On February 4, 2012, Max Holloway made his UFC debut as a 20-year-old prospect with a 4-0 record from fighting in other, less prestigious organizations. Less than four minutes after his fight started at UFC 143, the man from Hawaii had tasted defeat for the first time as a professional.
The man who handed Holloway (20-4 MMA, 16-4 UFC) that submission defeat was Dustin Poirier (24-5 MMA, 16-4 UFC), a bigger, older, stronger fighter who had already fought in a trio of UFC bouts and entered the bout with an 11-1 record.
The two are scheduled to meet again on April 13 at UFC 236 from State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Ga. Much has changed since they first faced one another more than seven years ago — not least their relative standings within the sport. Although it was Poirier who declared “I’m here to be a champion,” after defeating Holloway in their first go-round, it’s Holloway who made it first. He is the current UFC featherweight champion and this month’s bout will decide the interim lightweight championship.
Bouncing back and falling again
Following the loss to Poirier, Holloway — the then-youngest fighter on the UFC roster — spent 2012 figuring out life in the Octagon, rattling off three straight wins. The culmination of his first UFC year was a hard-fought split decision victory over 25-fight veteran Leonard Garcia.
In less than a year, Holloway stepped into the Octagon four times, proving he belonged on the biggest stage. He put himself in position to fight bigger names and to continue climbing the featherweight ladder.
The next 12 months were more difficult, however. First, Holloway faced Dennis Bermudez at UFC 160 and lost a split decision. While the decision was controversial — every media outlet tracked by MMADecisions.com awarded the fight to Holloway — the defeated fighter revealed a pragmatic side to his character.
“I’ve got no excuses,” Holloway said following the loss. “I’m going to come back stronger than ever. I’m not going to cry about it. It is what it is.”
Things did not improve in his next fight. At UFC Fight Night 26, Holloway faced off with Conor McGregor. Now an international superstar, McGregor was only stepping into the Octagon for the second time in his career.
The fight took place in Boston, where a wild Irish-American crowd was fully supportive of the brash Dublin native McGregor. Fueled by that support, McGregor dominated Holloway almost every minute of the bout despite suffering a torn ACL in the second round.
The unanimous decision loss brought Holloway’s 2013 to a close with an 0-2 record and his standing in the UFC uncertain.
The waters of the UFC are rough and fighters who can’t win consistently have a tendency to find themselves back fighting on the regional circuit. Entering 2014, Holloway was acutely aware of this.
“I’m going through a tough time right now, but that was last year, and this is the first card of 2014,” Holloway told MMAjunkie Radio ahead of a UFC Fight Night 34 bout with Will Chope. “I’m trying to start the year off with a bang.”
He added: “I’m here to win. I want to win. I don’t want to be a .500 fighter in the UFC. I want to be known as one of the greatest when my career is up. I was trying to rush things. I keep forgetting that I’m only 22-years-old. I just need to slow things down and take little baby steps.”
Holloway rattled off four wins in 2014.
And another four in 2015.
In addition to an eight-fight winning streak over those two years, Holloway was beginning to add some big scalps to his resume, including Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson and Charles Oliveira — all fighters who had proven their skills time and again in the UFC.
Holloway was growing not only in confidence but growing into his body and adding new skills. Defensive deficiencies on display against McGregor seemed to be gone and he was physically stronger, more accurate with his strikes and more diverse in his attack.
The belt and the legend
In 2016, Holloway fought Ricardo Lamas at UFC 199 and won easily, taking his winning streak to nine consecutive bouts. The fight also featured one of the iconic moments of Holloway’s career as he and Lamas agreed to stand and trade wild shots for 10 seconds as the crowd erupted.
McGregor had won the featherweight championship and moved up in weight to capture the lightweight title as well. During that time, legendary Brazilian Jose Aldo won the interim featherweight title.
When UFC 206’s main event of Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson fell through due to an injury to Cormier, a bout between Holloway and former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis was bumped to the main event. And to make it a little more attractive, the UFC stripped McGregor of his championship due to his pursuits at higher weights, made Aldo the “full champion” of the division and put the interim belt on the line between Holloway and Pettis.
