Any combat sport thrives when it has a colorful, engaging and dominant champion.
Max Holloway gives the UFC just that. The kid who signed his first UFC contract as a 21-year-old on the same day that his first child was born has blossomed into a star.
Holloway had racked up victory after victory en route to Saturday’s champion-versus-champion bout against the legendary Jose Aldo in Rio de Janeiro in the main event of UFC 212, but he wasn’t getting a lot of respect for it.
But after stopping Aldo, the greatest featherweight in the sport’s history, at 4:13 of the third, he’s going to get plenty of respect now.
He took the hard road to the top, but made it look easy in the big one. After a slow first round in which he took a few hard shots, Holloway relaxed and handled Aldo in a way that no one has in more than a decade.
Oh, Conor McGregor knocked Aldo out in 13 seconds in 2014, but a one-punch knockout like that isn’t the same as a concerted beating like Holloway delivered on Saturday.
Starting early in the second, Holloway relaxed and fired his hands at Aldo. He was connecting with hard shots, taking the best Aldo had to offer with a shrug and a smile, and looked like a battle-tested veteran and not a guy who just a few days ago said, “I’m still learning every day and I’m still getting better every day.”
He’s now won 11 in a row, tied for the fourth-longest streak in UFC history behind only Anderson Silva (16), Jon Jones (13) and Demetrious Johnson and Georges St-Pierre (12 apiece). Royce Gracie also won 11 in a row.
He’s got a swagger to him now that he didn’t have when he joined the UFC. He didn’t say much in his early days, but after dominating Pettis in December, he was trash talking Aldo for months.
Aldo seethed as he listened to this upstart run his mouth, but in the cage, he couldn’t do much about it.
Just a few years ago, Holloway was a high school freshman in Hawaii who felt he was destined for stardom, but didn’t know in what arena.
He was telling everyone he’d be a baseball player, but even he wasn’t sure what the future held.
“I was just this scrawny little kid with big ears, you know,” Holloway told Yahoo Sports before the fight. “I was the class clown. I liked to have fun and joke around.”
Once Holloway found fighting, he’d had his calling. He was submitted by Dustin Poirier on Feb. 4, 2012, in his UFC debut, and after six fights, was 3-3.
The third of those losses was to McGregor in 2013, but it looks a lot better in retrospect given what McGregor has done in the interim.
And since that night in Boston, Holloway has reeled off 11 in a row, defeating the likes of Aldo, Pettis, Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Ricardo Lamas and Jeremy Stephens along the way.
He’s got length for the division, the kind of chin that allows him to stay in a pocket and exchange, and is adept attacking either from a conventional stance or from a southpaw stance.
When Swanson, a top contender in the division, asked him on Fox Sports 1’s post-game show if his slow start was because his plan was to weather the storm early, Holloway sneered and showed the championship mentality he’s developed.
“I never try to weather the storm,” Holloway said in response. “That’s a losing mentality right there. I was in there to fight. My game plan was to go out there and fight, wherever the fight takes me.”
He repeatedly referred to this as “The Blessed Era,” though history has repeatedly taught us that long reigns are highly unlikely in MMA.
But Holloway has all the elements needed to be a big-time star. He’s a finisher – eight of his 11 consecutive wins were by finish – and he’s charismatic and he looks like he loves what he is doing.
In the modern UFC, fighters tend to win a title and immediately look to the super fight. Holloway, though, is eager to clean out a division in which he’s already defeated Nos. 3, 4, 6 and 8.
And that is what will endear a fighter to the fan base. Fight and defeat the best repeatedly and the fans will deify you before long. It worked for Chuck Liddell, it worked for Ronda Rousey, it worked for McGregor and it’s the path that Holloway is headed down now.
The real pressure starts now that matchmaker Mick Maynard wrapped the undisputed belt around his waist. The demands on his time are going to increase a hundredfold. All kinds of crazy offers will come his way. He’ll face media scrutiny that he hasn’t ever seen.
It’s why it’s so difficult for UFC champions to stay on top for so long, and why those who manage to do so for more than one or two defenses are so revered.
Only time will tell if Holloway will become one of those revered champs, but he sure has a good leg up on it.