The UFC’s featherweight title picture has been invigorated with new life. With current lightweight and former featherweight champion #ConorMcGregor vacating the featherweight strap, Jose Aldo’s interim championship has been promoted to the undisputed championship, and the interim belt will now be contested by divisional elite #MaxHolloway, and former lightweight champion #AnthonyPettis, at UFC 206.
Holloway has quietly put together the longest active win streak in the history of the UFC’s featherweight division, winning nine consecutive bouts, with six stoppages, against the likes of Cub Swanson, Ricardo Lamas, and Charles Oliveira.
Despite his incredible success, Holloway has been relatively quiet about his desire to compete for the championship, instead rallying for a fight – in any division – against Conor McGregor, the last man to defeat him. This workmanlike approach often does not pay dividends, but seems to have done exactly that for Holloway.
Heading into his first taste of the featherweight division’s championship level, the slow burn of Holloway’s matchmaking, combined with his diverse pool of opponents and adequate development time, ensures that the Hawaiian is at his peak, both in terms of technical ability and experience against varied opposition.
For Holloway, early UFC losses and a slow-and-steady approach have transformed him from a talented rookie into an elite technician capable of succeeding against any style he will encounter in the division’s upper echelons. Well-roundedness and consistency are the linchpins of his game, and this is perhaps a direct result of his underwhelming initiation into the sport.
For Pettis, things were very different. When “Showtime” came to the attention of the masses, he did so in a way which is highly indicative of both his personality and fighting style. At World Extreme Cagefighting’s final event prior to their merger with the UFC, Anthony Pettis challenged then-WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson for the honor of becoming their final lightweight king.
In a back-and-forth affair, the score was tied heading into the fifth and final round. In a moment which would come to define both himself and the WEC, Pettis ran at Henderson as Henderson circled off of the fence, and leapt into the air before pushing off of the cage with his right foot and hammering a devastating kick directly into Henderson’s face.
Though he did not manage to elicit a stoppage, it was more than enough to secure the round, and the lightweight championship. The “Showtime Kick” would become prized fodder for highlights, with videos and .GIF’s of the technique spreading contagiously across MMA's internet fandom. Pettis, in turn, became a hot commodity, and was granted a UFC title shot against the winner of the rematch between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 125.
That bout was, of course, a draw, and Maynard was awarded an immediate rematch. Injures to both Edgar and Maynard postponed the bout, and Pettis decided to take a fight as he waited for the two to conclude their trilogy.
The fight was against Clay Guida, and it was a fight which highlighted many of the issues which plague Pettis to this day. Though landing little in the way of significant offense, Guida was able to smother Pettis, holding him down and avoiding submission attempts en route to a unanimous decision victory.
Following this loss and a split decision win over Jeremy Stephens, "Showtime" finished four consecutive opponents, besting Benson Henderson in a rematch for the UFC lightweight championship in the process, and defending it against Gilbert Melendez.
Pettis has always been an offensive marvel. Possessing incredible leg speed and dexterity, his body kicks are perhaps the sport’s most impactful, and have severely affected or even finished notably durable lightweights. His guard is constantly active, with tight wrist and elbow control being used to set up triangle and armbar opportunities. His capacity for unorthodox kicks which leverage his sublime speed manifests as a dangerous threat.
His rise was meteoric, and he seemed virtually unstoppable. Becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the front of the Wheaties cereal box, he was heavily promoted by the UFC, and was seen as a lightweight champion with true star potential, the first such since BJ Penn. Perhaps because of his success as a dynamic finisher who relies on finding singular moments of fight-changing offense, the full breadth, and limitations of the Milwaukee native’s skillset were unknown.
A trio of losses exposed the substantive flaws at the core of his game. While his loss to Guida seemed to expose holes in the former champion’s wrestling defense, it wasn’t until his title-dropping loss to Rafael dos Anjos that Pettis’ deeper issues were exposed.
In his following bouts, he lost a wrestle-heavy split decision to Eddie Alvarez, and a clear-cut unanimous decision in a primarily striking affair to Edson Barboza. In the case of all three of these losses, the root cause was the same; while incredibly effective in open space, Pettis’ ability to maintain this space against an unwilling opponent was severely limited. He lacked the tools and technical depth of footwork to consistently deter a persistent pressure fighter.
Though we had seen glimpses of these flaws in multiple fights, it wasn’t until this point that we came to understand their magnitude. The blueprint for beating Pettis was firmly established; deny him the space to land kicks by pressuring him to the fence or using more efficient outside footwork as Barboza did.
Anthony Pettis is a strategic opportunist. He utilizes small openings to find opportunities for massive offense. Rocking opponents with punching combinations before diving on a choke, dropping fighters with high kicks as they circle out before taking their back or finishing with ground strikes, Pettis favors impactfulness over consistency. His approach is strategically predicated on finding moments for his dynamism to completely alter a bout, even at the expense of losing the minute-by-minute battle.
