Since Conor McGregor captured the featherweight title at UFC 194, the division has been in limbo. Even after the Irishman was stripped of the championship, his absence has cast a long shadow over the weight class. Now, at UFC 212 on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, the 145-pound division has its first opportunity to achieve real coherence since 2015.
Longtime champion Jose Aldo looks to cement his second Ultimate Fighting Championship title reign with his first defense since losing the belt to McGregor in 2015. After those fateful 13 seconds, Aldo took seven months off before returning at UFC 200, where he put on a masterclass performance against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. The win gave Aldo the interim belt -- he was promoted to the genuine article months later after McGregor was stripped -- but more importantly proved that “Scarface” was still as dangerous as ever. This is his first fight of 2017.
Opposite Aldo will be Max Holloway. “Blessed” took the scenic route through the featherweight division, compiling 10 straight wins across three years. That winning streak is the longest in the division's history -- Aldo and McGregor are tied for second place with seven straight wins -- and the sixth-longest in the history of the entire UFC. His last opponent was Anthony Pettis, also a former lightweight champion, whom he defeated at UFC 206 in December to claim the interim feather title just weeks after Aldo was promoted to full champion. This will also be Holloway’s first fight of the year.
In terms of divisional relevance and stylistic matchup, this is an outstanding fight. Here is what the Tale of the Tape has to say:
As is the case with the rest of the matchup, there is no clear anthropometric edge. Although Holloway is four inches taller, Aldo still maintains a one-inch reach advantage. Neither the height nor reach will provide much of a meaningful advantage, however.
When it comes to experience, it is hard not to favor Aldo. By the time Holloway made his professional debut, Aldo was already 17-1 and the defending World Extreme Cagefighting champion. In a different light, by the time Aldo made his professional debut, Holloway was 12 years old. Aldo has also fought in 12 straight title matches, eight of which have gone into the championship rounds. Holloway, on the other hand, has only fought past the third round once in his career -- against Harris Sarmiento for the X-1 lightweight title in his third professional fight. Still, Holloway’s activity has made him a young veteran. Aldo had 12 WEC/UFC fights when Holloway made his Octagon debut, but now he only has one fight on the busy “Blessed.”
This brings us to their age. Both champions are youthful, but Aldo is an old 30. “Scarface” has accrued a good bit of mileage over the course of his 13 professional fighting years, and while he has shown no signs of slowing down, his recent history of injury mixed with his general inactivity make it a factor worth pointing out. No doubt, Holloway’s six months off is preferable to the nearly 11 months Aldo has been on the sidelines.
In order for any of these differences to really affect the fight, they will almost certainly have to manifest in the standup department. Here is how the striking matchup looks:
This is why the fight is so intriguing. Both Aldo and Holloway are top-tier strikers who find success through different applications of their skills.
Aldo is one of the most technically gifted kickboxers in the game. His quickness in both his kicks and punches is accentuated by his use of subtle angles, allowing him to dole out well-timed punishment while avoiding big shots. Aldo is a defensive-minded striker who works patiently to pick his shots. Of all his strikes, 83 percent are aimed at his opponents’ heads, eight percent to the body and nine percent are leg kicks. His preferred range follows a similar trend, with 89 percent coming at range, two percent in the clinch and the remaining nine percent to grounded opponents.
Holloway has a very different toolbox of strikes and a much different approach to striking. While “Blessed” also uses angles effectively and is a defensively savvy fighter in general, he is more hittable than Aldo, mainly because he pursues exchanges more aggressively and works at a much higher pace. A total of 81 percent of his strike attempts are aimed upstairs, while 14 percent go to the body and five percent to the legs. Moreover, 87 percent of his strikes are thrown from distance while eight percent are in the clinch and five percent are ground strikes.
There are a few X-factors here. The first is the type of strikes they throw. Aldo is a master of muay Thai fundamentals and is rightly renowned for his vicious leg kicks. Still, as seen in his last fight against Edgar, even without leg kicks he can be a devastating striker; he threw four leg kicks in that fight, essentially beating Edgar with a jab and a straight. Holloway, on the other hand, throws an array of more unorthodox strikes. He is more judicious with when and how often he throws them and typically does so when pouring on his trademark multi-strike combinations.
This matchup also warrants mention of something that is statistically unquantifiable: mid-fight adjustments. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the standup battle is that both Aldo and Holloway are known for their tactical fight IQs. They are methodical strikers adept at finding holes to exploit, making this not just a battle of technique but one of quick-trigger acuity.
Though the fight will almost certainly take place on the feet, here is what might happen if it goes to the mat:
Neither the undisputed nor interim champion utilizes his grappling for offensive purposes very often. Rather, their wrestling is primarily a means to keep the fight upright, where they tend to have advantages over other competitors. There are some exceptions, however.
For instance, Holloway has attempted more than twice the amount of submissions that Aldo has, and despite Aldo’s legitimate background in jiu-jitsu, Holloway has also submitted more opponents. This is not to suggest that Holloway is a superior submission artist -- he is a recent purple belt, whereas Aldo is a black belt with a handful of high-level grappling tournament wins under his belt -- but he is more willing to look for a submission to end the fight if the opportunity presents itself. So far, no such opportunity has materialized against Aldo, who has never encountered a submission attempt in the WEC or UFC.
Aldo has some of the best takedown defense in MMA, but it is doubtful that he will need to use it; Holloway has attempted five takedowns in his entire UFC career. Similarly, Holloway has shown excellent takedown defense as a pro, and it seems equally unlikely that Aldo will take him down. Overall, if wrestling comes into play at all, Aldo and Holloway will probably neutralize each other’s attempts.
The betting lines show just how hard it is to call this fight. Most betting lines have it dead even around -110 or -115 for both Aldo and Holloway. The lines that deviate tend to have Aldo has a slight favorite in the -120 and -135 range, with Holloway floating around +105 to +110. Really, it is anyone’s guess.
This is the type of fight that will stir the excitement of even the most cynical fans. There is no more relevant fight in the division short of a McGregor return; it is stylistically captivating; and the narratives of a title unification bout between the dominant champion of yesteryear and the up-and-coming talent of today makes for an incredibly dynamic showdown. Aldo will either continue to cement his place as the king of the featherweights and one of the greatest fighters ever, or Holloway will breakthrough into the rarified company as the UFC’s third featherweight champion. In Rio de Janeiro, either the torch will burn brightly for the UFC’s only Brazilian champion, or it will be passed on to the future of the division.
Data for the analysis was provided by FightMetric. Eric Stinton performed all analysis. Stinton and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.