Holloway vs. Volkanovsk

Max Holloway vs. Alexander Volkanovski co-headlines UFC 245 this December 14, 2019 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada, United States.

One sentence summary
David: Making a list. Check-left-hooking it twice

Phil: Blessed throws down with down-under’s doughtiest disputant

Stats
Record: Max Holloway 21-4 | Alexander Volkanovski 20-1

Odds: Max Holloway -175 | Alexander Volkanovski +155

History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Holloway’s 28?! Damn. I often forget that he fought Conor McGregor while he was carried in a portable bassinet. Which makes McGregor’s accomplishment of fighting 18-wheeler-sized Nate Diaz (if you believed Dana White’s incredulity) pale by comparison. Holloway is the octagon man without fear. Not only is he defending his title, but he’s put his reputation on the line going up in weight. All this does is add to the Holloway mystique. I’m glad Edgar was his last fight because it feels like the deserved reprieve (no disrespect to Edgar) from the usual diet of heavy-handed strikers he’s been dealing with.

Phil: Holloway has been nothing more or less than the epitome of an action fighter on his way up through the ranks, from his slobberknocker with Leonard Garcia way back in the day, to his point-and-dare brawl with Ricardo Lamas, to that blood and guts slugfest with Poirier. So, like you said, it was something of a relief to see him take his foot off the accelerator for once, and have a clean, relatively safe points battle with Frankie Edgar. It gave me a bit more faith that Holloway’s championship career won’t be defined by burning brightly and briefly.

David: I didn’t see Volkanovski coming up. Volkanovski is like a lot of high-level technicians: just as they do against opponents, they sneak up on you. You could see the elements of his game that make him difficult to fight against, but not impressive enough to dominate. Even against Mendes, I wasn’t quite convinced. Mendes had AV on the run for a second there. That bout felt more like a tale of guts, germs, and steal rather than the starting point of an elite fighter’s journey. Then the Aldo fight happened. We’ll talk a lot about AV’s game and what makes him so special, but for now I just want to stand corrected. My view of AV always came from the perspective of a “hardcore” fan. “The director’s cut is way better,” I told myself incorrectly — think Blade Runner — failing to realize that Volkanovski is more than just the sum of his craft. He’s a cool groove, and dangerous AF.

Phil: Volkanovski is another one of those fighters who comes up without obvious blue-chip pedigrees (D1 or Olympic wrestling credentials, ADCC, striking accolades etc), and who has to prove his quality by simply beating very good opposition. He’s developed from being a pure pressure grappler and ground’n’pound fighter with some crafty and functional striking, and seems like a genuinely nice guy to boot. His “nothing wrong with being a nerd and a virgin” line got more appreciation than any line Covington has come up with, with a fraction of the effort.

What’s at stake?
David: The fate of the world. Just like in Mortal Kombat. Holloway can either cement his status as one of the best featherweights ever, or we are welcomed into the Volkanovski Era (per Joe Rogan, of course).

Phil: After the Edgar fight, it seems like Holloway can make featherweight (for now), so the question is basically that ephemeral one of legacy.

Where do they want it?
David: Holloway is a beauty in the center of the cage. He’s good everywhere else, but what separates Holloway from the pack is that he’s something of a dual threat: able to fire bullets from afar, or wield that Tommy Lee Jones magic from The Hunted, close quarter violence style. Not only does he jab, and strike in combination, but he does both while shifting in and out of placement. Or shifting stances. I think part of what makes his striking so dangerous is that his boxing is more than just a description; his style forces opponents into a tangible boxing match, complete with the attrition experience that mixed martial artists aren’t used to. Whether to the head or the body, he’s always active, and always giving maximum effort. He’s also become virtually impossible to take down while being a much-improved grappler. Sure he was mounted by McGregor, but the fact that he would later mount Aldo is telling to how seriously he takes the overall profile of a mixed martial artist. And yes, I know both grappling incidents occurred after heavy exchanges. Still…I think the big test for Holloway here is whether or not his style can evolve with his body’s natural decline. I know this decline stuff has been overblown, but the Poirier fight was brutal (though highly competitive), and the Edgar fight was telling.

Phil: Holloway is pretty much the most evolved offensive striker in the sport. He gradates his power, comes in at subtle angles, changes up his rhythm, and constantly mixes the three attributes together. He has one of MMA’s best chins, an inexhaustible gas tank, and has become a strong grappler and clinch fighter in his own right, prioritizing grip fighting and striking off breaks. His only small weaknesses have come from his own deep faith in his chin’s indestructibility, and the fact that when he is finally pushed back, he tends to do so without much regard for defensive nuance. Other than this, Blessed is pretty much a buzzsaw that steadily builds up into a crescendo.

