Newly-crowned Fighter of the Year and fan favorite, Max Holloway has done it the hard way and turned his life around to become undisputed champion. Now he’s ready to avenge his early UFC defeats and take on all-comers at his weight… and beyond.
Max Holloway believes being “a fighting chameleon” is the way to the top in mixed martial arts. It has certainly worked for him. And the route to the summit Holloway has reached through force of character to become an undisputed champion is a journey which never happens purely by chance. Along the way, there are falls, landslides, personal catastrophes, injuries, and plenty of heartache. The smartest never show it. They simply showcase their skills. Hawaiian kid Holloway is from that stoic school. And boy can he fight. And when he does fight, you don’t want to miss it. Old school, too, not a trash-talker by nature, yet he’ll always hold his own and front up.
Truth is, Max might never have climbed the steps to the Las Vegas stage to be celebrated as the World MMA Awards Fighter of the Year, joining a pantheon of modern greats in Jose Aldo, Anderson Silva, Georges St Pierre, Jon Jones, Chris Weidman, Conor McGregor, Robbie Lawler, who have all been fan favourites for various reasons. Remarkably, Holloway is rated as both most improved, and best fighter in the last 12 to 18 months.
Yet Holloway might have never even made it to the UFC to become one of the great fighters in the sport, honing an in-cage resume which purrs with class, brilliance and the desire to entertain the fans with thrilling attack and attacking defence. He was once wayward, boozy, teenage tearaway.
Now Holloway has reached a moment in time, a point on which his story spins and needs to be told, where now there are people who can listen, and make a difference to their own lives.
“I tell people all the time, if you think I’m the greatest fighter from my city then you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not the greatest fighter from my city. You know what I was for my city though? I took the right steps. There’s a difference between me and the greatest fighters in my city. I didn’t listen to people who told me that I wasn’t going to do anything. I followed no one. That’s what it comes down to. I know how it is growing up without a dad. I got raised by my grandma and grandad. It was nothing crazy, we had hot meals all the time. We had a roof over our heads, electric on.”
“People had it more rough. But I wasn’t meant to be where I am now, I got here through determination.”
At this point, speaking exclusively to Fighters Only magazine, the UFC featherweight champion thinks briefly of his own son. He adores him. So much of this is for him. “My son is great. He’s just out of kindergarten. I got him doing all sorts of things now, jiu jitsu, hip hop dancing. Baseball season just got done, so he’s a busy little man.”
What Holloway did, brought up by his grandparents, was dream. And dream big. And then he went after those dreams. Still just 26, he has been in the UFC since he was 19. He has certainly earned his stripes. He is 15-3 in the UFC after six and a half years in the toughest proving ground in sport. There was a time when he did not feel that he was being valued deeply enough by the UFC. But that has changed since his feats in 2016 and 2017. Now that he is a champion. Now that he looks back – not that he does look back – on a 12-fight winning streak from the time he endured back-to-back losses to Dennis Bermudez and then Conor McGregor. And first off in the UFC, to Dustin Poirier in 2012.
After just four professional MMA fights in Honolulu, we might recall, the kid from Waianae was whisked into the big show and there he found himself, aged 22, 3-3 in the UFC.
He also has it in him, most would agree, to avenge those three defeats. But from that 3 win-3 loss moment, he learned, he progressed, he honed and the accolades have grown all the way to the UFC featherweight championship crown.
But it is his form and triumphs of late – over Jose Aldo twice – more efficiently the second time – Anthony Pettis, Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson, Jeremy Stephens that have led to this latest accolade from the fans.
Along the way there has been a Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night, and three times the Performance of the Night. It’s not surprising he is Fighter of the Year in so many quarters and in the opinion of so many fans and analysts. The industry agrees. And that is significant in itself. Pretty much a one-horse race.
Mad Max no more. His elevation in the fight firmament as one of the most improved fighters over his time plying his trade in the UFC makes him recall a chat to a local Hawaiian magazine some years ago. “If you look back at an old interview I did with MMAHawaii.com, they asked me who was the guy I most wanted to fight in the future…”
“It was Jose Aldo and Anthony Pettis,” he remembered. “Those are the names that came up and I got to fight both of them. Aldo’s the greatest featherweight of all time in my eyes, and I got to go out there and have my night, on both nights. It was good. It was one of my goals at the age of 16, to fight him. I was a teenager, and I targeted that. And nine years later I did. Not once, but twice. Sharing the octagon with a legend like that was special. And then to take the belt and defend it in America, it’s surreal. But it makes me feel life’s good.”
Being nominated as Fighter of the Year in itself was a thrill, but he was delighted about associated nominations for his gym, his nutritionist which suggests his success was no accident.
“It meant a lot just to be nominated. I thought I would have been put in there for Fight of the Year, but my gym was in there for Gym of the Year. My nutritionist George Lockhart was in there too. It feels great. It’s unreal to think about this kind of stuff before and now actually be here doing it, living it. I’m blown away by it all. I can’t put in to words how grateful I am. To be up there with some of the greatest fighters ever feels pretty good.”
Holloway stops and takes a breath, taking it all in. “Man, I sacrifice so much time and energy into fighting and it takes away from my personal life sometimes, but it all pays off. If you’ve got a dream, go out there and do it. No one is stopping you, go out and prove to the world you can do it.”It means so much that the fans voted for him. “The fans are amazing. They know what era it is, ‘the Blessed Era’. Fans are crazy. You’ll always have your haters, but you can’t dwell on that, so I don’t. Anything you do people will always try and knock you down. I’ve got a lot more love than hate and it feels good. The fans have been super good to me.” And rightly so. When have you ever seen Holloway back down from a challenge?
It meant so much, too, to him with the UFC seeing him as a step-in to face Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title at the eleventh hour, only to be thwarted by the Commission, in that crazy week in New York in April. Holloway was seriously up for it.
