Max Holloway vs. Jose Aldo II: Technical Mastery

Max Holloway
DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 02: (L-R) Max Holloway and Jose Aldo of Brazil embrace. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

UFC 218 remains one of modern MMA’s greatest cards. Most fans will likely cite Francis Ngannou’s thunderous knockout over Alistair Overeem or the first time the UFC ever awarded two Fight of the Night bonuses to Medeiros/Oliveira and Alvarez/Gaethje. However, the greatest moment of the night was also the least heralded. The main event was Max Holloway vs. Jose Aldo II, a rematch of their first fight, which took place earlier in the year.

What was expected to have been a depressing, merciless slaughter of an aging legend, turned out to be perhaps the highest level striking match in MMA history.

Round 1

On a strategic level, Holloway’s approach shifted dramatically from the first fight to the second. Despite riding a ten-fight winning streak into UFC 212, Holloway looked decidedly tepid in the opening two frames against Aldo. Not so in the rematch.

Within the opening ten seconds, Holloway already began utilizing his varied jab. Instead of allowing Aldo time and space to settle before cranking up the pressure, Holloway surged with measured offense from the opening bell.

>Holloway measures his offense very effectively from the outset. Every time Holloway throws a full power jab, a half power jab, or a feint, Aldo is forced to react with a parry, a slip, or an angle. In contrast to the first fight, Holloway circles left around Aldo with less worry about Aldo’s right leg kick.

One of Holloway’s greatest traits as a fighter is the variance in his technical toolbox. His ability to dial up and down the intensity of his striking makes his efficiency as a striker top notch. Aldo lacks this variance in his striking, where every movement is sharp and coiled. The narrative from the first fight was Aldo’s lesser gas tank in comparison to Holloway, but this only told part of the story. If a fighter throws all of their power into every strike, they will tire fairly quickly. Holloway is simply a more efficient striker because he is able to apply large amounts of volume without throwing too much into each punch.

To his credit, Aldo approached the rematch with Holloway with the right strategy in mind. Since Holloway outlasted him in their first fight, Aldo fought cautiously and put defense as his top priority. Aldo’s head movement in this fight might very well be the best example of head movement in MMA history. Despite Holloway’s efficiency, he had a preternaturally difficult time landing to Aldo’s head.

>When Holloway would pressure Aldo and throw, Aldo would exit on angles and prioritize defense above all else. The first layer of Aldo’s defense is incredibly difficult to break through.

Holloway’s goal was to get Aldo to throw back in exchanges, because he banked on Aldo’s inability to throw hard over five rounds. When Aldo did throw back at Holloway, he would plant and throw in combination. Even if Holloway were to eat one or two hard shots from Aldo, it was worth costing the older fighter further exertion.

>Holloway enters with a left hook. Aldo slips inside as Holloway slides forward, smothering the initial right and left hands from Aldo. As Holloway circles and exits the pocket, Aldo pivots with him. His right hand lands, but the following left hook does not.

Both men did an exceptional job changing the plane of their attack. Holloway and Aldo are examples of fighters who utilize a limited amount of tools to an enormous amount of utility.

>Aldo jabs to Holloway’s body and slides underneath Holloway’s jab. Holloway circles to his left and Aldo feints a jab. As Holloway tosses out his left and steps forward, Aldo counters with a clean leg kick. Upon exiting the pocket, Aldo throws a left hook that misses.

Holloway was able to exploit Aldo’s defense, however. Despite Aldo’s head movement being among the best of his entire career, Holloway was able to needle his jab in the midst of Aldo’s springy head movement. Holloway used throwaway jabs to get Aldo moving his head and then sat down on the jabs while Aldo was in the middle of defending.

>Holloway feints a jab and then throws two jabs, each a half beat apart. Aldo slips inside of the first jab, but the second jab sneaks in and lands as Aldo is in the midst of moving his head.

Holloway was able to draw offensive and defensive layers out of Aldo, but it’s notable that Holloway was able to survive the answers that Aldo gave him. Possessing both excellent distance management and an absurd chin, Holloway was able to bring draw out Aldo’s hardest shots out and force him to keep throwing.

