I know what you’re thinking. “UFC on ESPN 16? What a drop in quality after 253! Why would I watch that?”
And yeah, I understand: Holm vs. Aldana is most likely not going to be an event that sets the world in fire, but while this week’s card might not have any fights that match the expectation and excitement of Adesanya vs. Costa or Reyes vs. Błachowicz, it’s far from a bad event by MMA standards, and for fans of the game it might have quite a few matchups worth studying. So let’s try to temper our expectations, put away our pitchforks and try to look at what Holm vs. Aldana has in store for us with fresh eyes.
THE ADVANCED FUNDAMENTALS OF HOLLY HOLM
I don’t think I’m dropping the hot take of the century by saying that Holly Holm’s style is, by now, not an overwhelming fan favorite.
And this dislike is not exactly unfounded. While at some point Holm was the name to look out for at women’s featherweight, she’s since gone through a series of ups and downs that have left her career in a complicated spot. Following her momentous victory over Rousey, Holm was hit with a year-long slump through which she lost three fights in a row.
She managed to break the streak with a TKO victory over Bethe Correia, another struggling veteran of the Rousey era, in a fight that made it unfortunately clear just how reliant Holm is on her opponents moving towards her. Ever since, she’s traded wins and losses, handily beating the fighters she’s considered superior to whilst struggling to put it together against top-level competition.
Holm’s career is a bit of an odd thing. To call it disappointing seems too harsh — she’s definitely an accomplished fighter — but it still feels like she’s never truly lived up to her potential, which makes it all the more confounding when you look at her latest matches and realize she’s still one hell of a fighter. While Holly might be getting up there in age and seemingly been a victim of the Jackson-Wink pointfighter-style curse, she’s still one of the most reliable contenders at women’s featherweight and, in my opinion, one of the most well-rounded fighters currently active in WMMA.
Holly is a southpaw fighter with a mainly kickboxing-reliant style, but a strong grappling base. She stands out from the pack because of her experience and composure: She’s a long time veteran who cut her teeth in boxing and kickboxing before entering MMA, which one could argue is what makes her such a nightmare against more inexperienced newcomers, but a hard sell against the more physically gifted top echelon.
In my last article about Israel Adesanya, I touched briefly on the idea of ring generalship and lateral movement, two concepts modern MMA is direly lacking on. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Holly Holm, another fighter with a striking-specialized background, is one of the few other fighters I’ve seen using them productively: Holm’s main weapon aren’t her punches or her kicks, but her footwork, and the way the latter sets up the former.
Holm almost never moves straight back when pressured, instead opting to angle off to her left, towards her opponent’s power side. While in theory this could lead to her running into their rear hand, she’s adept at cutting the angle in a way that awkwardly opens up her opponent’s stance, rendering most of their power shots ineffective. MMA doesn’t have many great ring cutters, and as such, this is often enough to grant Holm positional superiority in the cage — but in the rare case it isn’t, a strong clinching game usually does the trick.
While circling to the inside, Holm greatly favors the jab and the intercepting sidekick as a means of keeping her opponents at bay. Sidekicks can be a highly effective weapon for the southpaw fighter, not only because they’re long and fast, but because orthodox fighters aren’t often used to being kicked from that angle and can struggle to come up with an answer. That said, it’s far from a surefire bet, since missing a sidekick can heavily compromise the position of the kicker.
If even-footed with her opponent, Holm is more likely to start throwing with conviction. The rear left hand is the obvious weapon for the southpaw and Holm’s is both powerful and accurate, plus explosive enough that she can often afford to lead with it and follow up with combinations. A favorite of hers seems to be left straight > right uppercut > left straight.
Holm is also a big fan of the rear kick to the body, especially the teep, and we saw her use it to great success against Beth Correia. This is a great tool for creating space and exhausting the opponent, which is one of the main paths an outfighter like Holm has to victory, but perhaps more importantly it also serves to mask the question mark kick, which has become somewhat of Holm’s trademark.
Of course, this is not to say that Holm’s style is flawless. Her tendency towards passivity and tentativeness can lead to her missing possible openings, and while her footwork stands a level above that of most contestants in WMMA, savvy ring cutters who’re keen on keeping track of her movement won’t find much resistance before running face-first into her.
But these gaps are small, and Holm is still an all around skillful and dangerous kickboxer. Her style lacks any obvious exploitable weaknesses and her experience makes her a real danger to any prospects looking to test themselves. Which, speaking of…
THE METHODOLOGICAL DESTRUCTION OF IRENE ALDANA
Aldana is quite possibly one of the most interesting fighters currently active at women’s featherweight. While she’s far from a newcomer to the scene, having joined the UFC roster all the way back in 2016, last year saw her hit an unexpected burst in activity which left her winning three of her four fights in dominant fashion (and only losing the last one to a razor-close decision).
She is an orthodox fighter who almost purely uses boxing for her offense. While her past fights have shown her using leg kicks and grappling when necessary, it’s clear for anyone that she prefers to let her hands do the talking, which frees her feet up to keep her mobile.
In this, Aldana finds much of her success: Similar to Holm, Aldana seems more aware than her peers of her position in the cage, and regularly shuffles from side to side to keep herself away from the fence and avoid pressure. While I wouldn’t put her ring awareness on the same level as Holm’s (she has that nasty habit I previously mentioned of moving straight back when avoiding attacks), she’s still effective at keeping her opponents in a disadvantageous position while applying good pressure of her own.
Given her style, it should be no surprise to see Aldana’s jab does everything for her. Not only is it a fast, accurate attack, which can turn it into a real issue for shorter fighters looking to close in on her, she can also feint it to open her opponent up for a left hook, a tactic she used to knock out Ketlen Vieira.
The cross mainly finds its home as a follow-up to the jab or as a counter for lunging opponents, but I was surprised to see Aldana also throwing it to the body when her opponents tried to retreat. The cross to the body is a fairly safe, very efficient way to zap an opponent’s energy, and I’m always surprised to see MMA fighters don’t integrate it into their game more. Aldana, in general, has a pretty nice repertoire of punches to the body, but this one in particular caught my eye as being the most reliable and hurtful.
Aldana also shows brief flashes of intense head movement, which is something else characteristic of boxers in MMA. While head movement is an amazing defensive technique when done properly, and Aldana does find success in approaching with it, it is unfortunately sort of rendered moot by her tendency to stand still and lower her hands when she steps into the pocket, which means she often ends up trading shots as opposed to slipping and countering.
While Aldana is clearly a level above most of the fighters currently at women’s featherweight, she’s yet to be tested by someone the caliber of Holm; and even though her game plan is smart and well implemented, its somewhat one-dimensional nature could spell doom against a more well-rounded, thoroughly vetted fighter.
MATCHUP AND PREDICTIONS
In her match against Chris Cyborg, we watched Holly Holm managing to hold her own against one of the most devastating pressure fighters at women’s featherweight. Whilst she would ultimately end up on the losing end of a fairly one-sided decision, the very fact that she managed to deal with Cyborg in the way she did is indicative of Holm’s sound technique and ability to stay cool under pressure.
Simply put, while I like Aldana’s style and hope to see her further grow, I do not believe she has the necessary tools to effectively pressure Holm as of now. Whilst she might find some success boxing at mid-range I doubt she’ll succeed at keeping the fight there for long, either due to Holly’s ability to escape or her strong clinching game. This is without mentioning the southpaw advantage, which could be really difficult to deal with for a fighter as reliant on the jab-cross as Aldana is.
I believe Holm takes the fight by knockout in the third.
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