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The Cult of Max

With a 12-fight winning streak that he refers to as the “Blessed Era” in MMA, UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway is on the verge of historical heights—yet questions remain about his health.

Max Holloway Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Max Holloway became a living legend on April Fools’ Day this year. That was the day that the UFC’s featherweight champion was asked to fill in for Tony Ferguson and fight Khabib Nurmagomedov on less than a week’s notice. Even though he was at home in Hawaii—some 5,000 miles from New York City, where the fight was happening—and weighed north of 175 pounds—some 20 pounds north of the 155-pound limit he’d need to reach—he eagerly agreed. It wasn’t an April Fools’ joke. He hopped on a plane on Monday of fight week, and by Wednesday was doing a press conference opposite the most feared lightweight on the planet.

It was a lesson in the kind of chutzpah we’re dealing in with Holloway. Nobody volunteers for that kind of mission unless they are armed with a thousand rounds of self-belief. Holloway was jumping at the chance to become the UFC’s second dual-division champion, yes, but he was jumping in there with Khabib, a seemingly unstoppable force—and doing it on less than a week’s notice. Holloway never hesitated.

Max Holloway and Brian Ortega
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That gesture gave rise to the cult of Max Holloway, the 27-year-old pidgin-speaking, pickerel-thin Hawaiian who is everything the UFC covets in a champion—fearless, unflinching, idiosyncratic, and deadly. And the cult of Max Holloway persists even though the fight never happened. Ultimately, the New York State Athletic Commission didn’t allow the bout to take place, given the extreme nature of Holloway’s quick weight cut. Nurmagomedov ended up facing a Plan D opponent in Al Iaquinta, whom he dominated en route to the pay-per-view record-shattering fight with Conor McGregor at UFC 229.

As for Holloway? He was quickly rerouted to UFC 226, where he was paired with the young, undefeated kill switch of his own division, Brian Ortega. That fight was set for July, and in many ways shared the same intriguing lures that Ferguson-Nurmagomedov did: With Holloway riding a 12-fight win streak, it was two tidal waves of momentum clashing right at their peaks, with the sweet, incomprehensible knowledge that one of them would actually have to lose. It wasn’t as much of a spotlight gig as the Khabib match would have been, but it was still going to be big.

But fate struck again: Just days before the fight was to take place, Holloway had a groggy interview on UFC Tonight that concerned everyone who saw it. He seemed off all week, displaying “concussion-like symptoms.” Some people were speculating that he suffered a mild stroke, but Holloway’s team quickly refuted that. There were reports that he had been knocked out in sparring, and another that he had been poisoned. Whatever it was, his affect was concerning. The UFC pulled him from the card, and for once people weren’t performatively concerned about losing a main event during fight week—they were genuinely concerned that something serious might be going on with Holloway, be it physical and/or mental.

Toronto Star via Getty Images

Since that time, Holloway has been relatively quiet and purposefully vague. He has undergone tests to determine what happened with him in July yet has offered no real answers. He dealt with his situation privately, not speaking with media or offering much on social media. During those months, he had fits of depression. When he finally began to resurface, he didn’t really have any definitive updates on his physical or mental health status, other than to reiterate his favorite saying—“It is what it is”—and boast that, despite the metaphorical dirge music being played around him, he feels great. Great enough to defend the featherweight title against Ortega on Saturday night in Toronto, just five months after the “scare.”

But how great is great? That’s the subplot for Saturday night’s fight. Is Holloway the man who solved UFC great Jose Aldo, knocking him out not once but twice in 2017, and enlisted to try to make history against Nurmagomedov? Or has the fight game taken a cumulative toll on him, a toll that’s about to reveal itself in front of a pay-per-view audience hoping that’s not the case?

“It’s unfortunate events, and that’s it,” Holloway told The Ringer when asked about it this week. “It is what it is. I’m a big believer that one door closes and another one opens. I can’t wait to finally make this walk. I miss the feeling, I miss everything. I miss the crowd. I can’t wait to make that walk to the cage.”

Even as he explains himself, Holloway is not exactly forthcoming. But then again, Holloway sounds like his old self. He is speaking in his usual riddles, saying things like “The Blessed Express was delayed at the station, but whether you ride coach or first class it’s rolling on the tracks.” He has that same old sense of humor that has endeared him to the fight public and the same sense of casual invincibility that has made him a kind of an island legend.

“If you ain’t trying to be no. 1, then what are you trying to do?” he says. “I want to be the no. 1 pound-for-pound guy in the world, and if it’s a weight class up [fighting Nurmagomedov], it’s a weight class up. If it’s 10 title defenses down here [at featherweight], it’s 10 title defenses down here. If my boy DC [heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier] wants some, Kung Fu Panda can get some. We can figure it out.”

He has the look and feel of the old Holloway, the one who doesn’t give a damn. The one who showed up to Toronto in December two years ago at UFC 206 wearing a red metallic tie “made of lava.” The one who routinely turns clichés into art, like he did when he declared, “I leave no turn unstoned.” Holloway, the willowy beast from Honolulu, all ears and Adam’s apple, has become a fan favorite because he’ll fight any giant in the land.

Sometimes the giants win: Holloway lost twice in 2013, one of those to Conor McGregor. Since then, Holloway has won 12 fights in a row. He finished eight of those fights, including all three in which a belt was in play. Standing in the octagon after his last fight with Aldo, with his son in his arms, after Joe Rogan complimented him for systematically taking Aldo apart, he simply said, “At the end of the day, it is what it is,” the powerful double cliché that Holloway has perfected. The crowd in Detroit ate it up.