In practice, a fighter who can avoid his most dangerous offensive tools often wins simply by outlasting Pettis. Without the inclination to earn points in the moments between a fight’s momentum shifts, decision losses seem like an inevitability for a man repeatedly matched against elite fighters with consistently applied offense.
Max Holloway, by contrast, could be described as a tactical opportunist. While Pettis attempts to force his A-game to work in each and every fight, creating conditions for huge offensive moments, Holloway is much more willing to react to his opponent.
With staunch takedown defense, sharp footwork from both the orthodox and southpaw stance, and solid outside defensive fundamentals, Holloway is very effective at staying safe during neutral positions, and his high volume of strikes lends him a reliable method of winning rounds. Holloway’s comfort in neutral exchanges and consistency allow him to play a much more calculated game.
Holloway’s moments of tactical opportunism are less immediate than the impactfulness so often produced by Pettis, but his exploitation of key defensive tendencies allows him to build a deeply layered offensive game with boundless depth.
Against Lamas, the Hawaiian was consistently able to push his foe to the fence. Once there, Holloway would throw short combinations of jabs and crosses from either stance, primarily southpaw, to which Lamas frequently reacted by covering up. Sensing this, Holloway began to flurry more liberally on Lamas with longer, more intricate punching combinations. Once Lamas was completely shelled up, Holloway began to throw right hooks to the body, causing Lamas’ guard to lower. Feeling the pressure, Lamas committed to circling off of the fence as quickly as possible once pinned, almost entirely to his right side.
The first time Lamas attempted to circle out, Holloway followed him with a right cross, but was unable to land as Lamas moved away from him. Later in the bout, the sequence would repeat itself and Holloway, remembering the persistent circling to the right, threw a spinning wheel kick directly through the space Lamas was moving into. This spinning wheel kick was close to connecting, and served as further deterrence for Lamas’ last remaining defensive option.
Where Pettis was able to force his preferred method of fighting to work, an inexperienced Holloway struggled to do so against UFC-level competition, and lost several bouts decisively during his developmental period, thus coming to rely on consistency over dynamism to defeat difficult stylistic foes. Their diametrically opposed rises through the sport perhaps plays a role in how these two came to find their identities as technicians.
The aforementioned sequence from the Lamas fight is deeply representative of who Holloway is as a fighter: thoughtful, predictive and capable of both proactive and reactive offense in equal measure. He analyses a foe's reactions, devises an answer to their surface-level defense, and then slowly dismantles their readjustments until his offensive layering is deeper than their defensive capabilities can handle.
Pettis is a technician who believes that his primary skills can carry him to victory against any opponent, and rarely prods multiple layers deep into a foe’s defense. Though he will exploit openings masterfully, he rarely creates them himself.
“Showtime” is a remarkable physical talent, assuredly the quicker and more fast-twitch athlete of the two, but his technical growth perhaps remains stunted by a relative lack of adversity in his formative years. The shark tank of a UFC run during his first years as a professional, meanwhile, seems to have turned Holloway into a brilliant fighting mind, as well as a fundamentals-obsessed technician.
While the blueprint on Pettis may be written, the danger presented by his unique offensive tools is no less real. He is an incredible finisher both as a striker and a submission hunter. While his positional grappling has noticeable holes, his ability to snatch up chokes and armbars on momentarily fazed fighters is unlike almost any other fighter in the sport. His lethal left body kick, buried deep in the liver of an unready foe, can be an instant fight-ender, or create opportunities for the submission, as he did against Benson Henderson. His featherweight debut, a guillotine-choke finish of elite grappler Charles Oliveira, served as an appropriate reminder of this dynamism.
The battle for the featherweight division’s interim belt will be contested by two very different kinds of opportunists; one who strikes like a bolt of lightning, ending contests in the blink of an eye, and another like wildfire, gradually overtaking opponents as his momentum becomes unstoppable.
UFC 206’s headliner is one of the year’s most technically enticing matchups, and any outcome is plausible. Regardless of the winner, he will present an extremely difficult challenge for undisputed champion Jose Aldo, and could come to rule the featherweight division for quite some time.
UFC 206 Fight Card
- Max Holloway vs. Anthony Pettis
- Donald Cerrone vs. Matt Brown
- Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi
- Tim Kennedy vs. Kelvin Gastelum
- Jordan Mein vs. Emil Weber Meek
- Nikita Krylov vs. Misha Cirkunov
- Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Drew Dober
- Valerie Letourneau vs. Viviane Pereira
- Mitch Gagnon vs. Matthew Lopez
- John Makdessi vs. Lando Vannata
- Jason Saggo vs. Rustam Khabilov
- Zach Makovsky vs. Dustin Ortiz