Now that Max Holloway is UFC featherweight champion, Gareth A. Davies discovers he’s got maturity beyond his to become Hawaii’s greatest ever fighter…
Max Holloway is bristling with energy and in top form. He has every reason to be just so. Right now, the fluid, entertaining fighter is widely seen as the most improved name on the UFC roster. He possesses brilliant striking, a fluid ground game when he needs it, calmness in the cage and uber confidence.
They are all the hallmarks of the UFC featherweight champion he has become since being plucked from Hawaii as a raw, 20-year-old after notching four victories in Honolulu. That was five and a half years ago. After a mixed start to life in the Octagon, he is riding an eleven-fight win streak dating back to January 2014 – capped with a triumph over José Aldo in Brazil that earned him Octagon gold.
As a man, he is clearly maturing too, with every fight, every year, feeling blessed and prepped for an era in which he insists he will finish with his name etched into history as the greatest in the 145lb division – and beyond.
“You guys haven’t seen the best. I get better every time I step in there,” explains the 25-year-old, re-arranging his baseball cap to a streetwise tilt as Fighters Only joins the champion in a Las Vegas hotel.
‘Blessed’ is a formidable thinker beyond his years, and his process as a fighter has mirrored the development of MMA. Just as it has grown, Holloway has grown with it. On the job, if you like. A work in progress. Until now.
“You either grow with the sport or get left behind. You’ve always got to evolve. Something is always new,” explains the disarmingly tall featherweight. “I’m sticking to the basics but trying to bring something new to the table all the time. A lot of people like watching film on fighters. When you watch film on me you get a GIF of it but when you get in there it’s different. I try to become a different guy in there.
Everyone keeps talking about my jiu-jitsu and my wrestling because they don’t see it, but I don’t need to use it yet. Why use it when I don’t need to? If I’m playing Texas hold ’em with you, I’m not going to flip over my cards and go all in and you then know you have a better hand than me. I’m going to hold my cards, play some bluffs here and there and play smart. A lot of guys in this sport are do-ers. They get in there and do the damn thing but it takes a different mind to be a thinker in there. I like to think.”
Holloway certainly thinks fast, and the words rattle out from him, impressively. “I think my fighting IQ is one of the highest ones out there. I keep going out there to prove it. I don’t want to be one of those guys in a bed with my body all hurting, having brain injuries. CTE is a super real thing right now. I ain’t trying to do that. I want to be playing with my grandkids, my son. You don’t want to get hit too many times. Floyd Mayweather said it best. Hit and not get hit is the name of the game.”
It irks him that after two consecutive losses – a long time ago now, mind, to Denis Bermudez and Conor McGregor – he was already being written off. His critics were calling him a journeyman. A regular guy.
“I thought, how the hell am I a journeyman when I’m 22 years old? I was just getting started. My story proves that if you’ve got a dream you should never give up on it. Things seem rocky but true champions go down and then dust themselves off and get back up. Don’t listen to naysayers. There are a lot of guys talking and saying this and that but I’m the king of the division. I plan on dominating the game for a while.”
If it sounds like bravado. Holloway then points out that getting beyond himself is impossible, due to a great bunch of people who keep his feet “tight to the ground”. It is his son, though, apart from his own personal drive, who remains the greatest inspiration in his life.
Indeed, Holloway’s son ‘Rush’ – not named after Georges St-Pierre, he is at pains to point out – was born hours before he got his first UFC contract. “I was blessed with him at 3:03pm, my little angel, and I got my UFC contract at 10:03 in the am. That was a great day,” he says.
“I didn’t think I could have any more motivation. When my body is hurting, or sore, those are the days champions are made and those are the days my son comes into play. Everything I do is for him. It’s to prepare him for the future. He’s telling me now he wants to be a fighter but I hope not. He’s five. I want him to become a doctor. I’m trying to make this money to put him through doctor school. My old bust-up ass is at home all broken and I get a doctor for free and he gets a lot of money. It’s win-win for everyone.”
If the making of Holloway as a professional fighter was his son, Max’s early life had its own issues. Life was tough in Waiʻanae, Hawaii. He was brought up for long periods by his grandparents – a system called Ohana – as his parents were going through tough times. His father “wasn’t really around”. There is little contact today. His mother went through tough times, too. “She’s been clean and sober for eight or nine years now and I love her for that. She never gave up on us. But we were raised by a big family, it’s how we do it [in Hawaii]. I was just blessed as a young kid. My grandma and grandpa are my heroes. I got the belt for them.”
Holloway had always fought as a kid. He had his reasons – in addition to fighting being part of the culture on the islands. “Who doesn’t want to know how to fight? It’s cool as s**t knowing you can walk around and protect yourself. And some of the guys fighting weren’t the greatest looking guys in the world but they got the chicks. I was like, man, I can protect myself – and get girls.”
But when he decided to enter a gym, aged 16, and joined ‘Team Ruthless’, at a gym just minutes from his home. After three days, he was offered his first kickboxing fight that weekend. “I was planning on going to the fight and paying 30 bucks for a ticket. They said I could fight and get in for free and I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll fight.’ I ended up winning and I told everyone I would be a K-1 fighter.” That stoked the fire. And nothing could extinguish it.
A couple of years out of high school, he was an MMA pro with a UFC contract. Though he dropped three of his first six fights, they were all downloaded and processed by his mental fight computer.