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>Holloway stays right on the edge of the pocket. As he jabs, Aldo slips inside and lands an overhand right counter. The follow-up left hook misses. Immediately after, Aldo feints a clinch entry and lands a flush right hand as Holloway begins framing.

A solution to dealing with an opponent who constantly flashes a jab in your face is to jab with them. Aldo keyed in on this and landed some potent jabs of his own as Holloway feinted and threw his more active jab.

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>Aldo jabs, parries or slips Holloway’s jab and returns fire with a cleaner, harder jab.

In prioritizing defense to the head, Aldo left himself vulnerable to the body. Fortunately for Holloway, body punching has been one of his oldest traits as a fighter. Holloway lacks Aldo’s blistering speed and power, but he makes up for it with diversity of attack and attrition.

>In one of the better exchanges for Holloway, Aldo begins with a clean leg kick. Holloway then feints his jab and angles off to his left, raising his right forearm to catch Aldo’s incoming left hook. To conclude the exchange, Holloway sits down on a hard right to the body of Aldo.

Holloway spent the majority of the first round very cautious of his distance. He would draw shots from Aldo either with a feint or a jab, then evade when Aldo was throwing in combination, and then return with either more feints or punches.

>The next two exchanges highlight how disciplined Holloway’s approach was against Aldo. Holloway feints a jab. Aldo slips outside and counters with a setup left hand and an overhand right. Holloway angles out slightly to his right and leans off his back leg, rolling the overhand right off his shoulder. Aldo initiates the clinch and grabs an underhook. Holloway immediately begins fighting grips with his left hand while overhooking the right arm of Aldo. As the taller fighter, Holloway digs his head underneath Aldo, and the former champion has no choice but to release.

>Holloway steps hard with his lead leg and sets a hand-trap with his left. Aldo slips inside and throws a tight right hook. The right hand doesn’t appear to land clean, but instead of closing the door and running into Aldo’s left hook, Holloway simply slides back out of range.

While his defensive toolbox may not have been quite as deep as Aldo’s, Holloway utilized his frame and distance to greatly nullify Aldo’s return fire.

>Holloway did an excellent job “riding” Aldo’s right hand to reduce the impact.

In classic Aldo fashion, however, if Holloway stepped too far in, Aldo would simply pivot and completely change angles.

>Aldo utilized this technique to brilliant effect against Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes, as well.

>Aldo didn’t always get it for free, however.

>Aldo’s head movement, especially along the fence, was spectacular. Holloway switches stances, mirroring Aldo’s pivot (meaning he won’t have to cut off as large an angle) and leads with a hopping feint (a setup he used frequently against Anthony Pettis). Aldo hadn’t read the stance switch yet, which allowed Holloway to enter with the southpaw jab and low line side kick. Aldo pulls his front leg back and slides out of range. Along the fence, he immediately begins sliding his head out the left. As Holloway marches and tries a long right hook as Aldo is circling, Aldo again slides his head out of the way.

This also highlights how deep Holloway’s boxing knowledge goes. Feinting to cover stance switching is an excellent way to distract an opponent’s vision, so what they assume is a jab could turn out to be a southpaw straight left. Floyd Mayweather utilized this technique exiting the clinch in boxing, and Jorge Masvidal occupied Darren Till’s vision with his orthodox lead hand to cover a southpaw shift. To Aldo’s credit, however, he always manages to keep his feet under him as he’s retreating or even stance switching. He is capable of quick reactive head movement integrated with retreats, all while keeping his feet in position.

Perhaps stealing the round, Aldo managed to catch Holloway in a brief moment of carelessness with one of the best punches of the fight.

>As the fighters line up in the pocket, Aldo steps with his lead left foot and drops his weight into his lead leg. Anticipating a body attack, Holloway folds his arms across his body. Aldo steps through and launches a hellacious uppercut (a punch which starts low and ends high) that lands flush on Holloway’s chin. Holloway retreats out of the pocket with his left forearm up. Aldo’s follow-up 3-2 whiffs.

