A potentially long and treacherous road back to the top begins for Max Holloway this Saturday.
For the first time in 4 1/2 years, Holloway will not be competing in a world title fight; instead, he faces rising contender Calvin Kattar in the featherweight headliner of UFC Fight Island 7 in Abu Dhabi. A win for Kattar all but guarantees him a title shot in his next bout. The same can’t be said for Holloway.
“Blessed” is 0-2 against current 145-pound champion Alexander Volkanovski. The two losses came by decision, with the rematch at UFC 251 being a particularly bitter defeat to swallow as Holloway hurt Volkanovski early and arguably did enough to regain his crown.
Regardless, it’s rare to see trilogies made in the UFC when one half of the rivalry has already claimed a pair of victories, so how much work Holloway has left to do to earn another crack at Volkanovski is anybody’s guess.
(Then again, if Volkanovski loses the title to Brian Ortega in that yet-to-be-made-official matchup, then Holloway is a shoo-in. Holloway owns a dominant fourth-round TKO win over Ortega from back in 2018.)
Kattar picked up two huge wins in 2020, knocking out veteran brawler Jeremy Stephens and making the most of his second UFC main event by outpointing Dan Ige on Fight Island in July. He’s never shied away from tough competition and the matchmakers have rewarded him with an opportunity to claim Holloway’s spot. Now comes the most difficult part: taking it.
In other main card action, fan favorite welterweights Carlos Condit and Matt Brown clash in a Fight of the Night front-runner, welterweight contender Santiago Ponzinibbio returns from a two-year layoff to fight Li Jingliang, 2020 Breakout Fighter of the Year candidate Joaquin Buckley faces Alessio Di Chirico in a middleweight contest, and middleweight Contender Series signees Punahele Soriano and Dusko Todorovic put their undefeated records on the line.
What: UFC Fight Island 7
Where: Yas Island in Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, Jan. 16. The six-fight preliminaries begin at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN+, followed by the five-fight main card at 3 p.m. ET, which marks the UFC’s debut on ABC. The main card will also air on ESPN+.
Calvin Kattar has looked all the world like a legitimate world title contender. Now he gets to prove that he actually is one against Max Holloway, one of the best ever at 145 pounds.
There are tangible reasons for Kattar’s recent run of success. He’s in the best shape of his career, he’s found his finishing touch, and perhaps more importantly than all that he’s matured as a striker. Kattar’s always been able to do damage on the feet, but combine that with improved patience and accuracy and you have a serious threat to KO anyone.
Holloway isn’t just anyone. Blessed with an iron chin, Holloway thrives in almost any striking situation, whether it’s a technical back-and-forth battle or a wild brawl. Alexander Volkanovski learned the hard way that you can’t let up for a second when fighting Holloway, twice getting shook by “Blessed” in their second encounter. Kattar has to be at the top of his game for 25 minutes if he’s going to survive the Holloway experience, much less see his hand raised.
Both men have shown they can thrive in deep waters and the battle of wills will be as fascinating to watch as the battle of skills. Can Holloway get as fired up as he has been in his past title fights? Does Kattar have that extra gear to put down or at least outlast a world class opponent?
This is a spectacular main event to start the new year, one that should be close and competitive for five rounds. I’m still convinced Holloway is one of the three best featherweights in the world right now, so it’s difficult for me to predict that Kattar is ready to make the jump up to that level. Until proven otherwise, I think Holloway beats anyone not named Volkanovski at 145 pounds.
Better late than never.
Though that cliche can often be used derisively, in this case, I truly am grateful that we’re finally getting to see Carlos Condit and Matt Brown throw down. These two have been tied to a potential bout on a pair of occasions, dating all the way back to 2013, when Condit was still in the thick of the welterweight title picture and Brown was in the middle of a seven-fight win streak. They’re past their primes, but even at 70-80 percent of their best, that still makes them tougher than about 90 percent of the people on this planet.
This is an easy pick for me. Condit is the better striker and this fight should take place primarily on the feet. That’s no disrespect to Brown, who has won against plenty of solid standup fighters in his career, but Condit is a notch above the best that Brown has actually managed to beat. The speed of Condit, his varied striking arsenal, his tactical mind, all those factors have me liking Condit’s chances.
Brown rarely wins on points and I can’t picture him actually knocking Condit out cold, so that’s two outcomes that don’t feel like safe bets. I see this one going the distance with Condit earning a hard-fought, but convincing decision.
Is it too reductive to call this a matchup of technique vs. power?
Santiago Ponzinibbio has some pop and Li Jingliang is certainly a smarter striker than he was when he debuted with the UFC in 2014, but Ponzinibbio is known for his precision and expert distance control, two factors that could make this a short fight for Li. To Li’s credit, he’s extraordinarily tough and a threat to finish through all three rounds. He’s just going to have a rough time finding an angle to land consistently on Ponzinibbio.
Cage rust—if you believe in that sort of thing—could certainly be something to keep an eye on. Ponzinibbio has not fought in almost 800 days, a variety of maladies keeping him on the shelf. Could his health problems have a deleterious effect on his performance Saturday night? I don’t think so, but it bears mentioning.
As long as Ponzinibbio is back in good condition, he should win this one handily.
Speed kills. Joaquin Buckley is fast. You can see where this is going.
At the UFC level, there are rarely any squash matches, but that’s certainly what this looks like on paper. Alessio Di Chirico is a talented middleweight who, for whatever reason, just hasn’t been able to pull the trigger in his last three outings. He’s not getting blown out, but he’s not asserting himself either. That’s a dangerous headspace to be in when you’re lined up against an assassin like Buckley.
Buckley can’t afford to get off to a slow start though. Di Chirico has strong fundamentals and there’s no guarantees that he’ll fall into the same round two pitfalls as Jordan Wright and Impa Kasanganay. The experienced Italian has yet to be KO’d in 17 pro bouts.
I’m as high on Buckley as anyone, so as much as I respect how game Di Chirico is every time he goes out there, I do think Buckley will find the range at some point and turn his lights out. The hype train keeps on rolling.
After an uninspiring effort on the Contender Series that still earned him a contract, Dusko Todorovic reminded everyone why he’s a prized prospect with his TKO victory of Dequan Townsend in October. He’s strong as an ox, deceptively quick, an excellent clinch fighter, and he has a young man’s chin with which to absorb plenty of shots.
Opposite Todorovic is Puna Soriano, whose quickness I would not describe as deceptive; if anything, his explosiveness is obvious to anyone who’s caught even a glimpse of his fights. He’ll look to take Todorovic’s head off as soon as the bell rings and Todorovic will have to keep it on a swivel to avoid the stinging bombs of Soriano.
If Todovoric is even slightly staggered by anything Soriano throws, Soriano will turn the offense up to 11 right away. On the other hand, if Todorovic can weather the storm, his more well-rounded game will give him the advantage as the fight goes on.
Someone’s 0 has got to go and I expect it will be Todorovic who stays unbeaten by decision or submission.