David: I mentioned before AV’s unique craftsmenship. What stands out about Volkanovski is his ability to be both a pressure fighter, as well as a counter fighter. It’s one thing to shift in and out of styles. To pressure in one moment, and then counter in another. It’s another to form a double helix with multiple styles, as Volkanovski does. His pressure is simply the bloody yin to his leg-ripping yang. As he pressures with feints, and lead leg kicks, he relies on what his opponents give him. If they back up, he marches forward. If they attack, he resets or lands the counter. Volkanovski isn’t especially powerful. But he’s constantly moving. He’s always on the prowl, inside and outside the pocket. One of the rare moments of clarity and insight in the commentary booth of a UFC event was Volkanovski’s fight against Chad Mendes. Dominick Cruz began talking about comfort level, and how much energy Mendes was spending simply reacting to raw movement. I thought that was interesting, and worth pointing out because not only is it something I consider to be accurate, but it also highlights the unique Red Herring style that is Volkanovski. In terms of pure mechanics, Volkanovski isn’t one of the best or anything. He’s got quick, snapping punches, and his leg kicks are quick. Overall he’s primarily a fighter of proliferation, growing his arsenal out of existing material, and letting it expand as he gains more information. He does not, however, own the kind of guns that can end a fight like this.

Phil: Volkanovski has developed from a physical presence into someone who can make his presence felt without physical commitment. The diet of feints he fed Jose Aldo was initially comical: an overdone collection of shoulder jiggles and stomps as he wiggled his way into range. However, as the fight went on, they settled down and slipped away, and he started to sneak small and unheralded shots in. He built up a points lead, and then suddenly rushed in to pin Aldo against the fence. Aldo seemed shocked by the sheer mercenary gall of this plan, yet even when he started to swing against Volkanovski, the Aussie was able to handle himself in the exchanges. He doesn’t have the depth of Holloway’s skillset, but the pieces that he has are all high-percentage (jab, cross counter, left hook, catch-and-pitch and slipping counters) and he’s still an immensely strong and tireless fighter who can probably outwork pretty much anyone on the roster in tie-ups. If he shifts gears into a more aggressive mode, Volkanovski has shown himself to be a fearless, tough pressure fighter whose punching power on the feet has steadily caught up with his power on the mat.

Insight from past fights
David: Oh boy. This section could be its own article. I’ll start with the Aldo fights. Where Holloway was able to blitz a prime Aldo with range attacks and swarming punctuation, Volkanovski was able to make a faded Aldo flinch for five rounds. I know that makes it sound like Volkanovski was terrible, or something, but it’s not faint praise. Volkanovski was able to lull Aldo into a false sense of confidence, creating malaise instead of urgency with his movement, and lead leg attack. That takes skill. And it’s the kind of approach that happens a lot: think Jake Shields over Henderson, or GSP over Penn, etc. Fundamentals are a lost art. When your sport has high profile coaches actively rejecting simple basics, that kind of stuff trickles down. Volkanovski takes full advantage of this, and better yet; he has a broad scope of options to keep opponents guessing. I suspect that even a prime Aldo would have had trouble dealing with AV’s Will He Or Won’t He throw that punch/kick. Meanwhile, Holloway’s fight with Edgar says a lot about what happens when Holloway overthinks his strategy. I think the question for most people is whether or not Holloway felt he needed to adjust to Edgar’s style as a matter of tactics, or as a possible sign of his peak production window closing.

Phil: Both of these men are blood’n’guts action fighters who had measured, point-winning performances against aging veterans in their last fights. I think the main thing is that they both know they can’t do that again: they both know that the guy they are facing is something different when it comes to the level of pace and commitment required by the modern game.

X-Factors
David: Nothing worth mentioning here. After all, neither one of these guys cut off their legs to make a lower weight like Aldo.

Phil: One thing which did surprise me is that while Volkanovski is much shorter than Holloway, he actually has a slightly longer reach. It means that Edgar-Holloway fight in particular might be a bit less illustrative than we thought.

Prognostication
David: I just think the key here is Holloway being able to use his reach and punish Volkanovski from range. As good as Volk is, he’s not the kind of fighter who can threaten with power at range. Even as he’s able to bait out certain strikes, he can’t close the gap with the type of aplomb he’ll need to win this bout. Max Holloway by TKO, round 4.

Phil: I’ve been immensely impressed with Volkanovski’s adaptability, and there is a gameplan here for here: push Holloway back with combinations and force him into the fence, rinse and repeat. The question is how he starts those combinations: I don’t think he can blitz, and can he survive long jab exchanges with one of the most adaptable lead hand fighters around? I think it’s going to be bloody but Max Holloway by unanimous decision.

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