In a time where those who hold titles are becoming increasingly detached from the traditional measure of a great champion, Max Holloway has continued to prove himself to be a special, special talent.
2016’s UFC 199 will be forever remembered as the night we witnessed one of the greatest shocks in the history of mixed martial arts.
Our sport’s community watched as the ultimate underdog story played out before our eyes and the perennial ‘bridesmaid but never the bride’ Michael Bisping snatched his chance to become an icon with a left-hook that brought us all to a standstill.
But elsewhere on the night’s main-card, there was a legendary moment that has been overshadowed somewhat – understandably so, but overshadowed nonetheless.
Max Holloway’s crusade through the featherweight ranks had, up until that point, seen him slowly shed his image (in the eyes of the mainstream, at least) as ‘the guy who Conor McGregor tore his ACL against’ with the help of several impressive wins over 145lb staples like Jeremy Stephens, Charles Oliveira, and Cub Swanson.
In there with Ricardo Lamas over three rounds, Holloway’s championship potential was truly starting to become apparent.
Equal parts vicious and technical, Max broke down his opponent in his own patented style – doing enough for the opening fourteen minutes and forty-five seconds of the fight to have earned the right to take comfort in his imminent decision victory.
Lamas was defeated at that point. The work had been done.
And yet just before the final ten seconds of the fight, something incredible happened.
Holloway took a moment to look into the eyes of his latest victim and after seeing him as he understood that nothing less than a knockout would do, he pointed to the mat, called on him to hold his ground, and pledged to stand-and-bang with him until the ref intervened.
A win bonus equalling 50% of his potential pay, an eight-fight win-streak, a true statement in a stacked division. Holloway put it all on the line simply because he knew he could get the better of Ricardo Lamas in this moment of complete and utter chaos.
There was no playing it safe, no defensive movement.
He stood and beat down Lamas some more just for the hell of it.
Those watching at that moment learned exactly what type of man Max Holloway is.
We all know the rest of the story.
Stunning victories over José Aldo, Brian Ortega, and Anthony Pettis would follow, victories that showcased Max’s technical, abrasive, and completely inescapable brand of offense to the fullest.
But Holloway’s not a fire-fighter in the style of a Diego Sanchez or a Justin Gaethje.
He’s not even as wild as the most polished version of Robbie Lawler.
Max Holloway is the type of man who drags his opponents into the fire because, in my opinion, he’s perhaps the most comfortable athlete in those moments we have ever seen.
I’d urge anyone to watch his fight with Brian Ortega once again, except this time, watch it on 0.75 speed on YouTube.
Once your ears get used to the inebriated-sounding audio of Jon Anik and Joe Rogan calling proceedings, your eyes can really begin to appreciate what Holloway is doing in there.
Max Holloway is the type of man who will take on the most feared fighter on the planet with absolutely no training camp on notice so short you can count it in days.
At UFC 223, he was more than ready to do some serious damage to his body to make that 155lb limit if it gave him the opportunity to step in there with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
If he had gotten that opportunity, he must have known that his plan could have back-fired.
And yet, he did everything he could to save the day.
There are guys out there who would have done the same, of course, but Holloway is a champion. He doesn’t need to draw any more attention to himself than he already has.
Contenders that prove their willingness to compete no matter what the circumstances are often given favourable treatment by the UFC but once you hold that belt, decisions seem to be made with much more deliberation.
We’re seeing an increasing number of champions who are calling for their big-money super-fights before the belt has even been fully fastened around their waist and picking and choosing their time-frames – often fighting just once or twice in a calendar year.
Max, on the other hand, spoke recently on the bout of depression he was forced to overcome upon being left helpless in a state of inactivity due to concerns over his health.
It allowed him to take a long look at himself and who he was outside of fighting but judging by his performance at UFC 231 – his maturity is allowing him to blossom into the prime example of what a fighter, an athlete, and a champion should be.
You can pick at all of this and fool yourself into thinking that Holloway isn’t the most game fighter in the sport, but trust me, it’s a lot more fun if you just put your prejudices to one side and hop aboard the Blessed Express.
At 27, he finally steps up to lightweight to take on Dustin Poirier in the biggest matchup of his career to date in the UFC 236 main-event.
From here on out, the glare of the spotlight will become stronger, the opponents tougher, and the stakes higher.
But no matter how things play out, Max Holloway is the type of man who is going to enjoy every second of it.
And if history is any indicator, that means we’re in for one helluva show!
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena