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Some of the best remembered moments in MMA history are the times when there has been a genuine changing of the guard. When Georges St. Pierre knocked out Matt Hughes with a head kick, it marked the end of the era in which Hughes was the welterweight king and began the St. Pierre era. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was dominant in the Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight division -- until Fedor Emelianenko came along and proved to be Nogueira’s kryptonite. Emelianenko ruled the heavyweight division for years to come. Rich Franklin had worked his way to the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight division before Anderson Silva violently ended his run at the top. Those moments carry greater significance and thus stand out more than your average title change.
The fact that a changing of the guard tends to be so well remembered masks the fact that it’s much more common for it to seem to have occurred than to have actually occurred. The Lyoto Machida era was supposed to have begun with his knockout of Rashad Evans, but “The Dragon” then ran into Mauricio Rua and was never champion again. Mark Coleman’s victory over Dan Severn was supposed to represent the rise of a new dominant star, but Coleman was shockingly upset by Maurice Smith in his very next fight. Holly Holm’s brutal demolition of Ronda Rousey did not portend the rise of a new dominant force in a division, nor did Anthony Pettis’ Wheaties box indicate the next elite champion was on the way.
If these sorts of seeming generational shifts often prove to be illusory, the question then becomes what to make of Max Holloway’s knockout victory over longtime featherweight king Jose Aldo at UFC 212 on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. It was an excellent win, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it reflects a long-term trend in the sport. Was it a point in time that will be remembered years from now for a new elite champion taking out his predecessor, or was it a singular performance that will fade from memory as the featherweight title bounces around from fighter to fighter?
There’s good reason to believe we may be witnessing something special with Holloway. To begin with, he passes the eye test. His speed, movement and athleticism present problems for all opponents. His long body and striking-oriented style are attributes that have become increasingly successful in MMA. He has a fighter’s disposition, to boot, confident in his ability and unflappable when presented with danger. The tools are all there.
Perhaps more importantly, Holloway appears to be peaking. Holloway got into MMA and has made key improvements over time. Unlike boxing, where young competitors are led along slowly and build up gaudy records, many of MMA’s all-time greats took challenges early and fell short before putting it all together. Those early setbacks can help pave the way for future success. That was true of Aldo, as well as the likes of Silva and Bas Rutten. Holloway has over time clearly gotten better in the Octagon, and he’s still only 25. He’s likely to get even more dangerous in the next few years, which is a problem for challengers looking to chase him.
While Holloway has room to grow, he has proven plenty already. He wasn’t handed anything and had to work his way to the title by stringing together wins against increasingly difficult opposition. That sort of rise builds confidence. Eleven wins in a row is an extreme rarity in the UFC, and Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Ricardo Lamas and Anthony Pettis are among the stiff challenges he had to triumph against on his way to Aldo. Holloway is a proven commodity at the highest level, even if he hasn’t established dominance over the rest of the division yet.
There may be plenty of room for optimism, but nothing is promised in a sport as turbulent as MMA and there are reasons for caution in particular with Holloway. He doesn’t have one dominant skill as longtime dominant champions usually have. His striking is his greatest asset, but Aldo won the first two rounds in the standup against him on most scorecards. He’s unlikely to try to ground the best strikers in the division, but it isn’t any sort of certainty he could outstrike anyone in the weight class, which is not a great combination.
Beyond that, there’s the timeless obstacle for any fighter trying to build a standout resume: the next opponent in line. No matter how great any fighter is, another superior fighter can emerge in his division. That’s particularly true for a deep division like featherweight. One doesn’t have to look very far, either. The next contender is likely Frankie Edgar, and there will be no shortage of people picking Edgar to defeat Holloway.
That’s the beauty of MMA. As the most predictable of predictable NBA seasons wraps up, there’s no similar level of certainty in MMA. Holloway may be on his way to big things or this sort of speculation may quickly prove to be silly in its presumptions. It all remains to be seen, but I’m betting on Holloway.