Round 2

After the first round, it was apparent that Holloway was going to overload Aldo with volume, but he wasn’t willing to simply draw Aldo into a firefight while he was fresh. Most of Holloway’s offense in the first round was fairly measured. The second round was an opportunity for Holloway to build on the threats he posed to Aldo in Round 1, as well as a showcase for some of Aldo’s meanest responses.

Beginning Round 2, Holloway immediately began sitting down on his punches more. As Aldo’s defensive movements became more labored, Holloway was able to sting him more and more at the end of exchanges.

>Holloway also began countering Aldo more than he did in the first round, mixing counters in with his leads to keep Aldo guessing.

Aldo, on the other hand, started mixing up his lead hand and throwing levers.

>Aldo steps in with a jab, which partially lands. Holloway parries the jab with his right hand, and takes a small pivot off his lead leg. Aldo mirrors the pivot and throws a lead left hook. With the punch, he takes a wider pivot off his lead leg. In this instance, Aldo draws Holloway to anticipate another jab and catches him with the hook, as he uses to the same motion at the start of both punches.

One of the characteristics that both Holloway and Aldo share is a penchant for exiting exchanges on angles. If a fighter exits the pocket in a straight line, all their opponent has to do is follow them to keep them in range. By exiting on an angle, it becomes much easier for an opponent’s following strikes to sail by.

>Holloway moves forward, feints a jab and Aldo reacts. Holloway throws a lead left hook with a right hand behind it, shifting from orthodox to southpaw. Take note of Aldo’s feet. As Holloway shifts, Aldo retreats at a 45° angle as Holloway’s combination (including the lead right to the body) miss.

Another thing to note is Aldo’s various responses to an opponent’s jab. As MMA’s greatest defensive fighter, Aldo has perhaps the most reliable counters to the jab. Holloway has made hay with his jab against far lesser defensive fighters, such as Brian Ortega and Anthony Pettis, but Aldo didn’t allow Holloway to jab for free.

>In one of the prettiest combinations of the fight, Aldo managed to pull-counter Holloway’s jab with a 2-3, catching Holloway attempting to lean off the counters.

Mirroring his opponent, Aldo switched up the plane of attack with his jab and continued utilizing the uppercut down the center.

>Aldo feints a jab to Holloway’s chest and throws a body jab, a half beat behind it. Once again, Aldo steps hard with his lead leg, Holloway folds his arms across his body, and Aldo nails him with an uppercut before bailing on the follow-up left hook.

Around the midpoint of Round 2, Holloway began throwing back after Aldo countered. This forced Aldo to burn more energy on his defense as well as his offense, since Holloway was now giving him feints, leads, and counters to process.

>Both fighters stand in trapping range. Holloway tosses out a noncommittal jab, and Aldo slips inside. To counter, Aldo fires a vicious left hook to the body and an overhand right after. The right cuffs Holloway and he responds with an overhand right of his own. Aldo slips inside of the overhand and attempts a left hook, but it ends up merely parrying Holloway’s punch.

>Holloway feints a jab and Aldo slips very slightly inside. He then throws a right hand to the body, which Holloway returns to greater effect. Holloway feints low and then steps in with a dipping overhand right, which slips outside of. Holloway shifts to southpaw and marches with a lead right hook to the outside angle of Aldo. Nothing lands, but Aldo is forced to retreat.

To combat Holloway’s marching combinations, Aldo began attacking Holloway’s legs with his long-dormant leg kicks.

>Aldo throws a leg kick, but it doesn’t land with much impact since Holloway is circling away from it to the right. To corral him, Aldo throws a left hook to cut off Holloway’s circling, and then throws a leg kick as Holloway’s weight is on his left leg. The left hook both cuts off Holloway, as well as loading up the right leg kick, allowing it to land with more power. Classic Dutch style kickboxing combination.

>Holloway attempts a 1-2 as he angles to his left. Aldo slips outside of the jab and counters Holloway with a leg kick as Holloway is angling before pivoting back to face Holloway.

