- Max Holloway is back to doing what he does best—without any of the sideshow. The featherweight champ opened up to SI.com about his showdown with Dustin Poirier at UFC 236.
The WWE may have a team of writers on staff. But the UFC has Conor McGregor who, never mind fighting skills, has a singular talent for driving a story. A hero turned heel, McGregor insults the wife of his Muslim rival with an ethnic slur and then announces his return to fighting after a two-week retirement. And that was only last week. This is also to say nothing of last month’s sexual assault allegation and arrest for smashing a fan’s phone and... well, you get the picture.
It all leaves little oxygen for the actual fighters. Consider Max Holloway. The 27-year-old Hawaiian hasn’t lost a fight in nearly six years—he was 21; and it was a decision loss to McGregor—and must be included in any “best pound-for-pound” conversation. His fights are plenty entertaining, most recently his horribly violent stoppage of Brian Ortega. He has plenty to say for himself, as you’ll see below.
But so long as he’s not stooping to call another man’s wife a “towel,” or threatening to leave the UFC for the WWE, he has struggled to find currency with the casual fan.
The featherweight champion, Holloway (20–3) moves to lightweight (155 pounds) on Saturday for a fight against veteran Dustin Poirier (24–5, 1 NC) available exclusively on ESPN+. This has been thinly–marketed as a “rematch” of a fight Poirier won seven years ago, a lifetime in the dog years of UFC. The more compelling storyline: two class fighters who win consistently and never disgrace themselves nor the sport. Oh, and the winner gets Khabib Nurmagomedov.
In advance of UFC 236 this Saturday in Atlanta, Holloway put in an extended sparring session with SI.com. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
What: UFC 236
When: Saturday. Early prelims begin at 6:15 p.m.; main card scheduled to start at 10 p.m. (All times ET.)
Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta
TV: Pay-per-view broadcast available exclusively on ESPN+. Early preliminary bouts on ESPN+, UFC Fight Pass (6:15-8 p.m.). Prelims on ESPN (8 p.m.).
Jon Wertheim: What do you think you're walking around at now?
Max Holloway: Right now I'm probably 15 pounds out. [That is, 170 pounds to make the 155 limit]. So not too bad, not too bad at all.
JW: You've done this...
MH: ...far too many times.
JW: I watched the Ortega fight again last night. What is the impact of a fight like that on you?
MH: Good fun, you know. I don't know. I think you got to ask the impact on him. At the end of the day, Brian is tough guy. He's a competitor. He competed. He was in there fighting, fighting it out. At the end of the day, that made a new record. Most fights landed in—most punches landed in a fight and most punches landed in a round. It takes two, you know. He's one tough dude.
JW: But what's the emotional impact of a fight like that?
MH: Man, the last fight was emotional. The year leading up to that, I had a bunch of fights fall through, had a little depression. I was fighting somewhat of depression. It was just crazy to have the fight like that.
JW: What do you mean by 'depression'?
MH: The last year, part of my career, three fights that got pulled from me. I got hurt. I got hurt. After that, doctors pulled me twice. It goes from a guy, I'm so used to fighting two to four times a year to only fighting one time a year now. I had no control or say in it.
JW: Did you ever think you might never fight again?
MH: Yeah, you know, after that stuff that happened, I was thinking, like, "Man, what if I don't ever fight again?" That's what led into it.
JW: You were pretty low the year you weren't fighting?
MH: Yeah, for sure. I believe I was put on this earth to do one thing, one thing only: fight. Also be a great father to my son, be something. [But] the way I get my message out is through fighting. I got that taken away from me. I was a little bit hurt, but I got to figure out other things in my life and do stuff. It was amazing. It was an amazing year. I grew a lot as a person.
JW: Looking back—?
MH: A true champion is not a guy who goes up there and can do champion stuff. A true champion is someone who can hit rock bottom, come back up. This fight, April 13, next week, with Dustin, me and him, we had the highs, the lows that are lows in this sport, highs that are highs. Now we're back at the highs of the highs, be able to fight for the 155 gold, one of the most dangerous divisions.
JW: Do you have a relationship with him at all?
MH: Only that we shared a fight once. He's a cool dude. At the end of the day, I was the first one to say—look at my interviews back in the day, I'm the first one to say–If my mom signed on the dotted line, “I'm sorry, mama, you shouldn't have not did that. I'm going to fight. That's the way you raised me. That's just how I am.”
JW: You'll fight anyone?
MH: You know, yeah, for sure. My relationship with the UFC is super easy. Tell them find the toughest fight, what you guys think is the toughest fight for us. Set up a contract, make sure my name is on. I'll give you a signature, send it back.
JW: Some guys like it when they have a beef with the other guy; some guys say it gets them too emotional—
MH: You know, this is an emotional game at the end of the day. To me it's a business and a sport. I'm not the type of dude if I run into you on the streets and stuff I'm going to fight. I'm not going to make no money doing that! I'm in the business of making money, you know, and fighting. I'm not going to fight you for free. Put it on so at least the world can see you get it. I'll get you. Don't worry. No, let's save it for it ring. I'll shake your hand after. I don't care. It is what it is.
Only a fighter knows the feeling. It takes a special person. I respect anyone who makes that walk to a cage, an octagon or a ring. It takes a special type of human being to take that walk.
JW: You fought Poirier seven years ago. Too long out to take anything away from that to help you this time?
