UFC 199’s main and co-main event both feature fights which the fight community at large seems to have decided upon. With Luke Rockhold clocking in as of this article as a 9-1 favorite (and with good reason) for his rematch with short notice replacement opponent Michael Bisping, and Dominick Cruz coming in a touch over 5-1 to defend his title against The California kid Uriah Faber. The verdict seems to be in on those fights, and it should come as no big surprise to anyone that both champs are expected to retain their titles.
What might surprise some people however is exactly how big a favorite Max ‘Blessed’ Holloway is over former title challenger ‘The Bully’ Ricardo Lamas. Clocking in at just under 3-1 (5/16) Max Holloway is about as big a favorite as you will normally find on a card on any given night (UFC 199 excepted). A quick look at their records seems to give a clear indication why: Ricardo Lamas has gone 3-2 since 2014 with one finish, a first round guillotine submission of Denis Bermudez at UFC 180. Holloway meanwhile has racked up a staggering 8 fight win streak in the same time frame, with 6 of those wins coming inside the distance, and yet very few people are talking about him: he truly is a dark horse at the minute. If he wasn’t in the featherweight division, it is arguable that Holloway would already have received his title shot. Certainly an 8 fight winning streak is no mean feat in the UFC, in any division. But between the question over whether José Aldo deserves a rematch after suffering his only loss in the UFC, the title shot that was already promised to Frankie Edgar, AND the fact that once Conor McGregor won the belt he absconded up to higher weight classes rather than face any of them, Holloway has been left in an unenviable position. His last loss was a decision to McGregor (Interesting aside, Holloway is the only person to have gone the distance against the current champ), so if he wants to make a case for receiving the next shot, his only real option is to beat everyone they put in front of him until there is nobody left.
To look at any of Holloway’s fights previous to his current run when trying to break down his striking style would be a disservice to him. The Max Holloway who was pressed up against the cage and stifled on the feet by McGregor is long gone. In fact you can even see a significant shift in Holloway’s style within his current streak. Known as one of the most effective Switch hitters in MMA today, Holloway has only recently become adept at striking out of the southpaw stance, with his right leg in front.For most of his career, Holloway fought primarily as an Orthodox fighter, where as his best performances against the likes of Cub Swanson have seen him fight primarily as a Southpaw. When you consider his age it is not surprising that Holloway has altered his style since coming to the UFC at the age of just 19 with only 4 professional fights to his name, it would be idiotic to think that he wouldn’t improve as he gained experience and grew in to his frame.
Up until his fight with Cole Miller, Holloway stayed primarily in the Orthodox stance, with his left leg in front, and used mostly boxing as his offensive output. A classical outfighter, Holloway used his length to land jabs and 1-2’s from distance, often checking his opponents lead hand with his right and looking to land his jab up the inside. A favorite of Holloway in Orthodox stance is the counter 1-2, which he used to knock out Akira Corasanni. Once he gets his opponents rhythm, Holloway will let them throw a punch, then either slide or lean just out of range, then follow his opponents arm back with a right cross or a 1-2. This is a fantastic way to avoid an opponents counter punches, by letting them go first and then countering them. It is notable that as an Orthodox fighter Holloway is much more stationary, keeping himself on top of his feet and moving just out of range of his opponents shots before looking to land his own as his opponent retracts their hand, or checking their hands to land his sharp jab. He also throws a mean spinning back kick out of Orthodox, which he used to spectacular effect against Andre Fili, Denis Bermudez, and Will Chope.
As a Southpaw Holloway is much more active. He throws much more volume when standing leftie, and like all good Southpaws should, he takes advantage of the fact that his rear leg is lined up with opponents exposed liver, throwing a lot of roundhouse kicks. He also takes advantage of having his strong hand in front by favoring a counter right hook while standing Southpaw, instead of his Orthodox favorite of the lean back/slide away follow up counters. He doesn’t spin as much in southpaw but he does throw a lot of jumping knees, many to the body. He tends to dart in with his punches, sometimes full on running with them, not a good strategy against good counter fighters normally. Holloway gets away with this because he is so long and because that is one of the main advantages of being a switch hitter: it messes up your opponents timing. A left straight and a jab are two very different punches, they come in on lightly different trajectories and the timing for both is very different. Just like the timing for countering both is very different. The same can be said for a right handed jab or a left handed jab, and so on. By switching stances, a fighter keeps his opponents playing catch up, constantly having to be aware what techniques a fighter favours in which stance, and which stance they are in at the time. It can literally be like fighting two different people in the ring. This can lead to devastating counter strikers like Cub Swanson standing dumbfounded in front of Holloway as he works them over.
There are a few traits that Holloway shares in both stances: he works the body well, he circles off against the cage, and he likes to rush fighters when he has them hurt, which can sometimes end up in ugly chest to chest exchanges as his opponent manages to get their hands on Holloway because he runs on to them in his excitement to finish. He kicks well off his rear leg in both stances, and he is quick to land knees from the clinch or elbows on the break from either stance also.