It was evident by this point that Aldo’s pace was waning, and Holloway began to press the advantage.

>Holloway jabs, and slips outside of Aldo’s return jab. As Aldo hops slightly forward with his jab, Holloway responds with a 1-2 that pushes Aldo back. Holloway marches forward with another jab and attempts another right cross before Aldo pivots away.

>Holloway leads with a noncommittal 1-2 and brings his rear leg outside of Aldo’s front leg, shifting, trying to catch Aldo unaware with the southpaw lead hook. Aldo slips outside of the combination and the two men briefly fall into the clinch. As Holloway exits the clinch, he slips Aldo’s left hook by leaning off of the shot before regaining his stance. Aldo’s final leg kick lands clean.

As the exchanges grew more layered, the prospect of winning began to look more and more dire for Aldo. Even if Aldo was the more polished fighter in the first few layers, Holloway simply wouldn’t allow Aldo to limit exchanges. As a result, the exchanges starting running away from him.

>(1) As Holloway circles left, he steps his lead leg between Aldo’s stance and jabs. Aldo slips inside of the jab, and counters with an overhand right. As the two regain their stances, Holloway steps in with another jab, a slight pull, anticipating the right hand, and then follows with a straight right. Aldo slips inside the right hand, then pulls forward, expecting more from Holloway. As Holloway follows his pull with the right hand, Aldo pulls and slips outside of the right hand, before pulling forward again.

It is worth noting that even whilst tired and fading, Aldo’s reactive defense is still on point here, which is why Max had to draw out exchanges from the older fighter and not let him dictate the pace of the fight. While his head movement was still effective, his counters were slowing and this is exactly the point where Aldo’s chances of winning decreased dramatically.

Holloway remained in his face, and Aldo was forced to throw back.

>(2) Aldo leads with a left hook/right leg kick combination that lands clean. Anticipating the kick, however, Holloway catches the kick and pushed Aldo back. Holloway follows and steps in with a right hand to the body that Aldo manages to slip outside of. The jab Aldo throws as a counter doesn’t have much weight behind it. As Aldo is resetting, Holloway throws a jab to the head and then to the body, a half beat apart. To conclude the exchange, Holloway feints another jab to the head and then slings a long right hook to Aldo’s body.

Holloway’s excessive amount of feinting and angling off his jab began eroding Aldo’s sense of distance. By evading Aldo’s return strikes, Aldo’s position was compromised and his punches lacked the dynamism they possessed in Round 1.

>Holloway circles left and jabs. Holloway jabs again, and Aldo attempts to pull off it. Continuing to overload his opponent with volume, Holloway follows the jab with another a half beat behind it and a right hand as Aldo is pivoting. Since Holloway remains in range, Aldo is forced to flurry.

Round 3

Similar to their first fight, Aldo was unlikely to make it out of the third round against Holloway. However, unlike their UFC 212 contest, Holloway’s finish was the result of a sustained output, rather than a singular knockdown.

>Wary of Holloway’s jab, Aldo keeps a high guard with his arms. Holloway continues fencing with his jab and changing the plane of attack to the body. Aldo is still doing a good job of exiting on angles, but he is simply unable to keep Holloway off him. Note how Holloway slips inside of Aldo’s jab and counters with one of his own.

Even in an exhausted state, Aldo’s defense continued to look quite strong.

>Holloway feints a left and steps in with a right. Aldo takes a small step with his lead leg and pivots to avoid the punch. Holloway feints the jab again, Aldo bites, and Holloway lands a right hand to the body. Holloway feints low with his lead hand and throws an overhand right. Aldo ducks underneath the looping punch and crashes forward. For a moment, Holloway’s stance is completely compromised as Aldo has a dominant angle to his right. Holloway turns and clinches Aldo briefly before exiting the pocket, evading Aldo’s two punch combination.

>Holloway lands a body jab and Aldo backsteps. Holloway throws a lead hook that Aldo ducks slightly under and pivots away from. As Holloway circles and throws a jab, Aldo counters with an intercepting knee to the body.

