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Holloway vs. Volkanovski

By Tom Feely Dec 11, 2019

UFC Featherweight Championship

C | Max Holloway (21-4) vs. #1 FW | Alexander Volkanovski (20-1)

ODDS: Holloway (-170), Volkanovski (+150)

It is difficult to find new things to say about Holloway, so it is worth going back and appreciating the featherweight champion’s rise. Holloway had an expectedly rough start to his UFC career given that he was barely 20 years old upon his promotional debut, but after a 2013 loss to Conor McGregor, Holloway quickly began his ascent through the ranks at 145 pounds in earnest. Holloway kept a ridiculous pace, fighting eight times over the course of 2014 and 2015, all while managing to show clear improvement every time out. His April 2015 win over Cub Swanson was a clear breakout performance, but due to a combination of the depth at featherweight and the chaos of any division in which McGregor is champion, Holloway wound up needing to beat contender after contender before finally getting his title shot against Jose Aldo. While McGregor famously knocked out Aldo in 13 seconds, it was Holloway who became the first man to consistently dominate the featherweight great, ramping up the pace until the champion could no longer keep up and then scoring a third-round finish. A rematch went much the same way, and with Holloway now finally reigning over the featherweight division, some questions started to surface: Namely, after his long string of high-profile wins, who was left for him to fight? That wound up not being a concern. Featherweight has already churned out a new generation of strong contenders, and Holloway has been surprisingly inactive as a 145-pound champion, at least compared to his previous pace. His 2018 campaign raised some concerns that he might be breaking down at the peak of his career since he missed nearly the entire year due to injuries and weight cut issues, but by December, the “Blessed” Hawaiian looked as good as ever while winning a war over Brian Ortega. This year has mostly been a holding pattern. A brief foray up to lightweight resulted in a loss to Dustin Poirier in one of the best fights of the year, and Holloway’s last title defense against Frankie Edgar was more to check off a historical box than anything else. Holloway now looks ready to finally take on the next wave of rising challengers, and Volkanovski is quite a first test.

Australia’s Volkanovski came to the UFC with a ton of regional hype, but it was difficult to have much faith in that at first. The UFC’s history of Australian signings is filled with wrestlers who immediately hit a wall against stronger competition, and “Alexander The Great” fit right into that mold, broadly speaking. However, Volkanovski has done an excellent job of breaking that mold, as he has passed each test presented to him with flying colors. Like the main eventers on this card, Volkanovski’s UFC career got off to a bit of a slow start. He was featured prominently on cards Down Under, but dominating obviously overwhelmed competition did little to show any proof that Volkanovski could be a true contender. Come 2018, Volkanovski got the opportunity to answer every outstanding question about his ability. Wins over Jeremy Kennedy and Darren Elkins proved that the former rugby player could go strength-for-strength against any grinder in the division, and his year-end capper against Chad Mendes showed that he could handle himself on the feet, absorbing the power of the former title challenger before putting him away in the second round. However, Volkanovski saved his most impressive performance for 2019, when he faced Aldo in May. On paper, the former featherweight king seemed like a nightmare matchup for Volkanovski. Aldo is one of the best defensive wrestlers in the history of the sport, and Volkanovski did not seem to have the kind of pace that would exhaust the Brazilian, particularly over just three rounds. Faced with all that, Volkanovski managed to fight completely against type and think completely outside of the box, using an impressive inside-outside combination of leg kicks and clinch work that neutralized Aldo and resulted in a one-sided decision win. That ability to adapt is extremely rare, and that is what makes this fight difficult to analyze and exciting to anticipate. What new tricks will Volkanovski show this time around?

If not for Volkanovski’s performance against Aldo, this would be a much easier call in favor of the featherweight champ. In a broad sense, it would be Holloway facing another wrestle-boxer similar to Edgar, who managed to survive but never truly put Holloway in any sort of danger. On the margins, there would still be ways in which Volkanovski could make things a more competitive fight than Edgar. Beyond youth and athleticism, Volkanovski’s fight against Mendes showed a willingness to work the body, and despite his stocky frame, the Australian actually has the reach advantage on paper over Holloway. That is all before factoring in all the new stuff Volkanovski showed against Aldo. A range striking game with a steady diet of leg kicks could easily be the first step in breaking down the Hawaiian over the course of five rounds, and in general, that level of adaptation is enough to earn the Aussie some extra faith going forward. Honestly, Volkanovski has everything on paper to win this fight, but at the end of the day, Holloway remains the clear favorite, as it is difficult to pick against the champion at 145 pounds while he is still in his prime. As well as Volkanovski has game planned, Holloway is still an amazingly natural fighter with an ability to build on everything he throws and adapt on everything coming his way. Being a proven five-round fighter does not hurt, either. This is by far the closest of the three title fights on this card and one of the most exciting title fights of the year on paper, but until someone takes out this version of the Hawaiian at featherweight, the pick has to be Holloway via decision.

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