The Ultimate Fighting Championship makes its return to network television—and its debut on ABC—with an excellent main card this Saturday at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It remains unclear how far in advance the promotion knew this was in the works, but the end result is a five-fight slate that has a little bit of everything and should be exciting from start to finish. The Max Holloway-Calvin Kattar headliner is one of the best fights the UFC can put on at the moment, and while the co-main event between Carlos Condit and Matt Brown comes a few years too late, it is still a probable banger that helps provide some star power. Santiago Ponzinibbio’s return against Jingliang Li also figures to be thrilling, and when you add in some top middleweight prospects to fill out the rest, this becomes an almost shockingly solid card from top to bottom.
Now to the preview for the UFC on ABC 1 “Holloway vs. Kattar” main card:
Featherweights#1 FW | Max Holloway (21-6, 17-6 UFC) vs. #6 FW | Calvin Kattar (22-4, 6-2 UFC)
ODDS: Holloway (-155), Kattar (+135)
Holloway is suddenly in the spot of having to reclaim his featherweight supremacy, which comes much earlier than most would have expected when he became champion. Given how many raw prospects have either stagnated or washed out of the UFC in the years since, it is even more admirable how quickly Holloway ran up the ranks upon hitting the Octagon. Coming into the UFC at 20 years old and with a little over a year’s worth of pro experience, Holloway had a rough start to his UFC career. Losses to Dustin Poirier, Dennis Bermudez and Conor McGregor all aged quite well, and within two years, he had started what would become a 13-fight winning streak. Holloway’s 2015 victory over Cub Swanson was a breakout performance that showed the Hawaiian was ready to become a title challenger, but with McGregor’s division- and sport-hopping gumming up the title picture at 145 pounds, Holloway kept turning back the divisional elite just to hold his place in line, putting on dominant performances that were technically proficient and resulted in exciting wars.
By the time Holloway finally affirmed himself as the division’s best in 2017 with two wins over Jose Aldo, there was a bit of a worry that between Holloway’s youth and long road to the title, he would stagnate a bit due to a lack of fresh matchups and challengers. Things worked themselves out in that regard, as there was a surprising amount of adversity and drama to Holloway’s title reign, given how pre-ordained his status at featherweight king seemed to be. Brian Ortega was lined up to be Holloway’s next challenger in a fight that got canceled multiple times, owing to Holloway’s issues with injuries and his brutal weight cut. That led to some concern that years of wars had prematurely taken their toll on Holloway, but things went as well as ever inside the cage, where Holloway put on one of his strongest performances to date in another one-sided win. Then came a surprising move up to lightweight for an interim title fight against Poirier, which essentially led nowhere. It was an excellent fight, but Poirier handily took the win and basically showed that Holloway would need some physical preparation to bulk up and hold his own at 155 pounds. Holloway rebounded with a title defense over Frankie Edgar and then seemed set up to coast through the next few years while looking for a stiff challenge. Next up was Alexander Volkanovski, an Australian who seemingly came out of nowhere to put together two strong wins over Chad Mendes and Aldo, staking his claim for a shot at featherweight gold. The fight turned out to be a fairly shocking loss for Holloway. Volkanovski stuck to a smart game plan early that prevented Holloway from getting on a roll, banking rounds with leg kicks and defense that left the Hawaiian unsuccessfully trying to play catchup. The bout was one-sided enough that it was a bit surprising that the UFC turned around and booked an immediate rematch, but Holloway once again found himself assuaging everyone’s concerns. This time, it was Holloway who came into the fight with a bunch of opponent-specific adjustments, using a newly found kicking game to neutralize Volkanovski’s range striking and bank some early rounds; and it was Volkanovski who was forced to adjust and attempt a comeback. The champion did so, winning a somewhat-controversial decision that has left Holloway in a tough position after two straight losses. There does seem to be some demand for a trilogy fight, which was briefly teased as the UFC’s next plan. However, with Volkanovski having some fresh challengers, it seems perfectly fine that the promotion decided to go in another direction in the short term. After all, Holloway somehow still is not 30 years old. As a result, “Blessed” gets a chance to retool ahead of a trilogy bout whenever it happens, though he certainly does not get an easy test here against a divisional dark horse in Kattar.
