung a sport where it seems truly everybody wrestles. Even pure kickboxing converts like Isreal Adesanya, Giga Chikadze, and Brad Riddell have seen enough takedowns by the time they hit the UFC that beating them takes a lot more than a simple willingness to change levels. In an environment where everyone knows how to stuff a shot, suddenly the caution that defined a fighter like GSP or Aldo’s title reign becomes a big potential liability—one Holloway already made the ‘King of Rio’ pay for twice.
Of course, that doesn’t just mean that suddenly strikers are going to dominate; that MMA is just going to fill up with boxers and kickboxers. But as we’ve seen from the likes of Cormier, Usman, and Covington (and even that rare instance from Khabib, when he was forced), wrestlers and grapplers who do make it to the top tiers of mixed martial arts are going to have to be prepared to throw hands at higher paces than ever if they want to stay there.
Which brings us back around to the former featherweight king from Hawaii and what he accomplished on January 16th in Abu Dhabi. The Gracie Technics product put up 445 significant strikes on 744 thrown over five rounds. Landing at a 59% success rate. Even in a world where Joanna Jedrzejczyk has taken a couple trips north of 200, or where Holloway himself landed 290 on Brian Ortega just a couple years earlier, this new benchmark is absurd.
It’s also likely a sign of things to come.
Not that Holloway’s feat will be replicated anytime soon. That kind of avalanche of volume may be well beyond the reach of even most other championship caliber athletes. But, given the trends we’re already seeing atop most MMA divisions, it seems very much like a performance that many fighters are going to try on for size. Guys like Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, Dustin Poirier, Colby Covington, and Kamaru Usman are already reaching for that 200 strike benchmark. What Holloway put out in front of them may not be graspable all on its own, but it has the feeling of an aspirational goal.
We’ve already seen the move from cautious, calculated, positionally dominant champions into one of consistent, aggressive striking. ‘Blessed’ just took it to the next level. Laid open the modern MMA game and spelled out the current meta in big, bold letters. If you want to be the best in the world today, it’s all about cardio and it’s all about activity.
Likely, at some point in the future, the formula will change again. Strikers will become comprehensively skilled enough that the risks of throwing caution to the wind in the name of volume will be too high; the chance of perfectly placed and timed counters too great. But for the next few years I’m personally looking forward to watching fighters like Holloway shine behind a tidal wave of punches and kicks.