Kicking off the stacked UFC 194 card will be a fantastic featherweight matchup between the fast rising Max Holloway and veteran Jeremy Stephens. Holloway has won his last seven contests over an increasing level of competition, while Stephens is coming off a huge flying knee knockout win over Dennis Bermudez in July. Max Holloway (14-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC, -550 favorite) Holloway is one of the fastest rising fighters in mixed martial arts. The amount of high-level experience he has at such a young age is something a lot of people overlook. 14 fights in mixed martial art’s leading promotion by the age of 24 is not something many fighters accomplish. Further, his level of competition has increased steadily over the years. Holloway is currently on 7 fight win streak, which includes wins over some of the best fighters in the world, including Charles Oliveira and Cub Swanson. To further accentuate that point, his three losses have all come to top competition or are somewhat questionable. Holloway lost his UFC debut when he faced Dustin Poirer on short notice, which was throwing him to the wolves in a way. His other losses are to current UFC Interim Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor and a highly questionable decision loss to Dennis Bermudez, who is also a top ten fighter. The 24-year old is a striker by trade, though he has rounded out his game in recent years. He switches between a southpaw and orthodox stance seamlessly, which constantly gives his opponent new looks. Most of his best work, however, has come when he utilizes a southpaw stance. Holloway works a solid jab and straight left hand, which he combines with a right hook and slapping leg and body kicks. From an orthodox stance he prefers to use his jab and powerful straight right hand. While he is not an overwhelming power striker, he does pack a decent punch and his high volume tends to overwhelm his opposition. The young Hawaiian utilizes angles very well, as he enters on one angle and exits the pocket on another. Holloway is also proficient in the clinch, as he fires strong elbows and knees to the head and body of his opponent. The area where Holloway has improved the most is on the ground. To start off, he has strong defensive wrestling and takedown defense. He is adept at winning the underhook battle, which is often the key to staying on his feet. When he does get taken down Max utilizes a very active guard and will regularly attempt submissions and throw elbows from his back. His jiu jitsu from top position is underrated, as some of his recent opponents have found out. He passes well and throws hard ground and pound, especially when in a dominant position. From an offensive submission standpoint, Holloway has a decent arsenal of submissions, including a nasty guillotine choke. Strong endurance and chin are other positive aspects of Max’s game. Jeremy Stephens (24-11 MMA, 11-10 UFC, +425 underdog) Like Holloway, Stephens has been fighting for the UFC since a very early age. The Iowa native has been with the promotion for more than 8 years and currently boasts an 11-10 record. Most of his fights have taken place in the lightweight division, but he moved down to featherweight in May of 2013. Stephens has done better in his new division, as he has accumulated a 4-2 record. He started off in his new division with a three fight win streak, but stumbled after that by losing consecutive fights to Cub Swanson and Charles Oliveira. Stephens rebounded nicely with a huge flying knee knockout over top contender Dennis Bermudez in July. He will make his 22nd appearance inside the Octagon on Saturday night when he takes on the surging Holloway. Stephens is also a striker, but he has a much different style than Holloway. While Holloway relies on his high pace and volume, Stephens relies more on the huge power he packs in his hands. Six of his eleven UFC wins have come via knockout, including a vicious knockout of current UFC Lightweight Champion Rafael dos Anjos in 2008 that earned him “Knockout of the Night” honors. Stephens utilizes hard uppercuts, left and right hooks, and overhand rights that he all throws with bad intentions. Every punch Stephens throws is to knock his opponent out. For that reason he is not the most technical striker and often telegraphs his punches. However, when he does land his punches are quite damaging. Not to rely solely on his hands, Stephens has potent kicks to all levels and hard knees, which we saw in his last fight. Stephens’ pace often depends on what shape he shows up in. There have been fights where he slowed down severely because of his poor conditioning. However, when he shows up in shape he is a handful for just about every featherweight. Stephens trains in San Diego, California at Alliance MMA, which is also home to former UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, and Brandon Vera. His defensive wrestling has improved in recent years, though he can be taken down by expert wrestlers and grapplers. From his back Stephens offers very little and focuses mainly on scrambling back to his feet. The Iowa native’s offensive submission game is practically nonexistent, as he pretty much totally relies on his striking to win fights. One area where Stephens has really improved in is his submission defense. He was able to escape several submission attempts by submission whiz Charles Oliveira that looked like they were completely locked in. That improvement should be credited to his hard work in the gym. Thoughts This is a great fight to kick off UFC 194’s amazing main card. Stephens’ last fight was also on a card headlined by Conor McGregor and he seemed to utilize the energy from the highly engaged crowd to his advantage. However, this fight is a much more difficult matchup for him than the one he had in July. Holloway is an offensive dynamo that is on his way to the top of the featherweight division. A title shot seems inevitable at this point for the Hawaiian, especially if he defeats Stephens in impressive fashion. However, he will still be behind the winner of Frankie Edgar versus Chad Mendes in the featherweight division’s pecking order and may have to win one more fight before he gets a title shot. As far as the matchup goes, Stephens is going to have trouble matching up with the tall and rangy Holloway, who throws far more volume and is defensively sound. Holloway’s potent striking attack and reach should be all he needs to win this fight, as he will not have to worry much about Stephens shooting for takedowns. Stephens, meanwhile, will likely need to land a bomb to win this fight, as his chances of winning a decision are highly unlikely. Knocking Holloway out is going to be one tough task, however, as he has a great chin and is hard to hit. Holloway simply is the more efficient fighter at this point and that should show on Saturday night. He should be able to at least take a decision here, though a late technical knockout would not surprise me either. The Prediction: Max Holloway defeats Jeremy Stephens by unanimous decision
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