UFC: The Reign of Max Holloway

Credit: Rodney James Edgar/Cageside Press

The Brian Ortega fight

The year 2018 was a tough one for Max Holloway. To begin with he was scheduled to fight four times that year but managed to compete in the octagon only once. He entered the year on a very high note; he had just been declared as one of the best MMA fighters on the planet and was on a career-high win streak.

His first fight was supposed to be a rescheduling of his title defense against Frankie Edgar at UFC 222, but this around it was Holloway who had to pull out because of an injury. He expressed his disappointment in his statement, “I asked the docs if we could cut off my leg then ask the commission if I could fight handicapped. They told me at the end of the day it is what it is… Had dozens of family from Hawaii coming up for this one… I know it sucks but hang in there. We’re going to reschedule ASAP.”

He received an even better opportunity at UFC 223 where he became a late replacement to Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight championship match against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight was cancelled however, and the issue wasn’t an injury but weight cutting issues.  As Holloway only had six days to prepare he simply couldn’t bring his weight down to acceptable levels prompting New York State Athletic Commission to pull Holloway out of the fight.

While Holloway was dealing with this drama the featherweight division was seeing a new contender rising in ranks in the form of Brian Ortega. Since coming back from a suspension over a positive doping test in 2015, Ortega had amassed a winning streak of five fights. It was Ortega who acted as a replacement to Holloway against Frankie Edgar at UFC 222. At the event, he managed to stun everyone as he knocked out the veteran fighter in the very first round.

Dan Doherty, while noting the possible aftermath of the event, wrote, “Brian Ortega’s run is simply unbelievable. The undefeated featherweight has finished all seven of his UFC opponents and shocked the MMA world when he knocked out the unstoppable Frankie Edgar. It took 29 fights for someone to beat “The Answer” without needing the judges to tally scores, and this jiu-jitsu expert did it with strikes in under five minutes.” The win raised the value of Ortega’s resume and made him the most decorated contender since Holloway himself.

In a not-so-surprising move, a match between Holloway and Ortega was scheduled for UFC 226. The match was expected to be a banger. However, a few days before the fight Holloway had to pull out because of concussion-like symptoms. The fight was rescheduled for UFC 231. However, the tone of the fight changed a lot.

Entering 226, Holloway more or less was the favorite. He had shown dominance like never before and was the man who had destroyed Jose Aldo twice. When he pulled out of the fight against Ortega, the hit on his aura was deep. He was now not only facing a deadly rising contender but for the first time, Max Holloway looked vulnerable. Before the fight, he even opened up about how 2018 had been a particularly hard year for him in on Good Show With Ben Ennis & JD Bunkis. “After this last one I dealt with some depression,” he admitted. In the same interview, he went into more detail, saying “depression is real and that really hit me hard. I was going through a phase where I wasn’t talking to no one. Only my son. Me and my son would do stuff but I was talking to no one. If I wanted to you I would call you but if people were reaching out to me I was putting myself away. Since I was in that situation, now I’m able to talk about it and I can tell people that’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is talk to your family, talk to your friends, be with everyone because you don’t know when things can change. Life changes on a dime so live life to the fullest. Don’t be scared to look for help. Depression is real. . . It’s crazy and all these guys, us athletes, that keep thinking we’re superheroes. I like to think I’m a superhero but superheroes got to fight their demons too sometimes.”

Almost every champion faces a contender who comes across as their nemesis. The one who’ll put an end to their reign; given the kind of year Holloway had endured, it looked Ortega might be that contender. Holloway was the favorite, no one argued that, but there were several doubts. As the preview on Sherdog best put it, “The X-factors are all in Ortega’s favor. The challenger appears to be adding skills from fight to fight, while Holloway’s 2018 campaign has brought up concerns about years of tough fights and rough weight cuts finally taking their toll, even at age 27. However, based off of Holloway’s most recent form when he has actually been in the cage, it is hard to see him making a fatal mistake.”

