UFC 212’s main event is, quite possibly, the most compelling featherweight bout in the history of the sport.
Undisputed champion #JoseAldo remains not only the most accomplished fighter in his division’s history, but an all-time great among all-time greats, rightfully mentioned in any discussion of the best ever.
#MaxHolloway, meanwhile, represents the best of a new generation of featherweights. Deceptively experienced for his 25 years, the Hawaiian made his promotional debut in 2012 to a trial by fire; in his first six bouts, the largely inexperienced prospect went 3-3, this alone serving as a testament to his potential. Since a 2013 loss to #ConorMcGregor, he has looked almost flawless, winning 10-consecutive bouts while hardly conceding a round.
As a technician, Aldo’s game is widely known. He is an orthodox Dutch-stylist, possessing ungodly power in his low kicks, which he can throw singularly or in combination, both naked and behind several set-ups, depending on his opponent’s responses. In recent years, notably since his first bout with former lightweight champion #FrankieEdgar, he has come to rely more heavily on the jab, which has opened up his combination punching game tremendously.
Aldo has always made great use of the left hook, often using it as a set-up for his right low kick. His preferred target is the liver, and he will throw it repeatedly at an opponent’s head in order to encourage them to raise their hands, before hammering in a liver shot and low kick combination.
This speaks to the core of Aldo’s identity as a fighter; his technical mastery of basic striking tools allows him to play a deeply layered game, presenting opponents with multiple looks and forcing them to adjust on the fly. In the game of adjustments, there has not yet been a man to challenge Aldo’s dominance.
And if an opponent is considering his grappling acumen, they’ve probably already lost. Aldo’s takedown defense is lauded, considered (rightfully) to be unrivaled, but he possesses a deeply technical wrestling game from both an offensive and defensive perspective, frequently taking skilled defensive wrestlers down with relative ease.
On the ground, Aldo is positionally excellent, a result of his championship-level #BJJ background, and is exceedingly difficult to sweep. More than that, he is almost impossible to hold down; no one has had any real success against Aldo in the grappling department, with the dubious exception of Mark Hominick, who mounted and bloodied an exhausted, ill Aldo at UFC 129.
Max Holloway is a special kind of striker. Defensively, he is superb, holding a high guard with which he parries and blocks well, but like Aldo, there are several layers to his defense. Before blocking, he’ll slip strikes with head and trunk movement. Before slipping, he’ll choose to cut an angle and avoid incoming shots entirely. As with Aldo, grapplers have been able to mount very little in the way of meaningful offense against Holloway in recent years. He is quick and efficient, digging for underhooks on shooting opponents while drawing his hips away from them, and immediately creating space before circling out.
These defensive options bring us to the core of Holloway’s game and his greatest strength: engagement. Holloway’s defensive savvy allows him to probe safely from the outside, attempting different angles, different strikes, different entries. It is very difficult to punish this probing, and thus, it is very difficult to produce meaningful offense against him until he commits.
The problem for his opponents is that he is prodigiously good at choosing when and how to commit; he aggressively pursues defensive openings, but he is not in love with aggression, and will abandon it as soon as an opening has closed, or the risk of return fire is too great. If an opponent grants him a favorable angle, he will take it and strike without a moment’s delay. If that same opponent adjusts and prepares to strike back, they’ll find nothing but empty space in front of them. Many fighters attempt to do this, but it is exceedingly difficult, requiring the ability to instantaneously make good decisions within the tightest of windows.
Making an incorrect choice can prove costly, but doing so is an inevitability for any fighter. If a fighter is forcing optimal engagements more than half of the time, they are exceedingly good decision-makers. Holloway’s poor engagements in any given fight can usually be counted on one hand.
This may prove problematic for Aldo. The #NovaUniao product is the king of neutral space, chewing opponents up with kicks to limit their movement, forcing them to stand directly in front of him where his combination striking game is at its best. Holloway is a ghost in neutral space. Where you expect to find him is the last place he’ll be.
Fortunately for the Brazilian, his footwork is so diverse that he does not need to lull opponents into standing in front of him. In his rematch with Chad Mendes, the American was active in circling away from Aldo’s power strikes, checking many of his low kicks in the process.
Forced to rely on his auxiliary tools, he amped up his aggression, pursuing Mendes into the pocket with quick strides to the outside, cutting off his escape routes with tight hooks and round kicks. As much as he thrives in open space, he is similarly overwhelming in the pocket.
Everything Aldo does, he does with exceptional skill. Every strike is crisp, transferring his weight seamlessly even at the end of long combinations. His head movement is as close to flawless as one could envision. While he accepts more engagements than Holloway, he is still frustratingly difficult to hit cleanly.
In such a closely matched battle of defensive masterminds, neither is likely to concede takedowns with any regularity, and the striking battles may come down entirely to initiation.
When Aldo and Holloway trade leather, the one who initiates the engagement is most likely to come out on top, as each man is so skilled at not only choosing advantageous opportunities to commit, but knowing when to disengage.
The battle between featherweight's defensive masters is a game of inches, where every landed blow is a minor victory, and layers of offense will peel away at layers of defense until one man's bag of tricks is exhausted. What makes this fight singularly gripping is that the tactical savvy of both men has so far proven inexhaustible.
Championships are important, and a unification bout between the best representatives of two generations of featherweights is a marquee event, but strip all that away, and the luster of the showdown is undiminished. What separates Aldo vs. Holloway from the pack is that each man's brilliance is the primary appeal. The belt doesn't matter. The rankings don't matter. Jose Aldo and Max Holloway are two of the greatest technicians ever to grace a steel cage. That's all that matters.
UFC 212: Aldo vs. Holloway Fight Card
Pay Per View Main Card (10 P.M. EST/7 P.M. PST)
- Jose Aldo vs. Max Holloway - featherweight title unification bout
- Claudia Gadelha vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
- Vitor Belfort vs. Nate Marquardt
- Paulo Borrachinha vs. Oluwale Bamgbose
- Erick Silva vs. Yancy Medeiros
FOX Sports 1 Prelims (8 P.M. EST/5 P.M. PST)
- Raphael Assuncao vs. Marlon Moraes
- Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Eric Spicely
- Johnny Eduardo vs. Matthew Lopez
- Iuri Alcantara vs. Brian Kelleher
UFC Fight Pass Prelims (6:30 P.M. EST/3:30 P.M. PST)
- Viviane Pereira vs. Jamie Moyle
- Luan Chagas vs. Jim Wallhead
- Marco Beltran vs. Deiveson Figueiredo