Every once in a while, a fight comes along that offers the promise not just of sheer bloody violence, but of it being delivered with the utmost technical skill.
These kinds of bouts don’t necessarily feature electric personalities, wild and entertaining pre-fight builds, or the kinds of press-conference antics that drive breathless coverage throughout the sports-media landscape and promise millions of pay-per-view buys. What makes them compelling is the way the two fighters match up with each other.
UFC 212’s main event, the featherweight title unifier between longtime Brazilian kingpin José Aldo and up-and-coming Hawaiian Max Holloway, is that kind of fight.
It’s one of the best pure matchups at any point in the history of the sport, pitting Aldo’s defensive wizardry and otherworldly in-fight intelligence against Holloway’s adaptability, creativity, and punishing pace. For the relatively few dedicated fans who have followed Aldo’s long and underappreciated career and Holloway’s slow, under-the-radar rise to contention, it’s also a potential changing of the guard, contrasting the aging star who never quite broke through with the quietly confident 25-year-old who still might, if things go right.
Whatever happens against Holloway, the scar-faced Aldo will go down as one of the sport’s all-time greats. The native of Manaus, Brazil has lost only twice in his 28-fight career and went more than a decade between the two, the first a submission defeat as a callow 19-year-old and the second a stunning 13-second knockout at the iron left fist of Conor McGregor in December 2015.
In that 10-year stretch, Aldo established himself as a force of nature. He defended his UFC featherweight title seven times, a total that rises to nine if we include his two defenses in the defunct World Extreme Cagefighting organization (WEC), which held the best 145-pounders in the world prior to its absorption into the UFC in 2011. A marvel blessed with unparalleled speed, explosiveness, and raw athleticism, Aldo combined his stunning physical gifts with an increasingly technical and intelligent game as the years went by.
He was a devastating knockout artist early in his career, brutalizing his first six opponents in the WEC with punches, knees, and kicks—he finished future contender Cub Swanson, for example, with a ridiculous double flying knee just eight seconds into the bout. The 20 leg kicks he landed on future Ultimate Fighter winner Jonathan Brookins were so vicious that the victim’s knee still fills up with fluid years after the fact. Champion Mike Brown, who had beaten Urijah Faber twice to claim and defend the title, lasted just over six minutes in a one-sided beating.
Conservatism triumphed over wild aggression as Aldo’s career went on, though. He spent entire fights in first or second gear, cruising to easy decision wins over top-notch but still-overmatched opponents like former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and three-time title challenger Kenny Florian. While not untouchable, Aldo chose to play a tight, defensively oriented game, controlling the pace and winning more with brilliant fundamentals than the stunning finishing skills he’d shown earlier in his career.
Aldo’s dominance was never in question, but he always gave the impression of having more left in the tank, reserves of nastiness and violence that he never felt the need to tap into except in the most extreme circumstances. Crisp jabs, lightning-fast counter right hands, slick head movement and command of the distance, impeccable takedown defense, and razor-sharp footwork made him an unbeatable force in the Octagon, but did nothing for his star power outside it. Chasedown blocks and huge dunks get the headlines and highlight reels, not free throws and low-post brilliance.
And then along came McGregor, the brash, motor-mouthed Irishman who made it his personal mission to launch an industrial-scale campaign of trash talk on his way to a featherweight title shot.
McGregor was everything Aldo hadn’t been during his run as champion: a finisher and a loud personality tailor-made for mainstream media and the spotlight. The contrast couldn’t have been clearer between Aldo, who didn’t buy his first suit until he’d already been a champion for two years, and the bespoke-lifestyle-obsessed McGregor. The two men were bizarro mirror images of one another, and the UFC put together an entire world media tour in 2015 to sell the fight between the two of them. It was a coronation for McGregor’s rising star and Aldo, while he had his moments, was mostly along for the ride.
Aldo’s long winning streak came to an end at UFC 194 with one perfect McGregor counter left. It took just 13 seconds for everything Aldo had accomplished to crumble. For a champion who had never built much in the way of star power and whose reputation rested on his sheer dominance, it was as crushing a loss as humanly imaginable.
The longtime kingpin didn’t fade away, though. He held out for another title fight and got one at UFC 200 last July against his old foe Edgar, effortlessly coasting to a wide decision without ever having to hit the accelerator. He picked off Edgar—one of the two or three best fighters of all time at the lower weights—with jabs and counter right hands and shucked every one of Edgar’s 11 takedown attempts with contemptuous ease.
