Saturday, August 20, 2022

UFC 276: Why Max Holloway needs to go for broke in his trilogy with Alexander Volkanovski to regain his title

LAS VEGAS — As former featherweight champion Max Holloway enters a pivotal third meeting with 145-pound king Alexander Volkanovski on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 276 in Las Vegas, there are two undeniable truths.  

One, is that despite Holloway’s best efforts over 10 combined rounds against Volkanovski, along with his belief that the judges twice acted in error on not raising his hand, he’s still 0-2 against Volkanovski. Secondly, if Holloway fails to make enough of a serious adjustment for their third meeting, which will emanate inside T-Mobile Arena, he could be headed toward an identical result.  

For as rare as it is historically for a UFC trilogy to include nothing but title bouts, it’s even more unique for the third fight to come after one competitor, in this case the 33-year-old Volkanovski (24-1) holds a 2-0 advantage. But such is this case in this meeting between future Hall of Famers after a pair of high-profile contentious bouts, particularly in their 2020 rematch, over the past two-plus years.  

Volkanovski, who will look to make the third defense of his title reign, is the only featherweight to have bested Holloway (23-6), the 30-year-old native of Hawaii, over a nine-year stretch in which “Blessed” established himself as one of the greatest fighters in 145-pound history. A pair of stoppage wins over longtime division king Jose Aldo went a long way in creating Holloway’s legend.  

But the reason why this trilogy bout has often seen the word “historic” attached to it is because is because the winner will have an opportunity to compete right alongside Aldo in the discussion of featherweight G.O.A.T. Even if Volkanovski can’t yet match the number of impressive names that Holloway’s resume features, he does hold a masterful and one-sided decision win over Aldo and could be just days away from notching an almost unthinkable third win over Holloway. 

As part of the anticipation entering Saturday’s third fight, many observers have taken the time to revisit — and, in most cases, rescore — the 10 rounds fought between them. And despite how often this series has been talked about as disputed, a closer second look seems to only reinforce just how much better Volkanovski has been than Holloway in both fights.  

Like many, this writer felt in real time that Volkanovski had edged Holloway in a close but clear decision at UFC 245 in 2019 by a margin of 3-2 in terms of rounds. Their rematch seven months later at UFC 251 also ended with me believing, like many on social media, that Holloway had been somewhat robbed of a 3-2 victory of his own. 

But the second watch of both fights produced an interesting discovery.  

By using footwork, calf strikes and a consistently clean counter right cross, Volkanovski may have actually deserved the 50-45 scorecard turned in after their first fight by judge Junichiro Kamijo, which was a score that appeared far too wide upon first watch. And even though Holloway made profound adjustments to clearly take the first two rounds of their rematch (dropping Volkanovski late in both frames), his claim for having won Round 3, a swing round in which all three judges gave to Volkanoski in real time, might not be so secure after all.  

Volkanovski made the most important adjustments of all midway through their second fight and won the majority of two-way striking exchanges over the final three rounds. His offense showed much more variety than Holloway during the championship rounds, in particular, as Volkanovski had success both going forward and playing counter striker late in the rematch.  

Holloway sat down for an exclusive interview with “Morning Kombat” from his hotel on Tuesday and fielded questions about ultimately why five of the six judges across both fights favored Volkanovski’s work.

“[Volkanovski] is well-rounded and super good. His camp and him, he’s just smart,” Holloway said. “They are just super smart. They played the system, especially in the first fight, really good. Kudos to them and we are here for a third time. [But] if the first two were so decisive, we wouldn’t be here for a third.” 

Holloway revealed he and his team had an impromptu meeting at the hotel immediately after losing the first fight and spoke candidly with each other about what went wrong and how he might grow from the defeat in order to come back and regain his crown.  

“That’s how it is and how you get better, you confront your demons,” Holloway said. “It was literally an hour after the fight.”  

The rematch is where Holloway isn’t as understanding as to why he wasn’t able to regain the gold.  

“I think he did adjustments and I guess to the three judges sitting Octagon side, those little adjustments got him the fight. It is what it was,” Holloway said. “I’m not going to sit over here and cry over spilled milk. Why get mad? We cleaned that mess up and we went on. I knew we were going to find our way back to the title somehow and we did. 

“I thought I won [the rematch]. I thought maybe the last round or the fourth round went to him. For sure, I thought he won one round in the later rounds. But why am I going to cry about it? [UFC president] Dana White and about 100 UFC fighters said I won the fight. Why add more fuel to the fire when you don’t need to?” 

The most intriguing part about Holloway’s thoughts regarding his rivalry with Volkanovski may have come in the lessons he learned after those fights. Following a sensational shutout of Calvin Kattar to open 2021 that might go down as the masterpiece of his great career, Holloway survived five rounds of action and mayhem against Yair Rodriguez in November.  

After absorbing a scary amount of offense from Rodriguez in the early rounds, Holloway showed his veteran savviness by relying on his wrestling over the second half of the fight to slowly neutralize his opponent’s strength. The result of 49-46 and 48-47 (twice) from the judges got Holloway thinking.  

“If I need to have tough fights to get my decision then thanks [to Rodriguez and the judges] for breaking the code,” Holloway said. “Maybe we will make this one tougher than it has to be on Saturday or something.” 

Will Holloway resort to a more freewheeling and action style in order to draw Volkanovski into a shootout? It’s not only something to consider given Holloway’s comments but it might also be his best and only chance to finally defeat a fighter who might actually be better entering the third meeting than he was in the first two.  Anyone who watched Volkanovski’s title defenses over Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung over the past year would be hard pressed to disagree.  

After unsuccessfully playing chess with the chess-master for two fights, it’s all or nothing time for Holloway to showcase his greatness while redeeming himself in one of the sport’s most technically pleasing rivalries.  

“I just have this feeling. I have been in there with this guy for 10 rounds. I really feel we are not going past three in this one,” Holloway said. “He’s different and I’m different but I just think the training I have been doing is going to pay off in a very big way. The recipe we are cooking up in this one is going to be finger-licking good.” 

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