It’s become something of a tradition in the UFC to have Holloway headline a December card in a cold part of North America. Two years ago it was in Toronto. Last year it was in Detroit. This year it’s back to Toronto, which Holloway has now generously bestowed as Hawaii’s 10th island (he long ago made Las Vegas the ninth). The last time through Holloway came through the Six against Pettis, the city all but rolled out the red carpet for him. This time he’s had confab with Drake at a Toronto Raptors game, and the team even tweeted out a GIF of Holloway after beating the Golden State Warriors.

“I’m Hawaiian,” he says. “I wholeheartedly believe the UFC is trying ice me, but it is what it is. My ass be freezing, but really, Toronto takes me like I’m their own, and at this point I’m a little bit Canadian, eh?”

Holloway is playful ahead of the next big fight in his career, even if Vegas oddsmakers have it listed as a pick ‘em fight. The 27-year-old Ortega is older than Holloway, though he doesn’t have nearly the same experience level. What he does have is preternatural power. He has an ability to punish the man in front of him from anywhere the fight takes place—standing, on the ground, along the fence, in the center of the cage, in the clinch, or in a scramble. He is the definition of a “well-rounded” fighter, the new breed that are equally versed in every discipline of the martial arts.

He’s also a big game hunter. In his last fight at UFC 222, Ortega became the first man to ever finish Frankie Edgar. In his previous bout, a main event against Cub Swanson, Ortega essentially finished the fight twice—once late in the first round when Swanson was saved by the bell, then again with a flying guillotine choke midway through the second. It was a thing of devastating beauty. Swanson later said he thought he was going to die, the choke was so tight.

Even with those kinds of credentials to think about, Holloway shrugs his shoulders. The first time he faced Aldo, plenty of people thought he was being fed headlong into the blade of a buzz saw, but he shrugged that one off. Holloway took out Aldo once, then made some adjustments from the first fight and did it again six months later. Holloway has made himself into the kind of fighter where hype goes to die.

“I don’t care who is in our crosshairs, I’m just trying to be the best pound-for-pound fighter,” he says when I ask him about Ortega. “He’s just one more guy in the way. He’s been in the crosshairs a little bit longer than usual, but that’s OK. We get to figure out, and I’m excited. This fight’s exciting me. He’s one of those guys where you’re like, ‘Oh, who did this guy fight?’ Then you look and go, ‘Damn, him and him and him, and he did what to this guy?’”

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There’s a lot of mutual respect between Ortega and Holloway. Both are genuinely likable figures in the UFC. Holloway carries a relaxed, oftentimes comical demeanor, which plays in direct contrast to such a harrowing sport. Ortega, rising up from an impoverished area of Los Angeles, brings heartfelt goodwill. After winning his first fight bonus, he opened up the Brian Ortega Foundation—a “nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring others to be the change they hope to see in the world.” Both have immense upside, both in the cage and (maybe more importantly) outside: The bilingual Ortega could be pivotal in helping the UFC break through the Mexican market, and Holloway has long lobbied for the UFC to bring a fight card to his native Hawaii. There are no heels in this scenario.

Sometimes with UFC matchmaking, there’s a prevailing sense that a change is needed. When McGregor fought longtime featherweight champion Aldo for the title in 2015, pay-per-views were doing in the lower-to-mid six figures. With McGregor, everyone knew a million PPVs would be all but guaranteed. From a business perspective, the UFC’s own rooting interest could be inferred.

With Holloway and Ortega? It feels like whoever wins this fight would be perfectly fine with the UFC brass. And to ensure that at least one of them makes it to the octagon on fight night, the UFC even went so far as to put an understudy in place. In this case, it’s Renato Moicano, who was supposed to fight Mirsad Bektic Saturday night, before Bektic pulled out with an injury. Now he will serve as an insurance policy should Ortega or Holloway pull out at the last minute.

Given the year that Holloway has had, the decision to have Moicano in the wings feels more like an indictment on him alone.

“Me, I just need to focus on kicking some butt,” Holloway says. “That’s all I got to do. This thing is time consuming, not only for my life, but for my coach’s life. It’s time I don’t have with my son. And it’s time I take other people from their own family. That’s what I focus on—making it all count. So when we go out there, I can look every single one of them in the eye and say I gave it all I had. I did it. This is me. And most of my team is like that, too.”

Getty Images

For a guy who rebuilt his name from the ground up since his last loss back in 2013, Holloway has done everything right. He’s won a long string of fights and piqued Conor McGregor’s interest in a rematch. He’s honed his skills on the microphone. He has turned himself into a cult figure in the UFC, with a reputation that most fighters can only envy. If he beats Ortega, a superfight with Nurmagomedov would once again cross the minds of the matchmakers. “I really wanted that fight,” Holloway says. “Everybody was calling me crazy, but Khabib’s just as crazy. He was going to fight me.”

He turned into a UFC legend overnight by volunteering for that fight. The cult of Holloway is strong, but the question lingers: Is Holloway OK?

“I was in a weird place for sure with all those things, but it never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t fight again,” he says. “That’s the warrior in me. But once I got to sit back and relax and got to enjoy some downtime with my son, that helped. That’s why I love my family and my team. My team puts my life above anything.

“I’ve openly talked about depression, and the only person that gets you out of that is yourself. So [I] need to remember to take a step back and bless myself. You got to remember to bless yourself.” Right then, as if on cue, he sneezes and says, “Bless me”—the old ham back up to his ways. “I went through that stuff. But I’m here. Everything happens for a reason, and this year had to happen. It’s shitty to come after the 2017 year, but it is what it is.”

That could be the name on the poster. UFC 231: It Is What It Is.

But what exactly is it? It’s still the same it was back in December 2017, according to Holloway. “The last time I checked, the Blessed Era is still in full effect,” he says. “The Blessed Express is leaving the station.”