UFC 223 was dealt a devastating blow when Tony Ferguson was ruled out with injury just 6 days out from fight night. But the UFC have given us a more than worthy replacement in Max Holloway. Holloway will look to become just the second man to hold title in two divisions when he takes on undefeated Dagestani destroyer Khabib Nurmagomedov. Thug Rose Namajunas will also look to defend her title for the first time in a rematch vs the mercurial Joanna Jędrzejczyk. We take an in depth look at both those fights.
This was supposed to be the fight that MMA purists had been anticipating for years. While Conor McGregor holds the lightweight division ransom, the fighter most people considered the best in the division would be decided when Tony Ferguson eventually took on Khabib Nurmagomedov. That fight had been booked and cancelled through injury 3 times, but we were finally going to see it at UFC 223. That was until fight week, when Ferguson suffered a ‘freak accident’ during media obligations that forced him off the card. That was some of the most disappointing news I have ever heard in a sport infamous for disappointing news. That was until Hawaiian mad man and current UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway agreed to step in on just 6 days’ notice. Not only is Holloway stepping up on short notice, he is going up a weight division and fighting the one man no one wants to fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is many people’s uncrowned lightweight king. He is currently 25-0 and has absolutely demolished all nine of his UFC opponents. Nurmagomedov grew up in war torn Dagestan and began wrestling before the age of 6 under the tutelage of his father; a renowned wrestler and military veteran. There is footage online of an 8 year old Nurmagomedov wrestling a bear. Safe to say Nurmagomedov’s unique background gives him some significant advantages when it comes to cage fighting. Nurmagomedov developed into an international master of sport (Russian black belt equivalent) in Sambo, Pankration and army hand-to hand combat as well as earning a black belt in Judo. He is not known for flashy striking or slick submissions, instead he stalks opponents down, grabs a limb, sticks them on the mat and then goes to work with ground and pound. He doesn’t have a traditional BJJ background, but on the ground Nurmagomedov has yet to find an equal. He slices through guards and passes to dominant position with incredible ease. While he has a number of submission victories, Nurmagomedov prefers to just beat up opponents on the ground. Often goading them to quit and giving no chance of escape. On the feet he is sloppy. He moves forward winging powerful punches and leaving himself open for counters. Michael Johnson had the most success exploiting these holes, but it wasn’t long before he found himself on his back and eventually tapped to a kimura. But in Max Holloway, Nurmagomedov gets a new kind of opponents, a high volume striker without an ounce of quit in his body.
If Max Holloway is able to win this fight he will undoubtedly be the next UFC superstar. He took McGregor’s vacated featherweight belt after beating former pound-for-pound king Jose Aldo and then beat him again in a rematch. If he wins this fight he will again take McGregor’s vacated belt and become the second fighter ever to concurrently hold belts in two divisions, after McGregor did it in 2016. Holloway is another fighter whose style has been largely dictated by his upbringing. He grew up on the mean streets of Waianae Hawaii, where learning to fight was a necessity. He is a technically proficient boxer, who loves to get into wild exchanges and seemingly doesn’t tire. He is currently riding a 12 fight UFC win streak, with his last lost coming as a 22 year old, against.. you guessed it.. Conor McGregor. The most impressive aspect to Holloway’s games is the output, he is constantly throwing punches, and has the ability to really ramp up the pace if an opponent is injured or dazed. He throws crisp, clean boxing combinations and has an interesting array of kicks to go with it. Unlike Nurmagomedov he isn’t known for takedowns, but does possess a pretty mean submission game, but it remains to be seen if it is even physically possible to submit Nurmagomedov.
