In championship-level combat sports, as with generations of inbred European royalty, there’s never really an interregnum. The end of one reign is simultaneously the beginning of another. The moment the new champion’s hand is raised and the belt fitted around his waist, we’re officially living in a new era.
Max Holloway put an emphatic beating on José Aldo to claim the undisputed UFC featherweight championship at UFC 212 on Saturday night, knocking him down and smothering him with ground strikes until the referee pulled Holloway off the broken, bloody Aldo.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
This wasn’t necessarily Aldo’s most devastating loss; eating a Conor McGregor left hand and going down in 13 seconds after suffering through a year of the Irishman’s mass-produced trash talk was worse in imagery and implication, ensuring that no discussion of Aldo’s six-year, nine-fight run as the best featherweight on the planet can take place without some brain-dead moron interjecting “Thirteen seconds!” and walking away with a self-satisfied grin as if nobody else were aware of that fact.
Anybody, even an undisputed all-time great like Aldo, can get caught by an iron-fisted puncher like McGregor. As royal depositions go, it was a public assassination: quick, lethal, and emphatic, but strangely enough, not one that told us much about Aldo’s future prospects. There was no obvious decline, no technical breakdown in Aldo’s game, no inability to pull the trigger or evidence of shot reflexes. Sure enough, Aldo got right back on the horse and dominated former lightweight champion and two-time title challenger Frankie Edgar, one of the best lighter-weight fighters in MMA history, without ever looking like he had to work for it. Aldo was back.
What Holloway did to Aldo was far more damaging and comprehensive. This wasn’t an overeager Aldo getting flattened with a single shot; it was a clean, methodical, and intelligent dismantling of a sharp, well-prepared champion. There was nothing fluky about this.
Holloway knew Aldo would be dangerous early, and he approached the fight accordingly. Instead of coming out the gate hot and looking to get in Aldo’s face, Holloway played it slow, gauging Aldo’s speed, timing, and distance. In effect, he gave away the opening frame of the fight in order to gather the information he would need to win later. This is easier said than done, and Holloway had to eat big punching combinations and a flush knee as Aldo tried to scare him off and earn Holloway’s respect.
Aldo excels at teaching his opponents lessons. When they try to pressure and overwhelm him with pace, he makes them pay with counters. When they try to collapse the distance, he sticks his jab in their face and circles out, dancing around them like a matador. When they try to take him down, he shucks them off with ease.
He makes his opponents look and feel foolish. That’s when the reality of fighting José Fucking Aldo starts to set in, and it’s as good as over. Aldo can cruise at a slow, patient pace, picking his opponent off one or two shots at a time. Nobody in the world can beat Aldo in that kind of fight.
Holloway refused to learn the lessons Aldo was trying to teach. He didn’t try to spam desperation takedowns to take the pressure off his striking game; despite eating Aldo’s best shots in the first two rounds, Holloway stayed calm and looked for his openings.
He started to find those opportunities in the last two minutes of the second round and the beginning of the third. Prior to that point, Holloway had essentially consented to Aldo’s pace, but unlike most of Aldo’s opponents, he hadn’t grown disheartened or frustrated by the stark reality of Aldo’s speed, power, timing, and counterpunching acumen. That’s an exceptional feat of mental strength in itself.
Holloway’s adjustment was a brilliant one. Instead of wasting his time trying to outthink Aldo with his initial shots to avoid the counters, he threw at Aldo, let him throw back, and then countered the counter with beautiful, creative combinations of his own.
Imagine the kind of self-confidence and chutzpah it takes to look at a lightning-fast, terrifying counterpuncher and say, “You know what? Let him throw his counters. I’m going to throw at him knowing he’s going to try to hit me back, and then I’m going to hit his ass right back.” That’s unbelievably ballsy against a fighter of Aldo’s caliber and skills.
This is what allowed Holloway to turn up the pace. When you throw at Aldo and he throws back, that’s usually the end of it; instead, Holloway forced Aldo into deeper water by making him react. He overloaded Aldo’s incredible defensive skills with too much information for even a fighter as smart and well-trained as Aldo to deal with, lacing the champion with straight punches to the head, body shots, round kicks, and a stepping knee that left a huge hematoma on the left side of Aldo’s head.
Slowly but surely, the pace and therefore the momentum turned toward Holloway. He threw 18, 20, and 24 shots per minute in the minutes leading up to the knockdown that put Aldo on the canvas, gathering momentum like a snowball rolling downhill. Holloway threw, Aldo threw back, and then Holloway would jump on him with still more shots, over and over again.
It’s impossible to overstate Aldo’s level of technical skill, but he just isn’t built for that kind of quick-paced firefight. That’s not a knock on him; only idiots rag on Ichiro for not hitting more home runs, blast LeBron for not shooting more threes, or tear down Tom Brady because he’s not a more dangerous runner. That’s just not what those guys do, and Aldo’s game isn’t designed to throw 20 strikes per minute for an extended period. He has neither the gas tank nor the inclination for the high-volume technical brawl that Holloway was able to create. By the time Holloway’s razor-sharp jab-cross flattened Aldo at the three-minute mark of the third round, the outcome was starting to feel inevitable.
Holloway has been watching Aldo since the Hawaiian was a 17-year-old kickboxing novice. Where a sane observer would have looked at Aldo carving a bloody swathe of destruction through the world’s best featherweights and tried to stay as far away as possible, what Holloway saw just convinced him that he wanted to get in the cage with Aldo.
This is what happens with dominant champions like Aldo. They’re on top for years, and their greatness makes such an impression on the young up and comers that exceptional talents like Holloway spend literally years of their lives thinking about how to beat them.
Holloway was built from the ground up to beat Aldo, not by accident but by design. Johny Hendricks spent years working on the techniques he used to nearly snatch the welterweight title from Georges St-Pierre. Chris Weidman had an eye on Anderson Silva from his first fight until the moment he knocked out the legend. Sports evolve over time by exactly this mechanism. In Aldo’s case, the answer to his game was pace, to overload Aldo’s hyper-quick computer of a mind with too much information for it to process.
I don’t know whether Holloway will be the next great featherweight champion, though I suspect a guy who’s already won 11 in a row and beaten most of the potential challengers while still improving is going to hang onto the belt for a while. I do know this: Saturday, some wild 17-year-old in Des Moines or Halifax or Rio de Janeiro or Makhachkala or Saitama watched Holloway brutalize Aldo to win the belt, and today, that kid is in the gym hitting the bag or sparring thinking about what he would’ve done to beat Holloway, and what he’ll do to get there.
Five or 10 years from now, that kid will be standing across the cage from Holloway or someone like him, ready to put a clean, methodical, intelligent, and savage beating on him, just as Holloway did to Aldo. One era will end and another will begin.
The king will be dead, and then we’ll have a new king.