I know I’m not shouting alone from the mountaintop by declaring this, but the UFC should have reversed the order of the title fights for this weekend’s UFC 276 PPV event. Given Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway appear to be fighting for the legacy of greatest featherweight in history, there seems to be more on the line in their fight than there is between Israel Adesanya and Jared Cannonier. No disrespect meant to Adesanya or Cannonier. Adesanya is one of the UFC’s darlings and Cannonier has earned this opportunity, but it feels like just another title defense for Adesanya. The odds reflect that too. I get that this is the third fight between Volkanovski and Holloway, Volkanovski being the victor in their first two contests. But they were both competitive and entertaining contests and this is with the legacy of the division on the line. Regardless, these contests are the cherry on top of a meaty card.
Israel Adesanya vs. Jared Cannonier, Middleweight
There’s a strong argument to be made that Adesanya is the best pure striker in MMA today. Much of that is attributable to his freakishly long frame as it allows him to do things others can’t. However, owning a unique frame isn’t enough to make a fighter a great striker. Adesanya’s technique is so clean, so crisp, so accurate. He doesn’t have bone crushing power, but if he lands a kick or a punch in just the right spot, he’s just as capable of turning out the lights as anyone.
However, despite his talents and unique personality, it feels like there has been somewhat of a failure to launch from Adesanya. Not that he isn’t amongst the P4P best, but the spectacular moments that the UFC was selling him on have been drying up. Rather than look for the highlight reel finish, Adesanya has been playing it safe, staying on the outside of his opponents and picking them apart. While it’s a testament to how good of a fighter he is – intelligence is a sign of a good fighter after all – it has also made his marketability take a hit. Fortunately for Adesanya, all it takes to regain that momentum is one moment. Can he get that moment against Cannonier?
I would have to say there’s a very good chance of that. Cannonier is a hard hitter, possessing enough power to put away an elephant. However, it isn’t like Adesanya hasn’t faced heavy hitters before. Perhaps Cannonier can dissuade Adesanya’s attack with his frequent leg checks. After all, he used that to weaken the legs of Anderson Silva. But it’s not like the legs is the only place Adesanya attacks. One of the champ’s advantages is his varied attack, keeping his opponents guessing. Maybe Cannonier can wrest Adesanya to the mat and bloody him up from there. After all, Adesanya’s one career loss came at the hands of Jan Blachowicz timing his takedowns perfectly and controlling him from there. Of course, that was at light heavyweight. If anyone can hold Adesanya down at middleweight, it would be the freakishly strong Cannonier. But then again, Cannonier isn’t much of a wrestler.
Outside of the puncher’s chance, I don’t see Cannonier finding success. Against certain opponents, Cannonier’s patient pressure has been problematic for his opposition as he waits for the right opportunity to spring into action. Against Adesanya, I fear it will merely allow the former kickboxer to find his method of attack and pick him apart. The one saving grace is Adesanya has been vulnerable to pressure if he has been vulnerable anywhere; remember how much success Kelvin Gastelum was able to find? But Gastelum also fought like a wild man for long stretches of that fight, his unpredictable nature proving to be problematic for Adesanya. Opponents typically know what Cannonier is going to do; it’s a matter of stopping it. Robert Whittaker was able to and I believe Adesanya is better equipped to do the same. I would even expect a finish.... Adesanya via TKO of RD3
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway, Featherweight
Given the controversy of the scoring in their second fight, it felt like an inevitability we’d see this fight a third time. If Holloway wins this, we’ll see a fourth fight. Then again, would anyone really be disappointed to see these two scrap again?
Against everyone not named Volkanovski in the featherweight division, Holloway has looked unstoppable. When people talk about all-time great showings in a fight, his demolition of Calvin Kattar will always be one of those fights people bring up. No one else comes close to his record 445 significant strikes in that contest. It was so damned impressive that it made people yawn when he put up 230 in his last fight with Yair Rodriguez. Nobody flows better with their boxing than Holloway. Nobody mixes their punches up better. Throw in that he never gets tired and it seems like only a cyborg stands a chance of upending Holloway. And yet, Volkanovski does have two wins over Holloway....
Volkanovski might be the older fighter of the two, but there’s a strong argument he’s the one who still has more room to grow. Sure, his stout frame isn’t exactly ideal, but Volkanovski does have a freakishly long reach and makes the absolute best use of his physical gifts. In fact, despite being five inches shorter than Holloway, Volkanovski has the longer reach. Plus, Volkanovski has the overall advantage in power. That said, Holloway is the one in this series who put Volkanovski on shaky legs, a favor Volkanovski hasn’t been able to return. That’s because there are few who do a better job of building momentum than Holloway. The Hawaiian tends to establish his jab early, getting a feel for his opponent’s range before opening up with the longer combinations.
Volkanovski was well aware of this, refusing to allow Holloway to establish his jab or get into a flow. Whether it was his own jab, constant low kicks, or takedown attempts, Volkanovski continued to interrupt Holloway’s momentum. Throw in the fact that Volkanovski mixes his strikes in a way to keep his opponents constantly guessing and it’s no wonder the Aussie is considered to be one of the smartest fighters in the game, if not the smartest. Volkanovski has shown the ability to make fights in the midst of a fight too, swinging the momentum in their second fight after Holloway jumped out to an early lead.
There will be zero surprise from me if Holloway regains the belt. His tall frame, flowing boxing, and endless gas tank is problematic for everyone, even Volkanovski. But we’ve already seen this fight twice and Volkanovski emerged victorious twice, even if the second fight was controversial. What has me even more leery about Holloway’s chances is his age. Not that he’s old at 30, but his frame is absolutely HUGE for featherweight. How much longer can he continue to make that weight without it affecting his performance. Holloway could come out looking like a million bucks again, making this a moot point. Still, I have to consider that a possibility in a fight that is as closely contested as this one. Regardless of who wins, I have a feeling I’ll be on the edge of my seat for the whole time. Volkanovski via decision