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The Best Bodysnatcher in MMA: Max Holloway

Once the youngest fighter on the UFC roster, Max Holloway has grown up inside the Octagon—amassing a 13-3 UFC record and winning the interim featherweight title by becoming the first man to ever stop Anthony Pettis at only 25 years old. After his last loss to Conor McGregor, where he became the only featherweight to ever take the current lightweight champ to a decision, Holloway went on to win 10 fights in a row with a 70% finishing rate. The young prospect has firmly established himself as an elite competitor and this weekend he’ll be looking to prove that he’s more than that: he’s a champion.

So what is it that makes Holloway stand out? By the numbers he’s one of the most active strikers in the UFC, ranked 6th for total significant strikes landed (1059) and 9th for strikes landed per minute (5.67) according to FightMetric. Looking at his record, an unusually high number of his stoppages come late in the fight. In addition, Holloway tends to both land more strikes and land with more accuracy as the fight goes on. Clearly something is causing his opponents to fade as he pulls ahead. While some might attribute his success to his sharp counter punching, his tricky stance switching, his accuracy or his pace, today we’re going to talk about the one thing Holloway does better than anyone in the sport—body snatching. Specifically, we’re going to look at his favorite tools for attacking the body in part 1 and at the effects they have on his opponents in part 2.

BODY HOOKS

The most common tool you’ll see Holloway use to the attack the body is his body hooks. Anytime Holloway gets his opponent against the cage, you can count on him ripping vicious hooks to the body. Even as far back as his third UFC fight against Justin Lawrence, Holloway can be seen smashing ribs.

With Lawrence against the cage, Holloway ensures a high guard with two slapping hooks up top. Most fighters will head hunt when they get the opponent standing still, so Holloway encourages Lawrence to worry about his head before changing levels and digging in hooks under his raised elbows. Lawrence tries to throw back but crumples to the mat in agony. Note that Holloway even sneaks in another shot to the body as he swarms for the finish. Flurrying the head then smashing the body is a staple of Holloway’s game and can be seen in almost all of his fights.

Again, after hurting Lamas up top and getting him to cover up against the cage, Holloway rips a couple shots to the body before going back to the head. While earlier in his career Holloway would only really attack the body once the opponent was shelled up, he’s gotten much more active about setting up his body hooks.

In the third round of his fight with Cole Miller, Holloway clips Miller with a 1-2. Miller reaches out with his left arm and tries to line up a big right hand, but Holloway ducks it and starts swarming the body. Miller grimaces as he eats multiple hard hooks and is forced to clinch up to end the onslaught. With subtle head movement Holloway closes distance on the taller man and shakes his foundation.

Against Cub Swanson, Holloway begins by measuring range with his jab. Confident in his distance, Holloway feints with his right hand as he pushes off his back foot, forcing Cub on the defensive. However, instead of attacking with that hand, Holloway continues the weight shift to slip to his left, which serves to simultaneously take his head out of the path of Cub’s counter and to free up his right leg to step through into southpaw, outside Cub’s lead foot. By sneaking into an outside angle in the southpaw stance, Holloway is able to attack from a position and distance where Cub’s offense and defense are both compromised and thus Holloway blasts him with a left uppercut between his elbows, then a right hook behind his lead elbow. He’s recently become very fond of using that shift to set up his body work.

Holloway tags Pettis with a body jab, then pulls back as Pettis attacks with a front kick. Holloway stands at the edge of range and pulls back slightly as Pettis feints another kick with the other leg, but as soon as Pettis steps that leg down Holloway gets after him. Pettis manages to parry and deflect the 1-2, but Holloway uses the weight transfer of the 2 to slide his right leg all the way through into a southpaw stance, where he dips down and cracks Pettis in the stomach with a left hook. Instead of waiting until Pettis was against the cage with nowhere to go, Holloway initiated the combo while Pettis was stepping in and would have trouble retreating, then used a subtle shift mid-combo to keep the range he needed for the hook. This represents one of a few very nice evolutions in his body-punching game.

Holloway feints his jab, looking to draw out a reaction from Pettis. Pettis raises his right elbow as he moves his right hand in position to parry, while also lowering and extending his lead hand. Holloway sees the open ribcage on the right side, so he sets up his attack. A throwaway jab (note the lack of extension and shoulder rotation) convinces Pettis to raise his right elbow again and this time to shoot out his own jab, which Holloway is already proactively slipping. Holloway attacks the liver with his right left hand, but Pettis does a great job pivoting away and tucking his elbow back tight to his ribs. However, Holloway now has the right range and angle to land his overhand up top.

Holloway’s hooks to the body have developed from tools to be used while swarming to educated, well set up attacks with effective follow-ups. On their own they’d be dangerous enough, but they’re only the beginning of his weapons.

SPINNING BACK KICKS:

One of Holloway’s favorite tools is his spinning back kick to the body. He actually likes it a little too much, sometimes spamming it and missing pretty badly once he’s landed it once. Despite getting a little carried away on occasion, it’s a very dangerous strike that has hurt multiple opponents and changed the course of a couple fights.

Holloway parries a jab from Andre Fili and immediately shoots back his own—a classic counter that you’ll often see Holloway make great use of to measure distance. Fili also parries the counter jab, and returns with the same counter but Holloway pulls away from it. As Fili pivots, Holloway leaps back in with another jab, only this time he isn’t looking to land it. He uses the footwork of his jab to disguise the turning in of his lead foot, quickly transitioning into a spinning back kick that knocks Fili back. In an attempt to convince Holloway it didn’t hurt, Fili bounces and hits the spot where it made contact—a sure sign that it did, in fact, hurt a lot. But not as bad as this one:

Again, it all starts with the jab. Holloway uses his jab and counter jab to push Fili back near the cage. As soon as Fili plants his feet, Holloway spins and spears him in the liver with a kick that nearly folds him in half. Holloway is very good at timing this kick on guys who hop out of range then try to return fire.