Prediction: This is a really interesting stylistic match up. You could not find two more different fighters, Holloway a high level boxer who favours movement, angles and output and Nurmagomedov a Dagestani wrestler who seems to take great joy in grinding out opponents. All things equal, I think this is a surprisingly tough test for Nurmagomedov. Holloway can really hurt him with counters and his ability to cut angles while countering will make him a nightmare for Nurmagomedov to get a hold of. Holloway is the best technical striker Nurmagomedov has faced in my opinion. However Holloway is taking this fight on short notice, is going up a weight division and wasn’t training for the unique style of Nurmagomedov. If Holloway had a full camp and there were no weight cutting issues, I would really like a play on him at this price. However I just can’t bet on someone with this many questions marks. Instead I am going to play the over; Holloway is tough. He has only been finished once in his career (on his UFC debut as a teenage against a rampaging Dustin Porier) and took McGregor to a decision. I can’t see Nurmagomedov grinding him out within 3.5 rounds. Khabib Nurmagomedov by decision.
This fight is a rematch of one of the biggest upsets of 2017. Rose Namajunas shocked the world when she beat Joanna Jędrzejczyk to claim women’s straw weight belt as a $4.50 underdog. Not only did Namajunas win, she completely out struck and eventually KO’d Jędrzejczyk; a fighter many people thought of as the best female striker to ever compete in the UFC. Now Namajunas gets a chance to prove that the first fight was no fluke and establish her shelf as one of the brightest young stars in the UFC.
Even before her first fight with Jędrzejczyk, we knew Namajunas was very good. She is well rounded fighter, who has black belts in Taekwondo and Karate to supplement her excellent submission grappling. What we hadn’t seen from Namajunas was that KO power’ in fact that was her first ever KO/TKO finish. Her striking also looked significantly improved against Jędrzejczyk, the way she was darting in and out of range while firing off clean 1-2s, was something we hadn’t seen from Namajunas. Another incredible aspect of that fight was Namajunas’ mentality. Often when a fighter comes against someone as intimidating as Jędrzejczyk they can beat themselves before setting foot in the cage and just end up looking like a deer in the headlights as their more fancied opponents runs right through them. But Namajunas looked composed all fight week and as soon as that bell rung she was all business. Whether this was just a perfect night for Namajunas, an off night for Jędrzejczyk or whether Namajunas actually has Jędrzejczyk’s number is one of the most interesting wrinkles to this fight.
Prior to her loss to Namajunas, Jędrzejczyk was one of the most feared opponents in the UFC. The former multi time world Muay Thai champion not only beat opponents, she brutalized them. Only grappling Phenom Cláudia Gadelha was able to offer any kind of resistance, but she went down by decision, twice. Jędrzejczyk has exceptional striking. She uses angles, feints and volume to completely overwhelm opponents. On top of that she has a dominant clinch game, 5 round cardio and near impenetrable takedown defence. She also punishes opponents for attempting takedowns, often landing a short elbow or knee when breaking. Jędrzejczyk was able to combine this array of skills to form one of the most dominant title runs in recent history, but that all went up in smoke when Namajunas was able to pose some questions she just couldn’t answer.
Prediction: I have re-watched the first between these two a lot and that two things that stand out to me the most are; how big an impact Namajunas’ reach advantage had and how much faster Namajunas looked than Jędrzejczyk. Jędrzejczyk is usually the one to dictate the pace and distance, whereas in this fight Namajunas did an excellent job of staying just out of range. So much so, that that Jędrzejczyk barely landed a strike. Namajunas was able to avoid Jędrzejczyk shots and then slide in with a wide array of strikes that always seemed to land clean, faster and harder than anything Jędrzejczyk was throwing. Constantly being caught on the outside meant that Jędrzejczyk was also not able to get any traction with her clinch game. In saying all that, I still think Jędrzejczyk is the better fighter. She has always been a slow starter who grows into fights as she starts to gauge opponents’ movements and controls the distance. All the shaky moments in her career have come in the first round or so (other than the 4th against Karolina Kowalkiewicz) and she just came up against someone who had an exquisite first round. In the rematch I think Jędrzejczyk will be much more patient and stick to the outside in the early rounds, before starting to outpoint in the latter rounds. Namajunas showed so much improvement in her last fight, so who knows how she is going to look here, but I have to go with the more skilled opponent. Joanna Jędrzejczyk by decision.
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