As the fight drew nearer the odds became closer, and things looked bleaker for Holloway. CBS Sports even did a story on the build-up which read, “Each time he was asked about his health, Holloway instantly brushed the conversation off by mentioning how much he felt loved in Toronto and how, as an extension of his native Hawaii, it felt more like, “10th island baby!” Everything from his body language and cadence to the manner in which Holloway would intermittently stare off into space with a blank look seemed off, especially in light of the heightened sensitivity regarding his difficult year both medically and physically. The fact that UFC also cancelled the bulk of Holloway’s media obligations that day without explanation didn’t help.”

At the fight, however, Holloway turned out to be as amazing as before. He dominated the bout from the start. He delivered a barrage of strikes and maintained his lead across the early rounds. Ortega did put up a very brave defense but the fight was stopped by the doctor after round four. The fight earned Holloway two post-fight bonuses for Fight and Performance of the Night. The win was much more than a record title defense, MMA fighting’s aftermath report managed to put into words what several MMA fans across the world were feeling. “What’s left to be said about Holloway’s superlative performance against Brian Ortega which hasn’t already been said? That wasn’t just any old opponent Holloway defeated last night. That was Brian Ortega. Undefeated Brian Ortega. The only man ever to finish Frankie Edgar. The guy capable of pulling submissions out of nowhere. What we saw at UFC 231 is what Holloway is capable of doing after being out of the cage for a year, after weathering a series of health concerns.”

Expansion to lightweight and decline

Since being scheduled to fight for the lightweight title at UFC 223, the possibility of seeing Holloway fight at lightweight was something that had become more of a mainstream conversation. Even after his win against Ortega, Holloway addressed his plans to move up, saying “Khabib is another undefeated fighter. I got this niche, I guess. I just gave an undefeated fighter his first loss. So maybe that one might excite me the most. We were supposed to have that one. So we’ll see what happens. I don’t know. I ain’t picky. Feed me. They all can get it.”

Holloway got his wish in the form of an interim-lightweight title match against a former foe Dustin Poirier at UFC 236. Poirier for one didn’t mind Holloway jumping the line, stating “That part is tough to say (about whether Holloway deserves it). The guy is obviously a reigning, defending world champion. Stopped (Jose Aldo), arguably the best 145-pound champion of all time, twice. He has been looking incredible every fight and put it all together, but to jump up and skip the line in a top-heavy division is a little different. But timing, availability, circumstances, and here we are.”

Holloway made it very clear that he had improved since their first fight. Drawing a comparison between the fighter who fought Dustin years ago and the current Holloway, he said, “The best way to describe it is, like, me right now, I would kill that guy. I would literally put him in a cemetery. There is a cemetery down the road from my house. I’d probably go visit him every day.”

The fight, however, didn’t see a different result. After a gruesome five rounds, Holloway lost the fight via unanimous decision with all the scorecards reading 49-46. The fight received a Fight of the Night award and brought an end to the legendary 13-fight win streak of Holloway. He issued the statement, “Life is chutes and ladders. Sometimes we gotta take that slide down to get to the next big ladder. It is what it is. We keep playing. We keep fighting. Congrats to Dustin and Jolie. They should’ve already had a belt. Diamonds are forever.”

The fight made one thing clear: that the new and improved Holloway wasn’t invincible. He had given hints in past that he might be defeat-able but he had shut those critics up in the cage. The fight laid bare the harsh reality of the sport. Holloway maintained class throughout the loss but the dent was real. It is best put by Jeremy Botter who described what the loss felt like: “Fighters are human, which means they have real human concerns, and finances are almost always at the top of the list. But then there’s Holloway. He says he’s chasing greatness. A legacy. I believe him, and I’ve learned over 12 years of covering this industry when you can believe what a fighter tells you. But Holloway feels like he’s telling the truth. He’s not obsessed with riches and living a lavish lifestyle like McGregor. He doesn’t really care about owning stuff or about being seen as rich or powerful. When Holloway says he’s chasing a legacy, I believe it. Because to know Max Holloway is to know he is not like the rest of us. He’s authentic in a sport that is anything but. He’s got that chill Hawaiian vibe. But mostly, he just doesn’t seem to be found wanting for the things that appear to drive others in this sport. This fight was about the hardware for Holloway, and everything that would have added to his legacy, even if it was only an interim title.”