Holloway’s chance at gold finally arrived on December 10, 2016 and he did not disappoint.
Despite Pettis missing weight and thus being ineligible himself to win the vacant interim title, Holloway scored a third round TKO to capture the championship.
“We’re trying to fight Aldo, so I thought I’d call him Waldo – Jose Waldo,” Holloway said in the cage after his win. “Hashtag Jose Waldo, and tell him meet me in Brooklyn in February. Let’s get the real one!
“This is my ticket to Jose Waldo. Let me know when you guys find him. I’ll be waiting.”
Aldo was no stranger to streaks of his own, having won 18 straight fights over the best featherweights in the world before running into a McGregor punch only 12 seconds into their wildly anticipated fight in 2015.
In UFC 212 in June 2017, Holloway finally got his chance against Aldo. In the post-McGregor era, the fight represented a chance for the featherweight division to have one true champion and a new identity.
Fighting in front of Aldo’s Brazilian fans in Rio de Janeiro, Holloway slowly turned up the heat. Combination after combination began to land and in the third round the referee was forced to stop the fight. Holloway was now the undisputed king of the featherweights.
— UFC (@ufc) June 4, 2017
Aldo and Holloway met for a rematch in December but the result was the same: Holloway won by a third round TKO, making him one of only three men to beat Aldo in his career and the only man to defeat him twice.
Holloway attempted to follow McGregor’s path of jumping to a lightweight title fight at UFC 223, filling in on less than a week’s notice with no training camp when Tony Ferguson was injured and withdrew from a bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov. The day of the weigh-ins the New York State Athletic Commission pulled Holloway from the bout due to the short notice weight cut being too much.
Next up was a UFC 226 bout with Brian Ortega, but Holloway was forced to pull out when he began exhibiting “concussion-like symptoms” days ahead of the fight.
The bout with Ortega eventually took place at UFC 231, more than a year since Holloway’s previous bout. No “ring rust” was apparent, though, as Holloway battered Ortega, landing a record 290 strikes in the fight and running his win streak to 13.
While the attempt to jump to lightweight didn’t work out at UFC 223, Holloway will now make the jump at UFC 236 and attempt to gain revenge over the man who spoiled his Octagon debut while collecting yet another championship.
Poirier is no easy out, but Holloway’s sights have been set on bigger game or, at least, bigger paydays. He and McGregor have spent plenty of time trash-talking one another on Twitter, and might one day settle it in the Octagon.
Now where the fuck are them sunglasses? pic.twitter.com/HxWceONYhv
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) March 17, 2019
lol there you are my bratha. glad you got to relive your best years today in Boston
— Max Holloway (@BlessedMMA) March 17, 2019
but if we talking about the past remember this. I was 21. You were 25.
— Max Holloway (@BlessedMMA) March 17, 2019
This is me at 25 pic.twitter.com/FYjF5DoSXA
— Max Holloway (@BlessedMMA) March 17, 2019
And while Holloway knows McGregor is where the big money is, he has also poked at the possibility of a future lightweight unification bout with full champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, the unbeaten fighter from Dagestan, Russia. Nurmagomedov stopped McGregor in his last bout before both camps engaged in a wild post-fight brawl.
“Khabib said he wanted to fight me, but he wanted me to prove myself,” Holloway said at a recent press conference ahead of UFC 236. “I got Dustin. April 13, I decided to prove myself. I’m going to go out there and prove myself, and when he’s ready to come back, I’ll be ready.”
If he gets past Poirier to become a two-division champion, Holloway will have decisions to make. Will he return to featherweight to defend his crown or vacate and remain at 155 and await a showdown with division king Nurmagomedov?
“At the end of the day, first things first, I got Dustin Poirier, and we’ll talk to the UFC after that,” Holloway said. “I don’t think Frankie [Edgar] or Jose [Aldo] deserve a champ that’s not willing to defend for a year. After this one I could go back down in the summer. That would be fun. But first things first, April 13.”