>Holloway pressures Aldo and feints a jab. Aldo bites. Holloway throws a jab and tries to angle to his left off it. Aldo slips inside of the jab and counters Holloway with an overhand right. Back at range, as Holloway tries to angle over to his right again, Aldo smashes him with a leg kick.

Nonetheless, Holloway continued finding ways to needle his way past Aldo’s first layer of defense to wear down the aging fighter. The lack of regularity of Aldo’s counters was the main reason he wasn’t able to keep Holloway at bay. In my estimation, nobody in the division other than Holloway could’ve been able to get past these defensive layers of Aldo, which highlights just how special these two fighters are.

>Holloway steps in with a throwaway left and a right hand a half beat behind it. Aldo slips outside and under the right hand before pivoting off his front foot, regaining his stance, and stepping back with his front foot to keep himself aligned with Holloway. Once he has regained his stance, he lands a solid jab on Holloway’s chin. Holloway tosses out another throwaway left hand with a step-in knee behind it. Aldo raises his right hand to block, and the knee connects. Holloway follows the knee with a right hand that doesn’t land cleanly, but as he angles off, he hides behind his left shoulder as Aldo’s right hook misses.

Holloway’s manipulation of rhythm is one of the more understated elements of his technical game, yet it’s arguably the most important. By continually breaking rhythm, Holloway removed Aldo’s ability to time his counters. He was left throwing inaccurate volleys that lacked his usual pinpoint accuracy. Holloway is among the very finest in MMA at breaking rhythm (alongside Jorge Masvidal and Robbie Lawler), and this was one of the central reasons he was able to break Aldo down in a way no one had done before or since.

>The more Holloway pressed Aldo, the more Aldo was forced to throw harder and harder just to earn space to breathe. The longer the exchanges were, the more Holloway was able to force Aldo into throwing.

Typically, when Holloway backs his opponents up to the fence, he throws his heaviest combinations, typically just ignoring the return fire. Conversely, Aldo displayed some exceptional head movement along the fence.

>Holloway throws a jab and Aldo parries it and slips outside. He swings his head back to the left before returning to the centerline. Holloway paws out another jab, and Aldo pulls off it. After pulling, Aldo slips to his right slightly before pulling and slipping outside of Holloway’s incoming uppercut before attempting to angle off.

However, despite how good Aldo’s defense was, Holloway remained fearless. The exchanges continued to last longer and longer and Aldo simply couldn’t match or manage. For a fighter who had built his career on scaring people off, Aldo was forced to continue exchanging with someone who just would not go away. After dozens of seemingly choreographed punches from Holloway, the fight was mercifully over.

Conclusion

The finish was perfunctory, but the layers of technique and execution that preceded were just the opposite. For Holloway, he cemented himself as the sport’s best fighter and both a short-term tactical and long-term strategic adapter. Within the year, he had defeated Jose Aldo twice in succession, both times emphasizing subtle wrinkles in his technical game as well as an extraordinarily potent offensive threat. One of the UFC’s richest divisions was amidst a turnover in talent, but no matter who was climbing the ranks, Holloway was there to stay.

For Aldo, the finish overshadowed one of the finest efforts that a former champion has ever put forth in attempting to regain a lost title. It was a fight he was always doomed to lose, but instead of taking his fate lying down, Aldo fought smarter and harder than ever before. If the Aldo that showed up was athletically declined from his absolute peak, he was arguably an even deeper fighter technically, making his efforts all the more valiant. What Aldo showed on the night of UFC 218 would’ve been enough to wipe any other featherweight not named Max Holloway off the planet.

While largely forgotten amongst bloodier, more chaotic bouts like Medeiros/Oliveira, the most spectacular moment of UFC 218 remains the technical and tactical brilliance provided by the two greatest featherweights. Alongside classics like Hendricks/Lawler I, Aldo/Mendes II, and Lawler/MacDonald II, Holloway/Aldo II stands in a class of the finest striking matches in MMA history.

Special thank you to Callan Gallacher for his guidance, Evan Grover for his editing, and Ryan Wagner for his continued support and inspiration.

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