Max Holloway ready to remind the world why he’s among MMA’s best

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway. (John Locher/AP)

TORONTO — If you want to know exactly what Max Holloway is about, exactly why the 27-year-old Hawaiian is one of the most tenacious, game-for-anything fighters going today, it only takes 10 seconds to find out.

It was 2016. Riding an eight-fight win streak after his 2013 loss to Conor McGregor, Holloway was booked against veteran featherweight contender Ricardo Lamas, who had fought for the title two years prior. Holloway dominated the fight, both by the eye test and the metrics. He landed 103 significant strikes to Lamas’s 64. He stuffed all six of Lamas’s takedown attempts. By the final minute of the fight, Holloway was cruising to a unanimous 30-27 victory and everyone knew it.

But then the clapper went off, signalling the final 10 seconds. And something in Holloway’s psyche went off, too. Something he can’t ignore. Head bowed, looking up at Lamas through his eyebrows, Holloway pointed at the centre of the octagon, inviting his opponent to stand and trade. No defence, no technique. Just two guys throwing haymakers for 10 seconds — one of them with nothing to lose, the other with everything.

It has to be one of the worst strategic decisions in UFC history. If Lamas caught him, Holloway would have lost his easy victory, his win streak, his momentum toward a title shot. He would have been judged and ridiculed for the rest of his career. He didn’t care. He honoured his agreement and stood right where he was, swinging for the bleachers, pausing only to point at the ground once more when Lamas backed away under a barrage of Holloway’s bombs.

At the end of the melee, Holloway leapt straight up onto the top of the fence, yelling at the crowd and pounding his chest. Six months later, he was doing the same thing, this time before having the interim featherweight belt wrapped around his waist. Twelve months after that, he was finishing his second technical knockout of the greatest featherweight of this era, and possibly all-time — Jose Aldo, a man who had lost only twice in 28 fights prior.

The torch was passed. Snatched, more like. And yet, as he prepares to defend his belt this Saturday against the dangerous and undefeated Brian Ortega at Scotiabank Arena, you get the sense Holloway’s feeling a little unappreciated. He’s endured a year-long layoff due to various health concerns — more on that later — which has faded the memory of his dogged run to the title, of the 12-fight win streak he’s riding. There’s no questioning how ridiculously talented and willing Holloway is. But he seems to think some may have forgotten about it.

“Everybody keeps talking about Brian [Ortega], this and that,” Holloway said at Wednesday’s pre-fight press conference. “But everything the guy did, I did better. He’s on what, a six-fight win-streak? I got 12. He beat a champion? I beat two. And I beat one of them twice.”

Holloway’s actions support his words. In an era when UFC champions choose their shots more carefully than ever, seeking the most ideal circumstances in which to retain their belt and its massive influence on earning potential, Holloway’s been adamant about simply fighting whoever’s next. He says he wants to beat the best, wants to be prolifically active. He wants to return valour to championship behaviour — damn the consequences.

Only three months after his second victory over Aldo, Holloway agreed to fight the No. 1 contender, Frankie Edgar. He had to pull out of the fight due to an unspecified leg injury, with Ortega taking his place and dispatching Edgar with a brutal uppercut in the first round. That’s cool, Holloway said — now he’d just fight Ortega once his leg healed.

But only a month later, the UFC called and asked Holloway if he’d be willing to step into a lightweight title fight against undefeated Dagestani wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov after an opponent dropped out due to a last-minute injury. Nurmagomedov’s a nightmare. He’s manhandled everyone he’s fought. At that point, he’d never even lost a round. Would Holloway move up a weight class and accept such a difficult fight under such disadvantageous circumstances?

Of course he would. It didn’t matter that it was less than a week prior to the bout, that Holloway was in Hawaii and the event was in New York, that he wasn’t in a training camp and would have to starve himself merely to make weight. Holloway hopped on a plane hours after getting the call and went off to fight.

Ultimately, the extreme weight cut Holloway attempted in order to face Nurmagomedov proved too much. Fearing for Holloway’s safety, the New York State Athletic Commission deemed him medically unfit to fight only hours before weigh-ins. Holloway contends that if it was up to him he would’ve continued cutting weight — would’ve made it, too. All so that only 36 hours after depleting himself to the point of extreme exhaustion, he could be locked in a cage with one of the UFC’s most feared fighters.

“I’ve been a champion, I’ve defended the belt — now the next goal is to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound in the world,” Holloway said Wednesday. “If it’s a weight above, it’s a weight above. If it’s me staying down here (at 145 pounds) defending it 10 times, then I’ll defend it 10 times. If I’ve got to fight my good friend [UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier], let me know. I’m ready.”

Of course, there is a physical toll paid for Holloway’s abandon. For the severe weight cuts, for the frequency with which he fights, for the times he stands and bangs.

He was originally scheduled to fight Ortega in July, but after his open workout during fight week, Holloway’s team had trouble waking him up from a nap. When he came to, he was experiencing flashing vision and slurring his speech. He was rushed to hospital and pulled from the fight.

Later, his manager revealed Holloway had already spent a night in hospital earlier that week due to concussion-like symptoms, and that the fighter’s team had to trick him into returning to the emergency room, telling him he was going to a media interview. Through it all, Holloway insisted he was fine, arguing with his team to let him fight. To this day, Holloway says neither he nor his team have been able to discern the cause of the symptoms.

It’s scary stuff. And one hopes Holloway and UFC officials have done everything in their power to ensure he’s healthy enough to fight. Every MMA athlete endures severe physical and mental hardship just to hear their name announced on a Saturday night. But what Holloway’s experienced is next level. Some things aren’t meant to be pushed through.

Even Ortega, who will try to take Holloway’s head off in a few days, expressed genuine concern for his opponent’s wellbeing at Wednesday’s press conference.

“I really do care about your health, and how you are, and how you’re doing,” Ortega said, breaking the promotional fourth wall and addressing Holloway directly on the podium. “Bull–––– aside. I know we’re fighting and all that s–––, but I do hope you’re all right.”

So, here Holloway is. Ready to defend his title for the first time in a year. Trying to remind the world of the insane confidence he possesses. In his way? Ortega, who’s no joke. He’s never lost and never seen a decision in seven UFC fights. He possesses some of MMA’s most lethal jiu-jitsu to go with powerful hands — which he used to knock out Edgar, who had never been stopped in his career.

And who more appropriate for Holloway to make his return against? What challenge could be more fittingly problematic? He’s never taken the easy route. Never tried to put himself in the most advantageous position. Game to a fault, Holloway’s perpetually on a quest to prove something. Not to himself. To you.

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