The Severe Spotlight: Max Holloway

UFC 300 was everything it should have been.

The card began with a fight worthy of a main event on a Fight Night card as Deiveson Figueredo choked Cody Garbrandt in the second round. Jim Miller added yet another line to the history books with his rugged fountain pen dipped in crimson dropping a gritty, tough loss to Bobby Green. A rising star in Diego Lopes continues his ascent to the stratosphere with a dynamite couple of minutes against Sodiq Yusuff. Kayla Harrison blew the doors off her UFC debut in a destruction of Holly Holm. Aljamain Sterling successfully moved up to 145lb, before Aleksandar Rakić and Jiří Procházka went to war for a round and change.

That was just the prelims.

The main card saw Bo Nickal truck Cody Brundage. Arman Tsarukyan looked every bit a champion against Charles Oliveria. A Weili Zhang domination got lost in the sea of carnage created by Alex Pereira’s left hook from the pits of hell. But before all of that, in the first of three main events for this monumental card sat the star that shone the brightest.

Max “Blessed” Holloway.

A career carved out in blood at 145lb saw Holloway rise to the apex of the division, and reign supreme in some of the greatest years the division has ever seen. Hix elite mix of long, rangy volume striking, rotating through his opponents like a circular saw. Prior to one of the most epic trilogies in UFC history, with P4P great Alexander Volkanovski, Holloway took an interim title-fight up a weight class against The Diamond, Dustin Poirier.

In that fight, the size and physicality of Poirier was a factor, questions circled as to what Max could look like if he put the time in out of the Octagon to add some size to his 5”11 frame, to better equip him for the 155lb division.

The Hawaiian took 231 days between his destruction of Chang Sung Jung, and whilst during fight week did not seem to have made vast changes to his physique, as he stepped into the cage to square off with Justin Gaethje, his physique did not seem out of place.

The fight was contested for the “BMF” title. Whilst this is a gimmick title, created to draw more PPV buys for the generation of revenue for the UFC. There is an underlying philosophy that should be discussed. The BMF title represents a breed of fighter, that in a world of outliers, take that to another extreme. Nathan Diaz, Jorge Masvidal, Dustin Poirer, Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway.

That short list of names, in many fans minds and hearts represents the ideal of MMA. Each of those names represents steadfast individuality, unpersuadable rhetoric, rich and iconic stories, longevity, skill, perseverance, star power and above all, a willingness for extreme violence.

The Blessed Express began the first round by stamping an immediate gameplan on the fight.

His usual blueprint in fights is to be the pressure forward facing striker. Using his range, using his leg length and using his fantastic cage cutting footwork, the straight shots of Max Holloway slice through most of his opponent’s defensive guards. His feints illicit the reactions he needs, and he finds angles to land his molten landslide of shots.

Justin Gaethje offers a different problem. Justin prefers to cut angles from a square stance, switching between southpaw and orthodox, he has fast, powerful hammer hooks, and a mean thudding right straight. The leg kicks of Gaethje are one of his strongest weapons, he steps deep into the pocket, arching his knees high and turning his entire hip and core through the low leg kick, it is a devastating offering.

From the get-go, Max took the pressure counter striker moniker and did so largely moving backwards. He always ensured that there was double the usual distance between him and his opponent, as this now asked a very specific question of both fighters, who had the better footwork, and the better entrances to the pocket? Max set this range play up so that Justin had to cover so much more distance with his explosive entrances, that time was on Max’s side – the efficacy of the low kick was diminished as Max could read what was coming, the looping hooks the same, and it allowed Max a choice in almost every exchange – do I throw my straight shots, which will beat the hooks of Gaethje to the punch? Do I circle out and reset, or do I jam him with body kicks, and spinning sidekicks?

Truly, this was a masterful adjustment to see not just play out, but to play out over 24 minutes and 59 seconds.

The first round was a masterclass in all the above, the stall was set out for Max Holloway early, the laser focus and the consistency of delivery was astounding. Gaethje was taken aback, it seems as though he was expecting a fight akin to the Dustin Poirer fights, or the Eddie Alvarez fight – both men standing almost exclusively in the pocket and trading until someone fell. Instead, he found himself chasing, his nose bludgeoned by the straights of Max Holloway, he found his guts bruised and his ribs sore as Max peppered him, punishing his attempted entrances.

The second round saw the first major adjustment for Holloway. He came out with a much lighter lead leg, due to some of the fantastic leg kick work from Gaethje in the first stanza. Having had a successful five-minute implementation of his gameplan, he added a secondary strand. Every time he passed the back tramline of the Octagon, he would offer something to Gaethje, a body jab, a right straight and immediately reset back into the centre of the cage, taking a pace or two backwards.

