MMA fighters have a reputation for looking fearsome, but Max Holloway is not a particularly intimidating man to behold. He has big ears, a slightly beaky nose, and wide, dark eyes. A wispy moustache is drawn across his upper lip, and it makes him look even younger than 25, as such things tend to. He talks in a quickfire, twangy Hawaiian tenor, generously scattered with "y'know" and "like". He is tall for the 145lb weight class at 5'11, and while the skinny kid that first joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship is no more, the muscle he earned over the course of fighting over a dozen of the best fighters in the world winds and knots its way around a frame which still comes a bit close to being birdlike.
Compared to his peers, he looks slightly unimpressive. The champion is Jose Aldo, who is a corded picture of broad brush athleticism. The former beltholder Conor McGregor looks like he was designed by an algorithm for making fighters, one that packed as much effective mass as mathematically possible into the hitting engines at the shoulders, butt and thighs.
Both men are shorter than Holloway, and yet both also have a longer reach. This isn't insignificant. MMA is a sport where too much height leaves you floating high in the air, trapped between the arc of an overhand and the necessity of keeping the hips away from a double leg; where an extra inch of reach represents multiple delivery opportunities for the smart warheads of small gloves. You almost never see elite fighters who are tall and who are also without particularly long arms, like Holloway. It's normally the other way around.
This doesn't paint a terrifying picture, which tells you just short of nothing, because Holloway is a vandal. He is aggressive, tough, tireless, and -appearances aside- very difficult to outwrestle and overpower. Polished outside kickboxing from both stances knits together with a heart-eating ferocity in the phonebooth, and he has steadily worked his way through some of the most brutal matchmaking this brutal sport can muster, leaving a growing pile of bodies behind him.
Here are six of the key moments in that run.
flight paths and knots
Holloway's UFC career started early. Most fighters come to the organization when they're climbing onto the last stretch of upwards development, normally sometime around the fourth or fifth year of fighting; sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later.
Holloway stepped in for the first time when he had been fighting MMA professionally for just over a year. A hyper-accelerated flight path like this happens very rarely, and is normally reserved for phenoms like Jon Jones or Cain Velasquez. Even these absurd talents benefited from weak divisions, relatively soft matchmaking. They also had extensive wrestling backgrounds, and had, or would have, the backing of well-known gyms loaded with talent. Holloway had none of that. He was fighting out of the relatively anonymous Hawaii Elite MMA, and although he was a father (his son Rush was born, with some small kismet, on the day that he was signed), he was the youngest fighter on roster.
This was a prospect fight, and an injury replacement. Dustin Poirier is a swaggering Louisianan, a swiss-army knife of MMA offense with an array of nasty implements for everywhere a bout can go. At the time he was the #4 featherweight in the UFC, and he beat Holloway, because of course he did. He tested the waters on the feet before deciding that it was probably not the right place to fight this young man, then yanked the Hawaiian to the floor and promptly tied him into a knot.
Unwinnable fights, by their nature, have to redefine victory conditions. Does it damage confidence? Was it a learning experience? Holloway, while disappointed, seemed like he'd been enjoying it.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” he said afterwards. “It felt like a dream! Just crazy, can’t really put it into words.”
After Poirier, he could settle, just a bit. Pat Schilling was someone who would fight Holloway on the feet, and he did, and was crushed. Justin Lawrence was a mirror image: a young and talented kickboxer with a bright future. Holloway knocked him out, sinking in bodyshots which landed like small leaden weights swung at the end of wires, and Lawrence would spend the next few years struggling to gain purchase inside the MMA meatgrinder.
It became difficult to nail down just how good he was. Leonard Garcia was an apparently outmatched journeyman brawler, but he surprised everyone with a crafty and close fight. In an equally odd twist, Holloway took on Dennis Bermudez, a violent young talent expected to maul the skinny kid in the same way that Poirier did. Holloway stuffed most of his takedowns, ending up on the end of an unlucky decision loss.
Struggling in core competencies, but doing improbably well in areas of weakness- these are classic developmental struggles, markers of raw talent struggling to find its footing.
UFC Fight Night: Boston
knives and blowtorches
This was a prospect fight, and an injury replacement. Holloway stepped in for the comically outmatched Andy Ogle a +300 underdog, in front of a noisy, partisan Boston crowd.