Recovering from that was going to take time; meanwhile newer contenders had started taking over the division as what seemed like a new era in the featherweight division had begun. But before he faced any of them, Holloway had some unfinished business with former champion Frankie Edgar. The fight was scheduled for the third time and luckily this time around it took place. The build-up lagged a lot of excitement because people simply knew that Holloway was going to walk out with the win. As the preview on Sherdog read, “The general feeling is that this is an inevitable Holloway win, and frankly, that is a hard stance with which to disagree. Even with the one-sided loss to Ortega and his increasing age, Edgar is still likely among the top handful of featherweights in the world, but Holloway is operating at a whole other level.”  And the fight went this same way. Edgar was tough and did a great job with the low strikes and combinations but he came nowhere close to winning the fight. Holloway walked out with the unanimous decision and reminded it to people that he was still a very legit tough champion.

The next fight very clearly for Holloway was the new contender on the block, Alexander Volkanovski. The Australian had made a name for himself in the division by amassing a 6-0 record in the UFC which included impressive wins over Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes. He was, in fact, the only contender in the division to have defeated the former champion. His win over Aldo is particularly surprising because defeating Aldo in a three-round fight in Brazil was something not many could have imagined. As noted by Blaine Henry in his post-fight analysis. “We’ve seen Aldo defeated by Holloway’s pressure and McGregor’s precision in his last couple of fights. Volkanovski decided to try something new. He took his time, made Aldo take chances and become trigger shy when those chances didn’t work for him. He worked on the lead leg of Aldo, an Aldo trademark. The multitude of strikes was enough for Volkanovski to get the win.” His match against Holloway was booked for UFC 245.

Throughout the buildup of the fight, common theme commentators seemed to have noticed was that “The Great” was the first contender to come from the very bottom to get a shot at Holloway. As Tom Feely wrote, “This year has mostly been a holding pattern. A brief foray up to lightweight resulted in a loss to Dustin Poirier in one of the best fights of the year, and Holloway’s last title defense against Frankie Edgar was more to check off a historical box than anything else. Holloway now looks ready to finally take on the next wave of rising challengers, and Volkanovski is quite a first test.” Even Bloody Elbow noted, “Volkanovski is another one of those fighters who comes up without obvious blue-chip pedigrees (D1 or Olympic wrestling credentials, ADCC, striking accolades etc), and who has to prove his quality by simply beating very good opposition.”

The fight as most expected turned out to be the toughest for Holloway. The leg kicks and takedowns were too much for Holloway to find in his place in the fight. By the time he was ready, the fight was over and Volkanovski managed to lock up the decision.

The result was disappointing for Holloway as he later said, “They (the judges) saw it another way, there are only three opinions that matter. Like the great Burt Watson said, don’t leave that (expletive) to the judges, they’re gonna make you cry. They made me cry twice in 2019, so let’s choo choo forward to 2020, new year, new me.”

Holloway’s reign has been an experience for many. Fans saw him transform from a written-off journey-man to a force to be reckoned with. Fans lived his frustration when he was being denied a title shot despite an insane winning streak. Everyone who saw his title fight against Aldo felt the crazy determined energy that he brought in: it was a moment that saw a change in the balance of power in the division. The way he dealt with Ortega, and his unapologetic approach to his vulnerability was loved. He made everyone who would care a part of his run, and has left no doubt that his run isn’t over.

Max Holloway is only 28, in perspective that is three years younger than the current featherweight champion. He still has a lot to offer to the sport and in the coming years that is what he’s going to do.