UFC 194 is primed to be the biggest event of all time. Barring an unforeseen injury, the five-fight main card is simply too prolific to not deliver on arrival.
Headlined by an ultra-anticipated grudge match between UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo and paper king Conor McGregor, Dec. 12 is a date marked in red on any dedicated mixed martial arts fan’s calendar. But as we dig deeper into the scheduled pay-per-view bouts, we begin to see why UFC 194 is already being compared to UFC 100.
Granted, there is no Brock Lesnar. But names like Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero, Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson help sooth the mind. They are a small collection of the very best fighters in the world, some of whom will be fighting for a championship or the right to fight for one.
— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) December 4, 2015
But as we burrow even deeper into the main card, we find ourselves looking at Max Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens. Some people understand that this is an important featherweight contest entering 2016, while others are still scrambling to pick their jaws up off the floor and wipe the drool from their chins. The reason being, Holloway vs. Stephens is a clash that has the potential to capture Fight of the Night honors, even on a card as massively constructed as UFC 194.
Now while part of the upcoming excitement is delivered by the hard-hitting Stephens and his ability to remain dangerous from bell-to-bell, the underlining thrill is given off by Holloway. People may not realize it now, but he’s on the verge of joining Aldo, McGregor, Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes as the best 145-pound fighters on the planet.
As arguably the most overlooked contender gracing the UFC roster, the 24-year-old Hawaiian has done everything in his power to shake off a 2013 loss to a seething McGregor. And despite becoming the first person to ever take the Irishman to a decision, Holloway’s efforts are not reminiscent to his full capabilities.
Since that loss, the smooth striking featherweight has channeled his inner Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone by dismantling seven opponents in a row (Cerrone is at eight). This includes submission victories over a desperate Cub Swanson and a thick-skinned Andre Fili, as well as finishing four other fights by way of knockout or TKO. As a result of Holloway’s recent evolution in one of the fastest growing divisions, he became the youngest fighter ever to record 10 wins inside of the Octagon following his victor over Charles Oliveira.
It may have been easier for “Blessed” to accomplish such a feat considering he made his promotional debut at the ripe age of 20, but it has been the knowledge and experience that Holloway has earned along the way that has ultimately led him down a road of budding dominance.
When he meets Stephens at UFC 194, he’ll have another shot to debunk one of the toughest competitors around. One that possesses unparalleled punching power as a former lightweight who knocked out current 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos. With a win, Holloway will have all his ducks in a row to make a final push for a title shot next year.
But defeating someone like Stephens is a task much easier talked about than accomplished.
On paper, Holloway’s shifty footwork, use of range, scrambling ability, offensive guard and combinations inside could be all he needs. However, Stephens is unlike any fighter he has ever faced. He is a strong-bodied and strong-minded finisher who relentlessly presses the action. Just look at his most recent TKO finish at UFC 189 over Dennis Bermudez, who represented the 145-pound athletic prototype.
It will be up to Holloway to fight smarter than Stephens, stay along the outside, pick his shots, target the body, and score in bunches in order to claim victory. If he can do that, then a shot at gold in 2016 is near imminent.