At UFC 212, the changing of the featherweight guard was completed, courtesy of now-undisputed champion #MaxHolloway.
The Hawaiian has slowly developed into a master tactician, displaying marked improvement on a fight-to-fight basis, but many doubted that it would be enough. #JoseAldo is not only the greatest featherweight in the sport’s history, but one of its greatest fighters regardless of weight class, completely unrivaled as a technician.
Early, that solid bedrock of technical skill which defines Aldo’s game appeared to trouble the younger man. Opening in an orthodox stance, Holloway probed from range with jabs, showing several different timings while seeking an opening. The first such opening he keyed in on was a vulnerability in Aldo’s defense as he circled; Aldo was circling right almost exclusively, and Holloway first attempted to find space for the left hook by stepping diagonally towards Aldo’s destination. He would find little here, but capitalized on this opening yet again a few moments later, as Aldo circled right off of a clinch break, directly into “Blessed’s” left hand.
The first impactful moment of the fight came at the halfway point of the first round. Out of nowhere, Aldo staggered Holloway with a left hook, followed swiftly by a right cross, and another hook.
The left hook is a favorite weapon of Aldo's, and Holloway had shown it great respect to that point, maintaining a high right hand with a focus on defense, but the speed and angle of the hook seemed to take him by surprise. He did, in fact, raise his right arm to block in time, but the strike was so compact that it never made contact with Holloway’s arm, instead clubbing across his face as the Hawaiian looked on, visibly startled.
Both men were uncharacteristically limited in their approaches; Holloway did little in the way of switching stances, while Aldo threw few kicks, resulting in an orthodox vs. orthodox boxing match for the majority of the bout. The first round was Aldo’s, as many predicted; he is strongest towards the beginning of a fight, while Holloway builds momentum over time.
The second round continued many of the themes of the previous stanza. Both men used swift jabs, high and to the body, to negate the offense of the other. Holloway was consistently dissuaded from aggressively committing to engagements by Aldo's wicked counters. As a result, the early goings saw little in the way of combination punching, an outcome which was most certainly detrimental to Holloway. He, on paper, shouldn’t want to negate Aldo’s volume and slow the pace, he should want to impose his own volume and push the pace ferociously.
Two minutes into the second round, something changed. A left hook once again caught Aldo as the then-champion circled out, and from this point forward, Holloway committed more heavily to engagements, perhaps finding a sense for Aldo’s timing. A lead right hand found its mark, and he began to have success baiting Aldo’s counters and pulling back, before stepping into the pocket with combinations.
Where Holloway undoubtedly had more success than Aldo was on the reset. Throughout the bout, he was able to find openings for offense during resets and clinch-breaks, and even though little of it was significant, this formed the bulk of his output until he developed a sense for the timing of Aldo’s counters.
Some brief Stockton antics on the part of Holloway provided a theatrical ending to the round; a close one, this time.
By the third round, the bout had undergone a clear momentum shift. The previously timid Holloway bounced with an impassioned energy. He walked the Brazilian down with punching combinations, and forced tie-ups just to land offense on the break. Eventually, the ferocity of Holloway’s attack paid dividends.
He feinted subtly with his left hand, before committing to a jab-cross combination, thudding into Aldo’s skull. A half-beat later, a counter left from Aldo found nothing but air, and that same combination connected yet again, this time sending the all-time great crashing to the canvas.
Holloway pounced into guard before passing to mount as Aldo frantically tried to escape out the back. Bucking his hips, he managed to escape mount, but he was still badly disoriented, as follow-up strikes found his chin on the ground.
The Hawaiian never allowed him to reset. He aggressively attempted to pass guard, which Aldo defended well, but as he defended the pass, he was eating strikes, and he found himself faced with two terrible options: give up mount, or receive flush punches.
It seemed, for a time, as though he would recover, but the cumulative damage was too much. A pair of standing right hands landed on the point of Aldo’s chin. Hurt, he was quickly mounted, his back soon taken. Aldo fended off a choke, but this exchange seemed to alert Holloway as to extent of the damage the champion had suffered.
Holloway abandoned the position, standing over his foe yet again and raining down strikes. After once more taking back-mount, he focused only on ground striking, and referee “Big” John McCarthy soon called a halt to the contest.
Aldo’s tolerance for punishment seemed inhuman, but even pride as great as his cannot keep a mortal frame tethered to consciousness.
There was undeniable ugliness here, the bitter reality of an all-time great’s last hurrah, but there was also sublime beauty. Both men were, frankly, magnificent in all phases, with the sort of grace and tactical depth which can only be witnessed between two of the most skilled fighters ever to grace an Octagon.
The Aldo Era was wonderful. Long live the Blessed Era.