As a fighter a lot of Holloway’s flaws on the feet have been cleaned up. He doesn’t throw as many crazy techniques as he used to, which means he land more. He has had a problem with getting clocked with overhand rights up as recently as his fight with Akira Corassani, but that hasn’t been visible in his last three performances, and where as he had been held up against the fence in previous fights, against Cole Miller he showed he could cut his hips to the side and escape. If there is a criticism of Holloway of the feet it is that he can be bullied at times. In Orthodox his tendency to slide just out of the way when his opponent throws a punch can spell trouble when his opponent follows with two or three, like Andre Fili did at points during their bout.
One flaw that has persisted though is a habit Holloway has on the ground, and that is his habit to stall when in bottom position. While he can be ferocious on top, floating over his opponents during scrambles and always looking to either deliver punishment or lock in a choke, on bottom Holloway looks to tie up and hold on, waiting for his moment to explode back to his feet. The problem with waiting for your opponent to give you an opening to escape is that if they don’t give it to you, you spend the remainder of the round underneath him, and likely lose the round on the scorecards. This is exactly the kind of thing that an experienced wrestler could take advantage of, as his inactivity could allow for some solid ground and pound or a steady stream of transitions to mount.
Speaking of experienced wrestlers, you don’t get much more experienced at featherweight than Ricardo Lamas. A Division III All American National Wrestling Champion at 157 pounds with a black belt in Brazilian Jujitsu, Lamas has the workhorse mentality that see’s him overlooked by most of the division, which for all but the elite of the elite of them has been a huge mistake. As a top player, Lamas is a force. He has tremendous control and passing ability and the squeeze he possesses in his chokes is nasty (he finished Cub Swanson with a head and arm choke, the same choke Holloway locked Swanson up in in their fight but had to leave go because he couldn’t put Swanson out with it). He hits hard when in top control and is a big proponent of trapping his opponent in half guard and smashing away until they give up a more dominant position. On the floor Lamas is exactly the kind of person who could give Holloway trouble, and since he was stifled on the feet and out-wrestled on the mat by McGregor, Holloway hasn’t fought anyone close to Lamas in terms of wrestling credentials, having been matched up mainly with strikers. By all rights this fight should be a nightmare match up for Holloway.
The problem for Lamas is that he is one of the few fighters who suffers from being too technical on the feet. As a grappler by trade, he can and often does kick with little worry for being taken down, and he has a very flexible left leg, which he will often throw high kicks off. His jab is sharp and he often steps his lead foot in with it, extending his range and covering his chin with his lead shoulder, excellent traditional boxing form. This form saw him drop Denis Bermudez with a jab, a rare achievement in any combat sport. This occasional flash of lightning in a bottle however will often see Lamas spend a lot of time pumping his jab ineffectively, looking to land kicks on the outside and circle off. Simply put, apart from his jab Lamas does not have the tools on the feet to be a technical striker. A sharp jab is essential to most outfighters, but with nothing of consequence following it aside from telegraphed wheel kicks eventually an opponent will simply step in on one, and if you like to work in single shots as Lamas does, it becomes very easy to time a counter to one of those single strikes, like Chad Mendes did in their fight. You can see him thinking in the ring and the more he thinks, the more he hesitates, the more he attempts to tighten up his striking and add to it, the further he gets away from his wrestling, which is what made him such a force to begin with. Lamas is at his best when he lives up to his Bully moniker, and presses forward with combinations when his dexterous lead leg can catch people retreating, but always looking for an opportunity to take the fight to the floor where he excels.
In his most recent fight with Diego Sanchez, Lamas showed more combinations and takedown attempts than he has in a long time, even mixing up his combinations with low kicks which hobbled Sanchez. His dominant performance highlights how effective he can be when he commits to going forward and not staying on the outside looking to jab and move.
Holloway versus Lamas is a fight that plays on two levels. On the feet Lamas’ penchant for hovering on the outside and looking for single jabs with no follow up would see him torn apart by Holloway’s lean back counters, while on the ground Holloway’s inactive bottom game would serve as the perfect platform for Lamas to balance on as he pounds him in to the canvas and looks to force a mistake from bottom so he can grab a hold of Holloway’s neck. The question here is what kind of Holloway and Lamas shows up to fight. Max Holloway has literally looked better and better every time he has stepped in to the octagon, and people are wondering where his ceiling for growth is. It is possible that the holes in his ground game will have been closed by the time we see him step in to the cage on Saturday. Lamas meanwhile has all the tools to beat back the young up and comer if he commits to coming forward with combinations that have caught Holloway off guard against Fili and Corasanni, then working for the takedown wherever possible to test the traditionally weakest part of Holloway’s game, his bottom game.
The outcome of this fight depends firstly on the gameplan of Lamas, namely whether he tries to outfight with one of the best outfighters at featherweight right now or try close the distance and take him down, and whether or not Holloway has managed to plug the holes in his ground game as efficiently as he has in his stand up. With so many questions and unknowns coming in to this fight, it is impossible to say for certain which way this one will play out come fight night, one thing is certain though: This fight is a lot closer than the odds let on.