“Dustin Poirier was my debut (and a loss) and then those two losses in a row were Bermudez and McGregor. They were losses but I didn’t care. I never lose. I learn. That’s what I did. I learn every fight. Every time I come back after every fight, win or lose, I learn something. You see a big difference in me.
“The only L’s I take are learning curves. I got in the UFC when I was 4-0. I was 20 years old. I thought I was the best in the world. I had some bumps and bruises. The greatest of all time Anderson Silva came in with losses. José Aldo had one loss. You look at all these great fighters and they all had losses before they came to the UFC. I was a baby. You guys saw me with my training wheels and then I took them off. Now I’m bombing big hills. Life’s good.”
That last defeat came when he was just 21. That was four years and 11 fights ago – 10 wins to book a date with Aldo, and then that historic victory to claim the belt, which was nearly a decade in the making.
“I was getting ready for this guy since I was 17 years old,” Holloway explains. “When I just started kickboxing and he was coming up in WEC, I wanted to kickbox him. A year later, MMA was the way to go and I was telling everybody I wanted to fight Aldo.”
When he finally got to step into the cage with him, Holloway recalls a very surreal moment. “It was funny. I was in the ring, walking back and forth, and looking at him before the announcements. I looked at my corner, my coach Ivan, and he nodded his head and I nodded back at him. I was like ‘I’m f**king fighting Jose Aldo, man’. We smiled.”
The rest is history. Holloway won by knockout and earned the undisputed world title. He completed his development from brawl-happy novice to phantom in the cage. He sets traps, moves cleverly, knows when to strike and reads his opponent. He had his path to victory all mapped out.
“You give the mouse bits of cheese and then, sure enough, he’s going to end up slipping. Everybody knows José’s cardo is not the greatest and me, I like to fight cardio. I had to make him believe I was in there, so I was always in his face, tiring him out. At the end of the second round, I knew it was mine. I found my range, my rhythm, my confidence and I saw his jaw on the ground.”
Moments later, the greatest featherweight to ever live was on his back and a new champion was crowned.
Holloway is now seen by many fans and pundits as a great match-up with Conor McGregor. He’d take it in a heartbeat, he tells FO, but he’s unwilling to beat his chest about it in public any longer. “I’m not going to chase the guy. People tell me to call him out. but what guy called out McGregor and got the fight? It never happens. McGregor and the UFC pick their own fights. Let it happen. It is what it is.”
“Once Conor won the title, never once did he talk about defending it. He said I need someone to make it interesting for me to come back and defend. That’s not what a king does. Imagine this is an old village, Conor becomes king and then he left for a year. You think he can come back and his throne and his wife will be there waiting for him? No. Another king will come in and take over the village. That’s just the way it goes.”
Holloway believes the first defense of his crown may well be against Frankie Edgar. “That’s the only guy that makes sense. I’ve been trying to fight Frankie forever.” But he has his stipulations for that, too. He says he’ll only fight The Answer if he’s compensated correctly. “I was a champion in my last fight and I beat the greatest of all time, a guy he couldn’t beat twice. Nah, give me my fair shake.
Despite his supreme self-belief, Holloway is humble and honest. There is a realism, a sense of knowing that in MMA, one day, one fight can change everything. He will never lose that fear, or fail to appreciate what he has. “All this can be taken away tomorrow. You can be the man one day and then the next day no one gives a f**k who you are. That’s exactly how it is. A lot of people trip out when they come see me. They say hi and speak to me and they say damn I wouldn’t think you would be that cool because you are so high. I’m like so high in what? In life? This s**t doesn’t matter. I’m a human just like you. That’s how I stay in control.
“My mind is different. I feel I can go out there and improve every fight. Even if people might be under me, I listen with open ears and an open mind. Even if I hear it one hundred times before I’ll still take it in. Sometimes being reminded is the best thing in the world. Some people get success and stuff and they think they are untouchable. Then their world comes crumbling down on them. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
That attitude is propelling his ambition to build on his achievements. He wants to create a legacy and be a fighter with success and longevity. “I’ve got the undisputed belt and it’s time to get the undisputed career,” he says. “It’s time to leave no doubt in people’s minds about who the best is to ever do the damn thing here. My record speaks for itself. I never shied away from fighting. I never turned anyone down. I’ll fight the best of the best. I don’t care who, what, where, when, why. If you want the best, come fight me. Anything I ever did in life, I wanted to be the best. If I was a garbage man, I’d want to be the best garbage man. I’d have the perfect technique.”
Defeating Aldo, Holloway could barely believe the reception he received back in Hawaii on his homecoming. He had disembarked the plane onto the runway where there were hundreds of fans. There were even more in the baggage hall. When he drove home, they lined the streets. “It was so crazy. It was amazing, man. I love Hawaii. I love the unity. You bring something like that and everybody comes together so strong.”
As a Hawaiian hero, there is perhaps another dream to complete in the UFC: to usurp the hallowed name of BJ Penn, an island legend.
“BJ Penn set the bar. Bars are meant to be broken. That’s what I want to do.”
It would be some feat, I suggest.
“I have nothing but respect for the guy but I want to beat him. Now I’m trying to write my legacy. I’ve got this bar set and now all these other kids, not just Hawaiians, all over the world, can come and beat my bar. I dare you. If you do, good for you.”
Holloway dared – and he won. Big time. And the victories don’t look like they will end anytime soon.
*** This feature originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Fighters Only magazine ***