Holloway steps back out of range and bounces, luring Cub in. As Cub walks towards him, Holloway suddenly springs forward to break his rhythm with a jab that catches him off guard and pushes him back. Cub bounces out then back in to reset, but Holloway times it. He follows Cub out, uses another jab to cover his spin and catches Cub coming back into range. The advantage of the spinning back kick Holloway uses, as opposed to a turning side kick, is its speed and the ability to throw it at close range. Holloway often isn’t even looking at his opponent when the kick lands as he prefers to throw it as quickly and with as minimal movement as possible. While this does result in him missing or not landing flush more often, it also makes the kick very hard to read. Plus, he’s good at throwing it when he knows the opponent won’t be moving a whole lot.

With Will Chope hurt against the cage, Holloway goes to his signature body hooks. He doesn’t stop there though. He steps his lead foot across his body then jumps into a spinning back kick, knocking Chope back and leaving him leaning on the cage for support. Shortly after he would go on to finish Chope. Holloway’s spinning back kick is the most damaging single strike he uses to the body, but he also has tools to wear the opponent down more gradually.

BODY KNEES:

Body knees are another very consistent and valuable tool in Holloway’s arsenal. He knees with both legs from a variety of setups and ranges. As we established before, if Holloway is swarming you can count on him hooking to the body. However, if you try to close distance or clinch, you’re just as likely to eat a knee.

With Chope hurt against the fence, Holloway starts unloading. As soon as Chope tries to duck into a clinch, Holloway stops him with an underhook and delivers a hard right knee. He then establishes a double collar tie and hurts Chope with another knee. In fact, any time you end up in a clinch with Holloway you’re likely to have some wind knocked out of you by his knee.

Fili pins Holloway against the cage with a left underhook and tries to free his right arm. Holloway fights to control Fili’s right bicep with his left arm and keeps his forehead pressed into the side of Fili’s head as if he’s trying to look in Fili’s ear. This allows him to keep space between the two and prevent Fili from attacking effectively. Fili starts lifting his arm out to the side and pulling his hips back to set up a knee with his right leg, but Holloway beats him to it and knees under his flared elbow, directly into the liver. He then uses his bicep control to push off as he circles out towards that side, away from the underhook and back to the center of the cage. Note the deep breath Fili takes and his nod as Holloway resets—he felt that one. Holloway is very good at using his knees to punish aggressive grappling.

Fili ducks under Holloways jab and shoots a knee tap. Holloway defends by underhooking with his right arm and cross-facing/stuffing the head with his left. Watch how Holloway uses the underhook to elevate Fili’s left arm, preventing it from exerting any force towards his left knee which is being “tapped”. In addition, Holloway’s left arm alternates between pushing down on Fili’s head to break his posture and wedging under Fili’s neck to create space and force him to use only arm strength to hold onto the leg. Once Holloway recovers his left leg, he uses the underhook and frame to turn Fili and create space for another knee to the body. Note Fili’s defeated body language after exerting all that effort only to be stuffed then kneed while trying to catch his breath. While Holloway can use his knees defensively in the clinch, he also shows the ability to enter the clinch on his own terms and land good knees.

Holloway leaps in with a thai hop 1-2, crashing into an over-under clinch with Pettis. Pettis shoots his hips back, so Holloway takes advantage of that space. He takes a small step with his left foot to walk into a powerful right knee to the body. Pettis makes an attempt to trip the left leg that Holloway stepped up, but Holloway pulls it back and returns to a neutral clinch position. Here he see the same concept in action:

Holloway feints a jab and leads with a straight right, coming inside Pettis’ counter left hook then swimming his right arm through for an underhook. He keeps his left elbow inside Pettis’ right arm, blocking Pettis from underhooking on that side while maintaining distance and using that arm to help push him back. Holloway drives forward, and when Pettis steps back with his left leg Holloway shoots his right knee through the space created. He then looks to disengage, pushing Pettis off with that left arm while continuing to block his underhook. This ability to punch, clinch and disengage is very tiring to deal with both mentally and physically as Pettis is working very hard only to miss his punch, take a knee to the body then have Holloway escape back to striking range untouched. As good as his clinch knees are, Holloway is also capable of using them out in the open.

Here’s a nifty little skip up knee against Justin Lawrence. He’s never done that since and it wasn’t all that damaging so I doubt we’ll see it again, but it was too cool to leave out.

And here we see a step in knee vs Fili, though Holloway fails to set it up well and gets blast doubled as a result.

More impressively, Holloway landed an intercepting knee in the middle of an extended exchange at the end of his fight with Jeremy Stephens. After cracking Stephens with a right hand and using the opening to circle off the cage, Holloway keeps a close eye on Stephens. As soon as Stephens steps forward with a jab, Holloway steps in to meet him and spears him under his extended left arm, knocking Stephens a half-step back. Stephens returns fire with a right kick and the two get back to slugging. Both men miss a few punches until Holloway catches Stephens with a tight left hook that whips his head around. To throw that knee in the middle of such a heated exchange speaks volumes about Holloway’s composure as a fighter—not to mention the fact that he was comfortable trading shots with a MUCH heavier hitter, and even got the better of the exchange.

Body hooks, knees and spinning back kicks have made up the majority of Holloway’s body work for most of his career, but he’s recently started to favor a few other techniques as well. In tomorrow’s piece we’ll examine a few more of Holloway’s weapons in his bodysnatching arsenal before getting into the effects they have on his opponents.

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