Ahead of the great early July UFC blockbuster, they gave Holloway his dues in the build up. “I feel like they’re [the UFC] coming round. I’ve always wanted one of those amazing promos and one just dropped ahead of the Las Vegas event. It’s crazy, I’ve always wanted to feel the love and I can feel it now for sure.”
“The situation with the possible Khabib fight didn’t go my way, but I showed them I was a guy they could count on. Stuff there was out of my control, but after that the love has been super real. I always loved fighting and I think they’re pushing me now.”
Holloway, not given to showing huge emotion, was touched by winning the big gong this year, the star fighter award. “It is a little emotional to the point where you feel like people love you. People who have been watching me grow up and they really see it now. It’s amazing to be a winner. Lost for words. I feel the love, even now, but even more.”
But this is how legacy is built, how memories are made by fighters who fans talk about decades later. Ask any old fighters. Holloway understands that sentiment to the core.
He gets philosophical. “Everything else washes away, but legacy doesn’t,” he says. “All this money, all the things I’ve got will all disappear, but legacy will be there all the time. When you look in the history books I want my name in there. When I’m long gone from this world and no one even knows who I was, they can look in the books on their fancy iPhone 4010 and see I was in the UFC and I had a legacy worth remembering. It’s all about legacy. I’m trying to inspire the next kid up, whoever it is. Let them know that if I can do it, why can’t they? Work hard, get your head down, don’t listen to no one and go after it. If you really want it, it’ll be a beautiful ride. Sometimes it won’t be the most fun ride, but when it’s all said and done you’ll enjoy it.”
Holloway’s mindset at this stage in his career is crystalised. He means its when he says that he considers himself “the pound-for-pound guy in the world.”
“That’s all that matters,” he adds. “People will say this and that… Shit, I remember when I was coming up the rankings I beat a guy and the following week I wasn’t even higher than him. That kind of shit happens. That’s just people’s perspective. I believe I’m the No.1 guy in the world, but that’s just my attitude. If you’re not trying to be the best, why bother? You’re going to get seriously hurt if you’re put in there with someone who wants it more than you.”
That attitude belongs to a man who would face any challenge, including cross-weight super fights. He was willing to face Nurmagomedov; there are challenges in many quarters. Holloway matches up so well with that fast, largely aggressive stand-up with the ability to transition rapidly and seamlessly from the ground to the feet. Adept footwork is part of his great plan, of course. But the fights line up… Khabib, Conor, Poirier.
“Yeah, I like the idea of all of those, but I’m not waiting around for Conor. But after the Khabib stuff people had a lot of interest in us and there’s now a lot of questions. It was there and it didn’t happen. I think we’ll run back that fight. I’m the 145 champ right now and it looks like we’ve got a deep division. We’ve got contenders coming up and even young ones causing some hype. Shit happens. The UFC know I’m a call away, if they want me to come fight 155 champ, whoever it may be, I’m there. That’s history. We’re put in this sport for history and that would be a legacy fight. How do you say ‘no’ to something like that?”
Avenging defeat is another objective. No surprise there. “I got three losses to my name and all three I would like the opportunity to get rematches. I’m competitive. I learned from my losses. If we get the chance to run it back then let’s do it. I’m a competitor, it’s what I do. You shouldn’t be okay with losing. I want to get them all back, not just Conor. If the opportunity presented itself, I’m ready.”
But perhaps the greatest thing about Holloway is the hard work he has put in behind the scenes, moulding that raw, aggressive fighting desire, great chin, and willingness to engage into a shape and methodology that is hard to beat and riveting to watch. But he knows that he must develop all areas of his game. “The crazy thing about this sport is you’re never safe. You’re seeing black belts being tapped out by white belts in MMA. You see long-time boxers, kickboxers get out-struck by wrestlers. You see all-American wrestling champions get taken down by kickboxers. That’s just MMA, it’s crazy and is a ridiculous sport.”
“We make sure to cover our bases everywhere. If you think you can move on to one thing because you’re good there, you’re screwing up. You need to get great at everything. The sport is always evolving. Someone will always bring a new trick, a new way to set something up. You can never feel you’re great anywhere. Things will start going downhill from there. We watch back my fights and see what I did or did not do and try to get better. You’re striving for perfection and it may be far away, but if you’re not striving for it you’re in the wrong sport.”
“This game is about adapting. You’ve got to be a chameleon, able to adapt to every situation. Sometimes my coach will tell me something and I’ll tell him he’s crazy as shit, but we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the win.”
Amazingly, given his height, 145 is still doable without too much pain, or starving his frame. That’s where nutritionist Lockhart comes into focus.
“Yeah, making featherweight for me is fine,” he says. “I’m good. I’ve got one of the best nutritionists in the game. I’m not ever one to wonder how I’m going to do it. I get there. But I am in my mid-20s now and pretty soon stuff might start slowing down. Maybe my metabolism. The Hawaiian genes don’t help. You say Hawaiian and you think of big people. I don’t know how much longer I have at 145, but as long as I can I will fight and defend my belt. In the years to come you might see 155 or 170. I don’t care, I love fighting. It’s what I do best. The best should want to fight at any weight class and I’m one of those guys.”
He dreamt it, he built it, and he went after it. “I would say I’m living the dream. There’s nothing else in this world that could have put me in this position. There’s no other job I’d be able to do and own the stuff I own and give my son, mum and family the life they have now. It’s a dream, people dream of this. I couldn’t be as successful as I am right now doing something else. I had a dream and I went out and chased it. I put my head down, ignored the naysayers and now I’m here.”
He certainly is. Arise Max Holloway, World MMA Awards Fighter of the Year, and richly deserved as well. Long may you keep adapting, Chameleon King.