It was simultaneously masterful and maddening, vintage Aldo. He simply never fights any harder than he has to. His skills, physical gifts, and sheer in-cage intelligence are so far beyond even world-class opposition that he doesn’t need to dig into his substantial reserves of heart or willpower to come out on top.
That won’t fly against Max Holloway.
As much as any interim champion riding a 10-fight winning streak can fly under the radar, Holloway has done so. He’s one of the first young fighters to rise to the top in the fragmented, oversaturated landscape that has accompanied the UFC’s expansion in the last several years, his steady improvements and finely-honed talent going mostly unnoticed until the last year or so.
Much of Holloway’s winning streak graced Fight Night cards in places like Singapore, Stockholm, Saskatoon, and Tulsa, rendering him invisible to all but the most dedicated fans. On the other hand, this saturated landscape with a forgettable but entertaining event practically every weekend has given Holloway a profusion of opportunities to hone his skills as an always-ready action fighter. While nobody was paying attention, the action fighter blossomed into a contender, a truly special young fighter who even now has tons of room left to grow.
This will be Holloway’s 17th fight in the UFC since debuting as a raw but hyped 20-year-old prospect with just four professional bouts under his belt. Holloway took former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis inside 15 minutes in his last fight, capping off a long evolution and an impressive run to the top.
Holloway’s game is defined by his adaptability. He’s a striker by preference but a true jack-of-all-trades in his ability to move between different styles and approaches, not just from fight to fight or round to round but even within them.
Depending on the needs of the situation, Holloway might pressure, pushing his opponent back toward the fence and unloading combinations. He might be better served to stick and move at range, pot-shotting with one or two shots at a time before circling out and establishing distance; or he can sit in the pocket and counter when his opponent throws, avoiding the shot and then using his crisp, tight footwork to cut an angle before responding with a barrage of punches.
He can fight at every distance, slashing with knees and elbows in the clinch, crisp combinations in tight spaces, and long, straight punches and heavy kicks at long range. He’s comfortable in both orthodox and southpaw and makes no real distinction between the two. A counter combination against an aggressive opponent gives way to a swarming, forward-moving pressure sequence, and then to moments of sticking and moving while his overwhelmed opponent tries to get his bearings. It’s a bewildering and deep game.
What ties all of this diversity together is pace. Holloway buries his opponents in offense as the fight goes on, picking up momentum like a snowball rolling downhill. These aren’t light, tapping strikes, either. Holloway isn’t a big-time puncher like McGregor or even Aldo, but he wears his opponent down with a steady diet of shots to the legs and body before launching devastating flurries that bury the opponent in too many shots to defend.
Aldo’s basic approach—that beautiful, smooth, and technical game he’s honed over the last six years—depends on controlling the pace and keeping it slow. The Brazilian functions like an MMA computer, absorbing data points on his opponent’s distance, timing, angles, and shot selection before spitting back out the appropriate response. He’s so intelligent in his reads, and so quick in acting on them, that his opponents can’t help but slow down to try to out-think him. The moment Aldo’s opponents start thinking, the fight is as good as lost.
How do you beat a hyper-athletic supercomputer with the sharpest fundamentals in the game if you can’t knock him out in 13 seconds?
You can’t hope to outthink Aldo, but you can overload him with information, and at least on paper nobody is better equipped to do that than Holloway. Even a below-average pace from Holloway would still be much faster than Aldo prefers to work, and Aldo hasn’t fought anyone with Holloway’s combination of height and length (he stands 5-foot-11 to Aldo’s 5-foot-7), his offensive output, and his smooth technical skills.
Unless Holloway comes out scared or overly respectful of Aldo, neither of which seems likely, he won’t sit back and let the Brazilian establish his methodical game. Win or lose, Holloway won’t allow Aldo to cruise in first or second gear the whole fight. He can’t pick off Holloway a shot or two at a time the way he did to Edgar or Ricardo Lamas. Aldo will be forced to dig into his arsenal of spinning kicks, flying knees, and vicious head-body-leg kick combinations, to show his heart, willpower, and true underappreciated greatness in the face of a youthful opponent who’s willing and able to give Aldo everything he can handle.
Aldo is only 30, but he’s a grizzled veteran closer to the end of his run at the top than the beginning. Does Aldo still have that extra gear he’s been holding in reserve for so much of his run at the top? Can he hold on for one more fight against Holloway, a tough stylistic matchup with the tools to trouble him and the unbridled confidence of youth?
I don’t know the answer to the second question, but I’m betting the answer to the first is yes. If that’s the case, a fight of the year, and perhaps some long-overdue recognition for either or both, is waiting just around the corner.