Few title contenders come into the UFC as unheralded as Kattar did. Signed as a late replacement to take on Andre Fili in 2017, he was not on anyone’s radar. While he had an impressive record, he had all of two fights in the prior four years, owing to some injuries and a stint as a fight promoter. Add in that Kattar was on a healthy string of decisions—they made his “Boston Finisher” moniker more amusing than anything else—and he figured to provide solid featherweight depth and little else. However, Kattar went about impressing immediately out of the gates. His sharp boxing led to a surprisingly one-sided win over Fili, and he followed it with a hometown win over Shane Burgos in an excellent fight that ended via third-round knockout. There have been fits and starts to Kattar’s success, but his boxing has been beautiful to watch. While Kattar takes a while to get going, once he has his reads, he is able to flummox opponents and hit them hard with powerful combinations. Even with well over a decade in the game, Kattar is obviously improving his approach from fight to fight, getting off to a quicker start each time out and hitting with more and more power once everything clicks. Again, he has gone from a string of decisions on the regional scene to blasting tough veterans like Ricardo Lamas and Jeremy Stephens. Even better for Kattar, now that he is established as a contender, he is getting more of these five-round fights that his suit his building style the best. He was on his way to outlasting Zabit Magomedsharipov in a rare three-round headliner, and his last fight saw him widen the gap over Dan Ige in each of their five rounds. This is obviously Kattar’s biggest shot to date, but even with a loss here, he has the skills to easily make another run towards the title.
This is a uniquely difficult fight to call. Most fighters remain static, both between and within fights, so matchups typically have a clear dynamic throughout the entire fight cycle. However, these are two of the best adjusters in the game, working with their teams to tailor their approaches in a way that works to emphasize their strengths and reduce their weaknesses. Holloway’s runs of fights with Aldo and Volkanovski show off this dynamic. With Aldo, Holloway essentially picked up where he left off from their first fight in an advantageous matchup, while the Volkanovski series saw Holloway add a new set of tools to neutralize everything the champion used to win their first fight, forcing the Australian to adjust. With Kattar, his fights seem to hinge more on in-fight adjustments. He has been well-aware of his need to warm up as his fights go on and has tried to get off to faster starts because of it, but there is still a marked difference in all of Kattar’s fights by as soon as the second round. Holloway can probably take the advantage early. Kattar needs to find his range, and his fight with Magomedsharipov showed some issues dealing with longer and faster opponents who can throw kicks and keep him from landing his jab, which serves as the core of his striking game. Prior to the last Volkanovski fight, Holloway did not seem to have those weapons, but given what he showed off in that bout, it should be enough to keep Kattar from truly rolling downhill for a round or two. The issue for Holloway is what comes later, given Kattar’s ability to adjust over the course of his fights. Holloway tends to open up as his fights go on. The early rounds are all built around feeling out his opponent, with the idea that by the end of his fights Holloway can string together combinations that may leave him defensively open but should eventually drown his opponent and lead to victory in a war of attrition. That probably will not work here. Opening up in such a manner, as Burgos showed to an extent, is usually a recipe for Kattar to analyze what is coming and blast his opponent with a counter or some combinations of his own. If Holloway had anything less than the granite chin he has shown throughout his career, that would likely lead to a call for Kattar to earn a knockout win in the championship rounds. The Bostonian will probably cause a ton of damage and firmly turn the tide by the time this fight ends, but Holloway should also be able to bank the early rounds. The pick is for Holloway to gut out a decision, but this has the potential to kick off the UFC’s 2021 campaign with one of the best fights of the year.
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