MH: For sure. Seven years, it's a long time.
JW: Totally different fighters—
MH: Yeah. I was 20, he was 23. We was both kids. I think he was ranked in the top—No. 4 in the world at the time. But we still was young. The only thing I take away, is a funny story, Bruce Buffer announced my name and told me not to faint.
JW: First fight?
MH: First UFC fight, big deal. Yeah, that's the only thing I took away. I was pretty proud of myself that I didn't faint.
JW: What do you do to register your emotions? What do you do to keep things in range emotionally?
MH: The way I can control my emotion is I understand how much time these guys sacrifice for me, so I'm going to give my full, put it on the line. All said and done, win, lose, I can look them all in the eye and say, I tried my best, I tried my hardest, thank you, guys. That's all they'll ever ask for me is go out there and do me.
JW: What is your relationship to all the drama in your division? Pay attention to the tick-tock?
MH: You know, no relationship. Some guys, what's going on with the drama, the talk, chitchat. Why not talk about something more important like climate change? I know guys that live here in New York telling me it's not supposed to be this cold this time of year. It's usually warmer. I'm mad because I live in Hawaii. It's cold. Climate change is for real. Look at the climate change, stop looking at these guys talking about what they're talking about. They're not talking about fighting any more. That's what it's about.
JW: You obviously saw the news. You know who the winner gets—
MH: Yeah, yeah, for sure. They said winner gets Khabib. I can't wait. He's the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Like I said, I'm a champion. I get a chance of being a double champion, only very few got to do it in the UFC. Daniel Cormier, one of my good friends. I call him, talk to him all the time. I tell him he's the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter. I tell him all the time, "We're going to fight. If I had to fight you for that No. 1 pound-for-pound fight, we're going to fight. Don't sign the contract. I'll fight you for it, all right?"
JW: He'd have a big cut to make.
MH: I'll go up. I would eat the heavyweight, I don't care. I can do it. Come to Hawaii. Look at some pictures in the offseason. Boys are pretty big.
JW: What do you get up to?
MH: That's a secret. Like I say, this is L.A. We can't be talking about that.
JW: Tell me about Hawaii, though. Proportionately a lot of good fighters coming out of there.
MH: A lot. A lot. I actually wanted UFC to open there. We have a bunch of Hawaiians. I think we have the most people per capita in the UFC.
JW: Why do you think it is?
MH: I think it's the air. I keep telling everybody, I think it's the air. It's just different over there. Hawaii, nothing like getting off the plane, smelling that air.
A lot of people don't understand, it's like history. Our history is a warrior history. We had history and people take pride in it. That's what I think it is, the difference. A lot of these countries, like Ireland or Brazil, they all have this backstory of ancestries that were warriors and fighters, whatever time there was, gladiators. It's pretty dope.
JW: Is that what you think it is?
MH: That's exactly I what I think it is. It's called mana. It means spiritual power. There's a bunch. Whenever you see anything, when everybody try to come and do something on Hawaii, you see it. When it comes to they talk about anything, could be food. This is on the airplane, I was watching. He's talking about Hawaii and how spiritual people is about everything. The food is spiritual. The water is spiritual. The land is spiritual. That's just what I think it is.
JW: At this stage of your career, how do you prepare for a fight?
MH: I like to call my team, you know, the four-headed dragon. I got me, I got my—five-headed dragon. I got my coaches, my teammates. Everybody is watching film. Most of the guys I train with, they watch film to try to mimic the guy. My coaches watch film. I watch film. We always come back. Some of us see the same thing. Some of us see something different.
It takes a lot. It takes a lot. I'm grateful for the guys I'm around. Like I said, when I come inside the gym and some of my guys, when they got fights, I got to mimic a guy, I'm not going to lie, I get my butt whooped. I'm trying to fight like how that guy is fighting. I just keep getting my butt whooped. This is how it is. Really make it more competitive sparring, go back to my stuff. It's not helping my teammate out.
JW: You have to stay in character.
MH: That's the kind of teammates I got. They're willing to stay in character. Sometimes I know I'm giving it to them. Mid–round I'm saying, "Thank you for giving a look," you know.
JW: Do you remember the last time you lost?
MH: Yeah, I do. That's a bad feeling.
JW: It's been a while.
MH: It's only a loss if you don't learn. After that last one, I got to be on this amazing streak. I learned a lot from that one. Actually it was two in a row. It was pretty crazy, a wild time with that. What was it, six, seven years ago?
JW: How much do you feel you're fighting opponents and how much is your motivation history, legacy, big picture stuff?
MH: Legacy is a lot. Legacy has a lot to do with me. When it's all said and done, nobody is going to be able to take it away from me. When you look at the record books, my name. I'm one of those guys when they go down on the record books, I'm long gone, Who did this guy beat? He beat him. He beat him. Wow, he beat him, him, him. Keep going on, being blown away.
I want to leave a legacy. I want to show kids where I'm from, the little town, not even the town, whatever town you're from, Hawaii, period, you can make it.
JW: That's how you look at it?
MH: It's a short window. A lot of people is like, "Why don't you do this, go on more vacations, this and that?" I'm like, "Look, let me build it up a little bit, I can retire a happy man and have a retired life when I'm 30 something."
JW: It's a hell of a way to make a living.
MH: It is. It is. It's crazy.