Holloway's stance is relatively centered, with his head tilted forward, arms cocked at both sides with the elbows back. It has an in-built swagger as though he got frozen halfway through squaring up, or a breakdancing step. It's wide, built for angular evasion and punishment, and when McGregor fought him, he corralled the Hawaiian by the cage with circular kicks, and then drove his own flattened stance down the center like a knife.
The first frame was one-sided, but Holloway recovered a little in the second, figuring out how to get his hook around McGregor's lead hand, and thieving the Irishman's oblique kick. One of those caught kicks left him grounded, and McGregor tore his knee in the ensuing ground scramble. In the final round, with a frankly astonishing display of focus, McGregor drove the fight back to the mat, bum knee and all.
The lesson learned didn't feel like it was based in skill or technique- a one-legged McGregor wasn't a better technical wrestler than Bermudez, after all. It was, instead, a necessary exposure to the consistent blowtorch of will necessary to make it to the top of the sport.
matching and feeding
If you watch enough UFC product, you get an idea of how they match fighters. Run that in reverse and you can backtest to see how a given fighter is viewed by the brass. In this case, it's useful to not just look at the fights that Holloway took, but in the ones that never came to light: say, how the UFC tried more than once to put him in with uber-prospect Mirsad Bektic.
Combined with opponents like Bermudez and McGregor, these bookings sang out one thing loud and clear, and it was "fun, limited banger"; a perception of a flawed but entertaining test used to spice up the early going of cards, or get more promising fighters over. After Holloway dispatched another debutant kickboxer (Will Chope, with a gangling 6'4 frame which made for an irresistibly wide stretch of real estate for landing shots), he went back to these kind of matchups.
Andre "Touchy" Fili, then. Another prospect, another elite camp. Team Alpha Male has been famous for producing squat, muscular powerhouses, but Fili was part of a new wave of lankier thoroughbreds. Like every TAM fighter, he's an able wrestler, but can fight on the outside, working behind an array of kicks and a hard jab.
The two traded spinning kicks and punches, and Fili's ability to punctuate combinations with takedowns pulled him ahead early. The takedown started to come slower as the fight went on, though, and Holloway's ferocious workrate and unerring hammering away at the midsection showed no sign of flagging. In the third, the tiring Fili shot in, and Holloway wrapped his arms around his neck and throttled him until he tapped.
This was surprising. It was a sudden opening of offensive capabilities into a whole new area; Holloway as pure striker no more. It was also the sea-change and the point of notice. From here on, he wasn't being fed to up-and-comers, because the dynamics of exactly who was getting fed to who had shifted in a stark way. After one last (moronic) attempt by the UFC to make the Bektic-Holloway dream a reality, he started to get shifted up the cards, getting winnable veterans and co-main events.
UFC on Fox 15
it would be close
To become an established upper-level fighter is one thing, to break into the elite quite another. Cub Swanson has been guarding the peak of featherweight for a long time, and while "gatekeeper" often implies a blandly reliable type, this is exactly the wrong way of thinking of him. Pure instinct is still what defines Swanson the most; he does have a clean and clever boxing game, but it's one which normally gets torn off like a constricting jacket and tie in favour of weird, freeform blitzes which drag in looping shots and cartwheel kicks from outside his opponent's peripheral vision. Beautiful violence, he calls it.
Analysts were torn on this fight, but the one thing they could mostly agree on is that it would be close. As it turned out, it was not. It was a massacre. Swanson's nominally ambidextrous approach was made to look shallow and sloppy, as Holloway would glide in past his strikes, rain in chattergun fire from either stance, then glide back out again. It lasted into the third round, and in those three rounds Swanson took dozens of shots, had his jaw and hand broken, and was finished with a mounted guillotine choke. It was a beating, one where Holloway looked like the veteran and Swanson the confused prospect.
the appropriate value of caution
The Swanson win would have put Holloway into a title fight in another world, but in this one things are complicated. McGregor had knocked out Aldo, and was angling for bigger fights, so Holloway was compelled to take on other contenders. By this point he'd be favoured, but these were all dangerous, skilled top 10 opponents.
Former training partner Stephens was a hard-fought but clear win. Charles Oliveira was an easy TKO, as the historically fragile Brazilian either hurt himself or realized that he had no chance and quit after a couple of exchanges.
The Lamas bout was different. As against Stephens, Holloway built up a round lead going into the third. He was the better technician, and well-served to do what he was doing: win exchanges, stay safe, protect his lead and a potential title shot. He was, by this point, known as a tough fighter, but not well-known enough to be saved from collapsing back down the rankings with a loss.
