As the possibility of a rematch between Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski increases, let’s revisit ‘the Blessed Era’
On March 22, UFC Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, while discussing the possibility of a rematch against Max Holloway, said, “I want that fight, because there’s no clear No. 1 contenders, and I just think that he’s a great champion. For me, the biggest fight in my career right now to solidify myself as the best featherweight of all-time, and one of the greatest of all-time. I go and take out Max twice in [his] prime, people are gonna give me that respect I deserve.” Now, the term greatest of all time has been thrown around so many times in most MMA discussion that it has lost a lot of value. At this point, it’s become almost an adjective that fans, commentators and fighters themselves use to describe a new champion. Not a true “great.”
However, when Joe Rogan back in 2017 called Max Holloway one of the best 145ers of all time there was a significant section of MMA fandom willing to ride with him. This wasn’t your regular hype train that most boarded. Holloway over years had built a profile that many thought would fit in with the image of the greats. Now that we have moved past the knee jerk reactions and are looking at the possibility of a rematch, it’s a good time to revisit what the Blessed Era was, what made it special, why it had an immediate connection with most fans and the overall legacy it left behind.
Entering his fight against Will Chope in 2014, Max Holloway was on a career-low of a two-fight losing streak. Having made an unsuccessful debut in 2012 as a short-notice replacement to Ricardo Lamas against then rising contender Dustin Poirier, Holloway had failed to impress. He was standing with a record of 3-3 and his biggest claim to fame was going the distance against Conor McGregor, who later revealed he had suffered a torn ACL during the fight.
It was a must-win situation for Holloway, who had been written off as a journeyman by most commentators. Years later, Holloway would even express his annoyance over that attitude, saying “I thought, how the hell am I a journeyman when I’m 22 years old? I was just getting started.” But the reality was that people had written Holloway off, he wasn’t expected to make it anywhere as he simply hadn’t displayed what people wanted to see.
At the event, Holloway delivered an amazing performance. He dominated Chope before knocking him out in round two. This win would turn out to be the launch point for the longest win streak in UFC featherweight history. In the same year Holloway managed to secure three more wins, securing a total of two post-fight bonuses in the process.
However, it wasn’t until 2015 that the most MMA commentators started taking Holloway seriously. The year saw him open up with a win against Cole Miller before being thrown against division stalwart Cub Swanson. The fight was an important turning point for Holloway. He was on a five-fight winning streak and had already exceeded everyone’s expectations; by defeating Swanson he sent a very loud message. As it was noted by Dave Mandel of Sherdog, “No fighter did more to raise his profile at UFC on Fox 15 than Holloway, who beat on Cub Swanson for two rounds before submitting him with a guillotine choke in the third. The 23-year-old Hawaiian has surfaced as one of MMA’s most promising young stars and now finds himself on the fringes of title contention at 145 pounds.”
He secured two more victories over name-value fighters Charles Oliveira and Jeremy Stephens, adding a lot more to his stock. In a matter of two years, Max Holloway had gone from a written off journeyman to a contender on an eight-fight winning streak on the cusp of a title shot. It just wasn’t the number of people he had beaten in this short span, it was also about the names he had defeated and the fashion he had done it in. Out of the eight, six were finish wins which included a Performance of the Night bonus submission win over Cub Swanson. As noted by a Bloody Elbow writer in the preview of UFC 194, “Max Holloway keeps getting better. What else is there to say? Holloway hasn’t revolutionized his game, but he’s limited his weaknesses while expanding on his strengths.”
Chasing the title
At UFC 199 Holloway was scheduled to face Ricardo Lamas. In normal circumstances, an eight-fight winning streak in any weight class would warrant a title-shot, but the featherweight division was caught up in the McGregor-Aldo feud, and was about to see an interim title clash between Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar. Lamas was an experienced fighter and a former title challenger. A win over him would mean that none could question Holloway’s credentials.
Holloway managed to secure a unanimous decision win in an action-packed fight. In his post-fight interview Holloway called his shot: “I said in the Octagon I want to fight in Hawaii. I want the title shot too, so why not do them both at the same time?” At that point, a title shot appeared undeniable, but the division was clogged up and it wasn’t something Holloway pretended to be oblivious of. In his post-fight media interactions he made it clear he was willing to extend his win streak to ten. “The interim belt is at 200, and now we’ve got Conor fighting at 170. We’ll see what happens. If I’ve got to go for ten (wins in a row), I’ll go for ten.”
It was this attitude of Holloway which fans fell in love with. He was an underdog who’d made it big and undeniably was someone who should have fought for the title but despite that, he was willing to maintain grace. He wasn’t holding out hope for a title shot and at the same time he refrained from complaining. This was despite the fact that the featherweight division in 2016 was a mess. The champion McGregor had entered a feud with Nate Diaz and was at the same time giving hints that he might not be coming back to 145lbs. Out of the three people ranked above Holloway, two were set to fight for the interim-title, meaning that path too had been blocked.
Holloway’s title hopes were dealt another blow a few months later when then interim-champion Jose Aldo said he was more interested in fighting former lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis. “But if it doesn’t happen, I’d rather fight Pettis. I think nowadays, I learned a few things with them. There’s more than just the ranking like, ‘there’s a ranking order for title shots.’ No. I have to tend to the business side too. I think a fight against Pettis will sell a lot more than one against Holloway.” Aldo made the comments against the backdrop of rumors about McGregor not returning to the featherweight division. This seemed to be the breaking point for Holloway, who tweeted to Aldo, saying “Dont make me lose respect 4u @Josealdojunior Im the $$ fight! But if I was u I wouldnt want 2fight me either”
Holloway then accepted a fight against Pettis at UFC 206. The fight was given the co-main event slot. The entire event turned out to be a major mess as the main event was cancelled because of an injury, and Holloway’s fight was turned into a fight for the interim belt. Even Holloway, who usually displayed composure while addressing media, didn’t hold back, saying “I was supposed to fight him (Aldo) at UFC 205 and 206. I don’t know what the hell that guy is doing. I can understand his frustration a little, but at the end of the day, the UFC moved on. The guy is complaining and crying, and it wasn’t going to change the company’s mind. Sometimes you’ve got to go get your money, pick up and move on. I was sitting there trying to get big fights, and this guy is crying over spilled milk. Prove you’re the best in the world and fight me. But I’m not worried about that sh*t now. I’m worried about Anthony Pettis on December 10.”
The entire week was an emotional roller-coaster for MMA fans. Starting from the cancellation of the main event to McGregor being stripped to Holloway voicing his exasperation, everything simply was hinting to an explosive finish and that is exactly what fans got. Holloway showed his aggression from the very start in the main event. He dominated the fight from the start before unleashing a barrage of punches which forced the referee to halt the fight.
Establishing the Blessed Era
The year 2017 turned out to be the most defining year of Holloway’s time in the UFC. He entered the year on a wave most never imagined he’d ever ride. He was on a 10-fight winning streak and was the interim champion. It was soon announced that he was going to face Jose Aldo. The build-up to the fight saw a Holloway promising the rise of a new era.
He gave Aldo ever bit of respect deserved but at the same time maintained an unapologetic stance about how it was time for the “blessed era”. In media interactions, right before the fight, he said, “At the end of the day, I respect him. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you know you’ve got to respect him.’ Look, idiots, if I didn’t respect him, I would have not been here. At the end of the day, you’ve got to respect. But when I go in there, he’s trying to take my head off. …We’re getting into a fight. We’re fighting, guys. What are you talking about? What am I supposed to be? All goody two-shoes and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s amazing.’ No. He’s great. His run, his era, was great. But it’s time for the ‘Blessed’ era now. Out with the old, in with the new.”
The fight was by now an easy one to pick. One the many previews summed it up very well. “His (Aldo’s) defeat by McGregor, whilst indisputably final, has somewhat overshadowed a career which is up there with the greats of the sport. You feel Aldo would kill for another shot at his nemesis but would be foolish to overlook Holloway. This one should be one of the fights of the year without question.”
The fight was a memorable clash. Aldo maintained a very clear lead through rounds one and two but the pressure by a fired-up Holloway was simply way too much for the legendary champion, who succumbed to a barrage of punches in late round three. The win was monumental. It wasn’t as if Aldo hadn’t been defeated in past. However the fact that a fighter survived his signature striking game and proceeded to come from losing the first two rounds to secure a finish win was what made Holloway’s performance amazing.
The kind of effect Holloway’s win had on fans was best described by Dave Doyle. “Some nights just feel like a changing of the guard. Not just any old championship switch, mind you. We’ve had eight of those in the UFC alone in the past 13 months, and that’s not even bothering to count the interim belts which have been handed out like Halloween candies. No, sometimes you know when you’ve seen a generational passing of the torch, the equivalent of the scene in the nature show where the young buck wins the territorial battle with the alpha male and assumes control of the herd.” It was a new beginning for the featherweight division. Holloway had conquered almost every stalwart of the division, had created an independent identity and brought stability in what looked like a very volatile division.
However, to consider that Aldo was done and dusted would be a stupid thing to say. He had dominated the featherweight division since the early 2000s and was easily one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. He was very much a threat for anyone in the division. Holloway for his first defense was scheduled to fight former lightweight champion and division mainstay Frankie Edgar at UFC 218. However, almost a month before the fight Edgar pulled out due to an injury and was replaced by Jose Aldo.
The pair’s second fight was expected to be as exciting as the first one. Though Holloway was entering as a favorite this time around nobody was thinking it was going to be a cakewalk.
The fight turned out to be a blowout. In their first fight, Aldo had managed to secure the first two rounds before tiring. This time around Holloway was ruthless and dominating. Bleacher Report even cited this win as the greatest moment in the 13-fight winning streak of Holloway, writing, “Just like their first meeting, Holloway assumed top position late in the round against a tired Aldo. This time he was also battered from over 10 minutes of Holloway connecting with strikes. After some shots connected flush on the canvas, referee Herb Dean saved Aldo from the new king. To beat Aldo once is incredible, but to do so a second time in a more dominant performance is jaw-dropping. That’s exactly what Holloway did at UFC 218 in Detroit, and he cemented his claim as the best featherweight in the world.”