It was only about six months ago when Max Holloway stopped Jose Aldo to capture the UFC featherweight championship, though you’d be forgiven if you felt it was sometime last decade. Time in MMA seems to pass through filters of distortion. For proof, remember how recently it was that Aldo felt unbeatable? It was only two years ago when Conor McGregor ended his ridiculous decade-long streak of wins, and now here we are, with Aldo a sizable underdog in his bid to become a three-time champ.
The odds weren’t shot out of a cannon. They were and are a direct response to Holloway’s shocking TKO the first time around, a fight that instructs our understanding on the UFC 218 main event.
What is mostly forgotten about the bout is that Aldo won the first two rounds. Using his speed and movement, Aldo got off to a quick start with scoring combinations and bursts that took advantage of an atypically reserved Holloway.
Holloway (18-3) had always been among the most active fighters in MMA; according to FightMetric, he lands 5.79 significant strikes per minute, ninth in UFC history. But against Aldo, he slowed his output considerably in the early going. In the first round, for example, he landed only 12 strikes. But in effect, Holloway was setting a trap for Aldo (26-3).
Instead of stepping on the gas and drawing out a firefight early, Holloway showed veteran poise, pumping out the jab, gauging time, speed and distance, and uploading the information necessary to taking control of the action later.
That’s an incredibly audacious plan. In the last years of Aldo’s long reign, the book on him had changed, with many believing that he would be susceptible to a late fade, but no one had really been able to pull it off, instead taking beatings that left them limping to the final horn, if they made it at all.
Standing in front of a fresh Aldo has routinely proven to be a terrifying experience, but Holloway had the confidence to believe in and execute the vision.
Perhaps the single most important development of the fight was Holloway’s ability to take away Aldo’s leg kicks. Throughout his career, Aldo has been at his best when he is consistent with this weapon, which scores heavily on the scorecards while sapping opponents of both mobility and power. Against Holloway, only a single one of Aldo’s 93 thrown strikes was a leg kick. As he threw it, Holloway stepped in and blazed off a right-hand counter than grazed Aldo. It apparently served as an effective deterrent because Aldo never threw another one for the rest of the bout.
Effectively reduced to a puncher, Aldo lost a complete dimension of his game. Against someone with Holloway’s length and activity, that proved a recipe for disaster.
It was around the middle of the second round when it became apparent that Holloway had collected the information he needed in order to go on the offensive. In that moment, Holloway threw out a series of left-hand jab feints, eventually drawing Aldo to counter with an overextended jab. Holloway then sprang forward with a three-punch combination that marked his first success and instantly seemed to infuse him with confidence and energy.
Aldo’s speed and counters are so good that there is always a danger in coming forward against him. In that regard, Holloway has fought with reckless abandon in the past, but this time was different. He showed a veteran’s poise by mixing up his targets to the head, body and legs, and exiting at angles.
By the start of the third, you could sense that despite Aldo’s hot start, the fight had started to sway toward Holloway’s direction. Aldo’s feet were becoming more stationary and his hand speed slowed just a tick, enough to make a meaningful difference against an unrelenting opponent. With Aldo’s shortened camp this time around—he took the fight on three weeks’ notice after Frankie Edgar withdrew due to injury—it’s difficult to imagine any improvement in that area. Instead of emphasizing the conditioning necessary to potentially go five hard rounds, he’s likely more focused on battles with the scale.
That means that Aldo’s performance arc will probably follow a similar path as the first time around; dangerous early, but fading every minute.
Still, it can’t be overstated how sharp Aldo can be at his best. Only 31 years old, he cannot be written off on age alone. Even in the loss, he showed most of the traits that made him the world’s best featherweight for years. Still, it will be incumbent upon him to make changes in the rematch. He’s historically used leg kicks brilliantly at times — 20 against Ricardo Lamas at UFC 169, 18 against Mark Hominick at UFC 129 — but he’s mostly abandoned them lately. In his last four fights, which total over 64 minutes of cage time, Aldo has thrown only 11 combined leg kicks.
Aldo has also proven to be an excellent wrestler. According to FightMetric, he’s landed 72 percent of his takedown tries, a number that would rank him third all-time in the UFC if he had the required 20 minimum career attempts. It’s a mystery as to why he doesn’t use the weapon more often, but there have been times—most notably against Chan Sung Jung—when he used his wrestling to consistent success.
Adding in such wrinkles would certainly play dividends in slowing Holloway’s advances, but there have been no recent signs Aldo is willing to do it. Much as he’s abandoned his leg kicks in the last four fights, he doesn’t have a single takedown during the time, either. If he insists on fighting a diverse striker using only his hands, he is putting himself at a severe disadvantage.
In the last few years, the striking game in MMA has evolved to emphasize more activity, more dynamic footwork, more combination striking, stance switching and more. Holloway has been at the vanguard of the movement. Look at the way he attacked Anthony Pettis, going to both the head and body. Or the way he stepped into a stance-switch to land a pair of body shots to Cub Swanson. Or the four-piece combo he used on Aldo that marked the beginning of the end. To stay with Holloway, you have to be able to meet his diversity, power and pace.
It’s a tall order. On top of it, Holloway is still days shy of 26, meaning that he is only now about entering his athletic prime.
While I haven’t discussed the fighters’ ground games here, that’s only because there isn’t much to say. Aldo is jiu-jitsu black belt but has never had a submission win in the UFC. It’s an afterthought for him. Holloway has two career UFC subs, and has shown a sturdy and punishing top-game whenever he’s gotten the position. As it is, the fight is only likely to end up on the mat after a knockdown, as it did the first time around.
Right now, Holloway’s head of steam seems unstoppable. Aldo may be the best featherweight ever, but without some major adjustments to his approach, it’s hard to see the fight taking a different path when conditioning is likely to play such a major role. Holloway’s unpredictable and unrelenting strike patterns are made possible by his limitless gas tank, and unless Aldo can find a way to slow the pace, the rematch is going to look similar to the original. Expect Aldo early and Holloway late. If Holloway doesn’t get another stoppage, he’ll win it on the scorecards, and forever be able to boast two wins over a divisional god.