We really should have seen this one coming, but all is not lost.
Max Holloway, as incredible a talent as he is, and as brave and laudable a decision this was, is surely walking to his grave, here, right? He’s taking this fight on less than a week’s notice and giving up size to a fighter known for his disproportional might and Marvel-series-on-Netflix strength. Holloway isn’t known for his ground game; he was last defeated by being out-wrestled by Conor McGregor struggling through a blown out knee. He doesn’t have Ferguson’s reach advantage–an advantage he usually has over opponents at 145 pounds–and has no reputation as a power puncher.
Does this young man stand any chance at all at being the first to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov?
With all the talk about Holloway’s footwork and shifting stances, you’d be forgiven for expecting more of an outfighter, someone who looks more like Dominick Cruz. Holloway, though, really likes to be just outside the pocket, where he attacks with relatively safe but surprisingly creative strikes until he can get you to respond and do what he does best: counter.
While Tony Ferguson had his reach, power, awkward style and dangerous grappling, Holloway has the one thing Ferguson really needed, which is an incredible sense of distance, space, and the ability to predict an opponent’s next move and counter. Even when Holloway becomes more stationary, like in his last two fights with Aldo, he’s usually holding the better positioning.
Watch how deep Holloway is able to hop out to the side, essentially utilizing the much lauded “Loma hop” and creating a dominant angle, giving Swanson no place to hide. Holloway clearly wants to create a an opposite stance engagement here, because the moment Swanson switches stances, Holloway follows suit, much like Chael Sonnen wisely did when looking for the double leg against Anderson Silva.
Silva favored the southpaw stance for several reasons, but chief among them were because it allowed him to create more space between him and his opponent, helping him to control the distance. He’d feed a wrestling opponent the lead leg for a single, which was much easier to defend than a double leg–a strategy the Hawaiian would do well to emulate.
Holloway’s fight with Jeremy Stephens, a stronger opponent who winged haymakers while trying to force him to the ground, was a masterclass in distance. When Stephens was able to pin him against the cage, Holloway maintained wrist control and prevented the body lock, Nurmagomedov’s bread and butter. The one time Stephens put his hands together, Holloway was still able to prevent the takedown. This doesn’t mean that he’ll be able to do the same against Nurmagomedov, however, but it’s promising.
On the ground, when Holloway ends up on top, he generally prefers ground and pound over submissions or position. He postures up or stands over his man, attempting to control one arm while teeing off with his free hand–the Nurmagomedov’s whole game. Perhaps having a similar approach to the ground will give him some insight on how to prevent it from turning against him.
Holloway can do so many of the things that seem necessary to defeat the undefeated Dagestani wrecking machine. He maintains distance and counters well, circles out, attacks the body, fights long and without telegraphing his moves, and has shown strategic and tactical wisdom beyond his years. But it remains to be seen how well he does against such a good wrestler, not to mention one whom he will not have many physical advantages over.
Certainly a win here would catapult him into stardom. If he defeats arguably the most terrifying man on the UFC roster on six days notice, capturing two belts in a fashion even more impressive than McGregor’s, there is little chance the UFC will waste time booking a winnable fight for the Irishman, which will line Holloway’s pockets for years to come.
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