Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar have a lot in common, even aside from the fact that both men are scheduled to take part in this weekend’s UFC main event. They are within three years of one another in age. Both are 5’11”, tall for the featherweight division they share. Where Holloway has fought 27 times professionally, Kattar’s ledger stands at a virtually identical 26. Both are nice guys who fight mean. Both are tough as dirt. Both are bound to give us a hell of a fight this Saturday.
But in hindsight, the paths these two men have taken couldn’t be more different.
The UFC has always viewed itself as the “sink or swim” promotion. Matchmakers like Joe Silva, Sean Shelby, and Mick Maynard have rarely shown much interest in managing the careers of prospects, a task better left to professional managers (the most prominent of which happily work with said matchmakers behind the scenes).
Like a crew of J.K. Simmonses berating a band of cowering collegiates, the good folks at the UFC believe that the more brutal the tests they administer, the more worthy are those students who scrabble their way to the top. And UFC president Dana White, looking every bit the part stuffed into a black, child’s XL t-shirt, has found that, when it comes to bullying fighters into greatness, “he doesn’t want the fight” works just about as well as “not my tempo.”
And that (if this metaphor will stretch as much as Dana’s wardrobe) would make Max Holloway our Miles Teller, the natural protagonist of this trial by fire that is the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Holloway made his UFC debut at 20 years of age, the youngest fighter to ever enter the promotion at the time. He was less than a year into his pro career. But Max didn’t have the looks or the doe-eyed affability of a Sage Northcutt or a Paige Van Zant—more “Locals only” than “Zack & Cody,” if you catch my drift—and so even the UFC’s hamhanded attempts at career management were beyond his reach. It was sink or swim from day one, and the first cinder block tossed into Holloway’s hands was none other than Dustin Poirier, already 4-1 under the UFC/WEC banner.
It was Max’s fifth pro fight. He lost.
But afterward, he got better. Quickly. Holloway’s next fight was against another young’un coming off a loss—the sort of loser-leaves-town matchup the UFC used to be so fond of—and it seemed he had taken the lessons of his cruel initiation in stride. Against Poirier Holloway had thrown caution to the wind from the first bell, slinging leather the way only a fearless young man can, and throwing about as many flying knees as he did jabs.
Now, only four months later, he was a different fighter. Alright, so the addiction to flying knees wasn’t exactly cured overnight—but the wild salvos and the off-balance lunges were all but gone. One hard loss and suddenly Max Holloway looked a lot more like Max Holloway.
There would be further losses. A split decision against Dennis Bermudez didn’t go Max’s way, but only because two of the three judges were sending unsolicited texts to the ring girls instead of watching as he stuffed Bermudez’s takedowns and picked him apart from range. That put him in perfect position to step up on short notice and lose to another fighter you may have heard of: Conor McGregor. Now known for his whiskey and frequent PR rehabilitations, McGregor really was a hell of a fighter back in 2013, and he took the 21 year-old Holloway to school.
Calvin Kattar’s UFC debut was much longer in the making. Kattar spent the first nine years of his career fighting up and down the Mid-Atlantic, and though his level of competition was certainly lower, he didn’t get on without taking a few lumps now and then.
Kattar dropped his fourth pro fight to a guy named James Jones, alias Binky. A bonafide professional opponent. In other words, a fighter they bring in to lose to the real prospects. The kind of guy you describe as “experienced” because you don’t know what else to say. Sturdy enough not to blow away in an instant, but just flawed enough to lose when you want him to. Jones’ name has padded the records of everyone from Jim Miller (way back in 2006) to Dan Ige (a whole ten years later).
But he beat Calvin Kattar. Choked him out, even, at no less than 38 years old.
MMA seems designed as a sport to disabuse its participants of their delusions. But surprising lessons can be just as valuable as the inevitable kind. It was the first time Kattar had ever been submitted, and it would go on to be the last. He went on to fight a well-managed mix of novices and journeymen. In 2010 he lost again, this time to a 5-3 fighter by the name of Don Carlo-Clauss, whose exploits lack the panache of James Jones’ only because he never got the chance to lose to anyone really good.
You can pinpoint the period of Kattar’s career at which the many lessons started to sink in just by looking at his record. Around 2010, after the loss to Carlo-Clauss, the Boston Finisher suddenly stopped finishing people. Once every bit as wild as the young Max Holloway, Kattar made himself a student of the game. He worked on his footwork. He leaned more and more on his now-famous jab.
He started leaning more on his opponents, too. Controlling people against the cage and on the ground may not have been as fun to watch as the fearless flailing Kattar once relished—but then, maybe Kattar wasn’t quite so fearless after two frustrating losses. And besides, they were valuable skills to develop. Kattar broadened his game, sharpened his craft. He learned to win minutes, and rounds, and fights. He went eight straight, undefeated, and punched his ticket to the UFC.
And then he started decking people again. Sometimes you explore your options only to end up right back where you started.
Once again, the similarities are striking at first glance. Both Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar started out with a few hardass wins only to have their dreams swiftly and painfully deferred (both via submission, too; so often a young prospect’s first lesson in the unpredictability of MMA). Both men returned to notch a few more wins, lost again, and then began to assume the forms we recognize today.
But we can’t help but notice the differences. James Jones might play a thankless but necessary role in this sport. Footage of his fight with Kattar suggests that, like so many journeymen, he is a good deal better than his record suggests. But let’s be honest: he’s no Dustin Poirier, is he?
Compared to Max Holloway, Calvin Kattar’s first decade as a pro was an absolute cakewalk. Hell, Max Holloway only just marked his tenth year as a pro, and he did it with an absolutely incredible comeback performance in a title fight. Holloway has been fighting the best of the best from the very beginning. His lessons came early, and hard.
When you see how far he’s come since, you start to wonder if maybe there isn’t some wisdom to this sink-or-swim thing.
But would the two still have ended up here, on the eve of an instant classic, if their paths had been reversed? It’s a little difficult to imagine Max Holloway losing to the likes of James Jones, but then it’s no less difficult to imagine the man who lost to Dustin Poirier establishing himself as an all-time great. Likewise, it’s easy to picture a 20 year-old Calvin Kattar being submitted by Dustin Poirier. Would that, and the subsequent fights—the unimaginable pressure of fighting in the UFC—have vaulted him to greatness? Or was Max always destined for the fast track, and Kattar for the slow one?
Personally, I suspect we’ve seen far more potential Kattars wash out of the UFC than we have Holloways built before our disbelieving eyes. I don’t know what it’s like to discover how fighting Conor Actual McGregor feels just three years into your career, but I doubt most fighters would have handled it as coolly as Max. I suspect this is a man motivated by failure in a way that most fighters simply aren’t. McGregor went on to snatch the crown from Jose Aldo two short years after beating Holloway. Just two years after that, Holloway stole it for himself.
A fighter’s career is a funny thing. In MMA, far more so than in boxing, losses are an absolute inevitability. Everyone loses, and the ones who succeed learn from it. But not everyone is Max Holloway, and not all defeats are created equal.
Calvin Kattar may have faltered where Max Holloway soared, but none of that matters now. They followed the paths laid out before them. Whatever shape it took, Kattar’s path brought him here just as surely as Holloway’s.
And the odds aren’t quite even, but they aren’t all that wide.
For a more technical look at this weekend’s main event (and next Wednesday’s), don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.