Then, the ten second clapper sounded.
For context, it's important to understand what Lamas is here, which is to say that he is featherweight's greatest opportunist. He fights with a deceptively underwhelming and basic style, not much more than a clean jab and leg kick, buttressed with effective wrestling. It's a slightly beige skillset which lulls people into thinking that he is a limited fighter. Then they give him an opening, and he knocks them down, chokes them, or beats their head in. Jose Aldo himself fought him with a degree of care which was criticized at the time, but which looked more than astute in retrospect.
As the fight ticked away, Holloway locked eyes with Lamas, pointed at the ground, nodded. He did not give the great opportunist a small chance. Instead, he gave him a very, very big one. Mainlining the fuck-you joy of being his best and greatest self, Holloway opened up wide, and planted his feet to throw massive looping bombs over and over, left to right to left, straining his muscles to throw the biggest punches he could with no thought to defense, and Lamas seized the chance, stepped in to trade. Even in this cartoonish and thrillingly overblown brawl as his last and best hope, he was forced backwards, and started to stagger away as the horn sounded.
It has to be said: for Holloway this was not the smartest thing to do... but it was also inseparably and utterly glorious. He'd learned how to be clinical and polished, sure, but he also hadn't allowed it to diminish the ridiculous confidence that he could beat anyone, anywhere. OK, I'll fight where you want it. See where it gets you.
“He gave me that look, like, ‘Let’s bang bro’,” Holloway said afterwards. “So I let him bang."
Like it was no thing.
echoes and shadows
Holloway's UFC career started early, but connections to the organization started even earlier than that, back when he had trained alongside Jeremy Stephens, the man that he'd beat years later ("we can go back to being buddies after"). There were other echoes of the future in who Stephens was training for, who Holloway was mimicking for him.
At UFC 206 Holloway would fight Pettis, the man that he had imitated way back when, and this kind of idol-slaying is a big part of combat sports: walking under the shadows of those that came through, and eventually coming out from under them; finding yourself up against the men that you watched on TV or looked up to.
The former lightweight champion had been on hard times of late, but had picked up a submission win over Charles Oliveira in a drop to featherweight. This, together with his name, was enough to get him an interim title fight against Holloway. Unfortunately for Pettis, by this point the mimic had overtaken the original.
Pettis is an astounding kicker, and the book on him has been to mash him into the cage, or sit in the pocket where his kicks don't get to breathe. Instead, Holloway took a third path, and drifted just on the outside, sliding back off almost every kick which the bigger man threw, then blitzing him with peppery combinations, finished with his own kicks.
The end was almost anticlimactic. Holloway sank a body kick into the great kicker and then polished him off with a blizzard of strikes by the cage as Pettis sank down with his head in his hands, a picture of raw grief.
That Holloway could come this far is deeply impressive, particularly when you consider where he came from, what he had to come through. A good deal of talented fighters come into the UFC and stall out due to their lack of development at hometown gyms, places which simply don't have the depth to be able to cover the necessary dizzying array of techniques. To their eternal credit the coaching staff at Gracie Technics and Hawaii Elite MMA have produced one of the slickest all-round technicians in the sport. That credit goes to Holloway as well, naturally- for taking tough fight after tough fight and continually building off them, for getting better in every single area.
There's another shadow over him, of course, one over every Hawaiian MMA fighter. Back when he was still "Lil' Evil" Holloway spoke about BJ Penn with admiration, but also with some criticism. "I'm not as blessed as him so I have to work harder than him." No-one could accuse Holloway of not working; the hometown fighter who took everything the UFC could throw at him then pointed at the ground, and beckoned it in for more.
You should read this fine piece from Eric Stinton about the effects Holloway already has on Hawaii and the down-and-out areas in and around Waianae in particular, like one of the teenagers that Stinton taught:
He was recruited to play for one of the top high school football teams in the state, and I encouraged him to do so as a positive outlet and potential path to a higher education. However, he wasn’t interested. Instead, he wanted to be a professional fighter. He wanted to be “the next Max Holloway.”
With a unified title Holloway can overtake Penn as Hawaii's greatest fighting son. In order to do that, he needs to step out from underneath one last shadow and win one more fight.
"One big thing about this fight is just being able to finally fight Aldo. I've been watching him forever--since I was 17--and I'm 25 now. He dominated the division for a period, but it's my time now."
Max Holloway fights Jose Aldo to unify the UFC featherweight championship on June 3rd, in Rio de Janeiro, at UFC 212