The reads from Holloway kept accumulating. Max began to counter the low kick of Justin with a stiff body jab, or a body kick. Max began to slam instep stamp kicks to the knees when he felt the outer realms of the pocket be breached to slow his opponent down.

The third saw Max take a more forward-facing approach. Having largely reduced the volume of output from Justin to the low kicks, seldom jabs and the occasional overhand right when Gaethje caught Max out of step with his footwork – the confidence began to grow to put the foot on the gas a little more. Teeps became a large part of the arsenal of both men from the third, Justin realising he needed something longer range to keep Max away, and Max still needing to maintain a distance he was comfortable with, regardless of his change in approach.

One of the more poignant moments was Max Holloway allowing an edge of fun to creep into what had been a cold, steeled performance of measurement and focus. A beautiful 1-2 close to the cage wall stumbled Justin back toward the fence, Max slowed and measured his targets reactions, seeing the right hand begin to chamber he immediately spins on a dime and slams a side kick into the body of Gaethje, nullifying the right hand and forcing Justin to angle out. Max throws a right high kick here, looking to close the exit door with a shin. Gaethje expertly rolls under it and looks to counter with a right hand – Max has seen it from a mile away and take the wind from the shot with a left hook to the body. A brief pocket exchange see’s Max unleash a lighting fast 3 punch combination that flashes Justin to the mat for a split second.

This tells us something about where Max was in the lead up to this fight, the seriousness with which he undertook the challenge, the increase in weight, the difficult of the opponent. It also tells us something of the internal dialogue happening, an allowance of release, a relaxation of some of the strictness of the gameplan, beautiful.

The fourth round allowed for us to see the undeniable heart and grit of Justin Gaethje. A severely damaged nose, 15 minutes in the books of punishment and yet here he is, reduced to the foundations of who he is; a fighter.

Justin looked to close the distance by any means necessary in the fourth, the low kicks landed even if punished by Holloway. Holloway’s range play added a new layer, he could now bait Justin into throwing and angle out, leaving himself with a choice as to whether to enter the pocket or to stay at range. A beautiful elbow to knee inside the pocket showed Max’s additions.

The fifth round is a poetic display of the beauty, the power, and the uniqueness of MMA. The storyline of the first three rounds was a dominant, tactical, destructive display by Holloway. The fourth a desperate push for a comeback by Gaethje. The momentum pendulum swings hard back in the favour of the Hawaiian as he sprints to the centre of the cage for the final five minutes of the contest.

The first 30 seconds see’s sniping of jabs from the bunkers of both camps. Hawaii lands the first meaningful blow with a clean 1-2 down the pipe. For a moment he thinks to jump on Gaethje, but the gameplan rushes over him and he resets – deeply impressive calmness. His moment for rushing in comes sooner rather than later.

Gathje lands a big right hand that Max feels is going to cause him to spin, in that split second, he makes a choice to use the momentum against Gaethje, spinning and landing a crushing side kick to the body of Gaethje that causes a visible wince. A huge double right hand follows that up in the next exchange, sending Gaethje wobbling backwards toward the cage wall. Holloway swarms, for a second Gathje drops to his hands before retreating to the cage wall, covering up, in survival mode.

Max rips uppercuts to the chin, devastating hooks to the body, a clean knee, and vicious straight shots to the already bludgeoned nose. Another spinning back kick threatens to put Gaethje out of the fight then and there, but the insane toughness of the American drags him through to a reset in the centre. Holloway smartly does not chase the finish here, knows there is still another 2.5 minutes to go, and anything can happen.

Tipping his hat fully to the fun, we see Holloway pull out a jump spinning side kick as a counter to the low kick of Gaethje.

We reach the final 20 seconds of the fight, Holloway staring down the barrel of a shutout performance, and Justin Gaethje throws a rolling thunder. That rolling thunder crashes into the cage wall as Holloway takes the right sided exit door, but he motions to Justin Gaethje to meet him in the middle for the final 10 seconds, no backing up, shut the phone booth door and see who makes it out. THIS IS MAX HOLLOWAY.

Max Holloway makes it out as he smashes the receiver over the head with an overhand right from the pits of hell. Justin Gaethje, face down on the floor of the canvas, lifeless. Max Holloway aloft, a war cry echoing from the barrel of his stomach, lost in the sea of noise from a baying T-Mobile arena. The souls of the Hawaiian warriors rang out from the fibrous depths of Holloways lungs, reverberated around the arena as a signal that after that level of performance, on a night like that, on a stage and card like that, Max Holloway can still drop you dead with a single second left.

The best is Blessed.

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