Max Holloway is perhaps the most interesting MMA fighter in the game today. While there are fighters like Frankie Edgar and Conor McGregor, who are no doubt skilled but don’t drastically change from fight to fight – Max Holloway has shown more growth as a fighter in a few short years than Conor McGregor has in a career.
While a fighter like McGregor was a finished product by the time he fought a young and inexperienced Max Holloway, since their first encounter, Max has grown to not only be a better fighter but into a completely different fighter altogether. Since that loss to McGregor, Holloway has gone undefeated, has become the only man to beat Jose Aldo twice (becoming the second UFC Featherweight to defend the title) and has beaten a who’s who of featherweights. He’s gone from a young fighter who was thrown to the wolves early in his career and overcame losses to become the second greatest featherweight in history and in this three part series we’re going to look at how he did it.
Max Holloway vs Conor McGregor
It’s only fitting to start with Holloway’s last loss. After being unfortunate enough to fight 11-1 featherweight Dustin Poirier in UFC debut, Holloway became ludicrously active fighting pretty much whoever he could until he came across McGregor.
Conor McGregor was and still is a fighter who needs a reach advantage to truly outclass an opponent. While known for his precision and timing, most of McGregor’s success as a striker comes from his ability to create collisions, flustering opponents into charging on to his left hand. He is a fighter who excels at simultaneous and delayed counters. The downside of this is that while McGregor CAN and does lead, McGregor has never looked nearly as good on the front foot as he does on the back, he lacks a potent jab or lead hook that could make him dangerous on the offence. As a result, McGregor has never knocked out an opponent taller than him.
While McGregor couldn’t knock him out, Max Holloway at this early stage in his career lacks the fantastic control of range and fearsome bodywork that would make him a scary match up for McGregor today. The bell rings for the first round and we see a Holloway who near exclusively stands in front of McGregor and headhunts with 1-2s, having virtually no punch variety.
McGregor clearly saw this, and looked to counter not only his punches, but his attempts to step forward. Whenever Max stepped in, Conor met him with a quick right hook or a quick snap kick. In one particularly nice instance we see McGregor adjust his guard, and Holloway promptly ran onto an elbow.
Conor’s great ability to read his opponents served him well here, as Holloway was not only predictable on the offence but when defending too. The Irishman would walk down and intercept Holloway whenever he could, although despite having the reach advantage, he was not able to do much damage as he reached up at the future champion.
At the start of the second round, Holloway begins to change his strategy. While he is known today as the best body puncher in the business, in this fight one of his few attempts at a body shot and was immediately countered. For the last five minutes he’d found himself jammed on the end of sidekicks to the knee but lacked the lateral movement to avoid them. Instead he does the next best thing and threw some of his own. While it certainly slowed McGregor down and made him more hesitant to fight, Holloway wasn’t bringing enough variety to mount any kind of useful offence. Eventually a failed attempt at a body kick saw him swept and from there, the rest of the next two rounds were contested on the ground.
And this would be the last time as of writing, that Max Holloway ever lost.
To summarise, against McGregor, Max Holloway was a very one dimensional fighter, he stood in front of his opponent and would just trade, with very little offensive output outside of basic 1-2 combos.
Max Holloway vs Will Chope
In his next fight, we already see considerable growth in Max Holloway, while he certainly doesn’t look like a superstar, we do see improvement in two fundamental areas. He now demonstrates the ability to circle out, and he is beginning to work the body more.
In the first round we see Holloway once again, head hunting with punches. This time however we are seeing him kick and knee the body on occasion. While they are largely spin kicks that are a little harder to land it’s still a good development. In this fight, Holloway was put into the unusual position of being the shorter man, as a result Holloway’s footwork had to be on point to outmanoeuvre the taller, rangier foe. Chope tries to find Holloway but Holloway simply circles away each time he is in trouble. He clearly outclasses his opponent in the first round.
Come the second round we see Holloway largely repeat his work from the first. We get a flurry against the cage in which Holloway targets the body twice, once with a punch and once again with a spin kick.
At this point in time Holloway only targets the body when his opponent is shelled up and isn’t particularly active looking for them, even if they are available. Unfortunately, Will Chope discovered that shelling up is about the worst thing you can do against Holloway, who looped hooks around his guard with surprising accuracy giving him the TKO in the second round.
Max Holloway vs Clay Collard
While in his previous fighters, Holloway had only made small adjustments, in the short time between fighting Will Chope and Clay Collard, Holloway had almost completely transformed into a different fighter. It was in this fight that Holloway really found his style, and from here on out, we would largely see technical improvements in order to improve upon his style.
From the opening bell Holloway knows to fade away from strikes and circle out to evade strikes much more smoothly than before. The big addition to his game though, and what made him famous is his use of switching stances.
While plenty of fighters have attempted stance switching, Max Holloway did so while actually understanding the basics of both stances.
If Collard attacked and Max would happily step into the opposite stance to let the technique fall short, and return with his own combination from his newly adopted stance.
And should his own technique fall short he could do exactly the same.
Round two saw one of the most important aspects of Max’s game to never really be talked about. His use of the clinch. In addition to using body kicks to wear down his opponent, Holloway would use the clinch, leaning on his opponent and spinning around outside them in a manner not unlike Vasyl Lomachenko to tire his opponent out further.
Max Holloway vs Cole Miller
A short fight against Akira Corrassani showed little other than Holloway flurrying against the cage while still being reluctant to throw body punches, but it was against Cole Miller where we saw real improvement. In a rare instance, Holloway found himself fighting at a severe reach disadvantage, a factor which no doubt forced him to get creative in his striking output. When Miller attempted to land punches, Holloway was happy to duck under and properly work the body.
In orthodox, it was more of the same from Holloway. He had one notable addition of a left body hook and right overhand combo (something that Miller never had an answer for), but once he switched to southpaw we saw the fantastic addition of the classic southpaw double attack. A left straight and left body kick. He would feint kicks and go to punches and mix up his left kick and punch to disguise a surprise left high kick.
At this point in his career, Holloway fully understood the southpaw outside angle far more than his opponent. He would step out to Miller’s left and strike with either his left straight or his body kick on repeat.
Despite this technical savvy, Holloway still has moments of recklessness, in the second round Holloway throws a spinning backfist, a flashy technique, but what made it genuinely impressive is that he instantly through a traditional hook as soon as his spin had ended. This prevented Miller from attacking while Holloway recouped from the spin. Unfortunately, towards the end of the fight Holloway stupidly throws a cartwheel kick, followed by two wheel kicks while clearly gassed.
One major technical improvement in Holloway’s game that is virtually never brought up is his fluid use of a neutral stance. A neutral stance being standing with feet shoulder width apart fully square on. This is the most effective stance for defensive lateral movement and it allowed Holloway to easily circle out and switch stance fluidly. While before Holloway would awkwardly shift into his new stance in a very obvious way, his use of a neutral stance allowed him to flow from orthodox to southpaw without telegraphing or putting himself off balance.
So far in Max Holloway’s streak, we’ve seen him go from a wild, scrappy striker with the knowledge of how to work the body, but without the discipline to continuously go there – to a crafty dedicated switch hitter and body snatcher. In a very short period, Holloway not only understood the best technique for switching, but how to fight effectively in either stance, knowing the tricks of the trade southpaws use all the time.
From here on out, the competition got tougher and Holloway would have to rise to the occasion each time. Join us for the next chapter in Holloway’s career next month, when we talk about how Holloway beat the elite.