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UFC Fighter of the Year: Max Holloway

UFC Featherweight champ is Rolling Stone’s “Fighter of the Year” for a 2017 campaign that saw him win and defend a world title

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway after the UFC 218 event on December 2nd, 2017 in Detroit.

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Max Holloway’s year consisted of just two fights, both of which came against the same opponent. However, it’s who that opponent was and how the UFC Featherweight champion handled himself in those contests which makes him our “Fighter of the Year” for 2017.

Going into the year, there was little argument to Jose Aldo’s status as the greatest and most decorated 145-pound fighter in MMA history. Holloway (19-3 MMA, 15-3 UFC) dismantled Aldo (26-4 MMA, 9-3 UFC) not once, but twice, within a span of six months. Now there’s a legitimate debate over who is the best to do it in the weight class.

Holloway is a humble Hawaiian who also has the scrappy characteristics of someone born and bred in Waianae. He joined the UFC roster in February 2012 as a 21-year-old unknown. Now 26, Holloway is on a remarkable 12-fight UFC winning streak and doing things inside the octagon which set him apart from his peers. “The Blessed Era,” as he calls it, has truly arrived.

“It’s surreal,” Holloway tells Rolling Stone of his award. “When I found out I was like, ‘Holy shit. This is cool as shit.’ I’m not going to lie. There’s a bunch of fighters who could have been up for ‘Fighter of the Year’ – Robert Whittaker, Rose Namajunas, Demetrious Johnson. To be chosen, it’s in my nickname: I’m ‘Blessed.’

“It’s been a crazy year,” he continues. “I got to fight the greatest of all-time in my weight division not once, but twice. I was watching this guy when I was 16 years old when I first started kickboxing. I wanted to fight Aldo in a kickboxing match. A couple years later I came to MMA and wanted to fight him. 10 years later, I got to fight the man twice. It’s a lot of life goals I got to do. It’s hard to put in words.”

After beating Anthony Pettis by third-round TKO at UFC 206 in December 2016 to capture the interim UFC Featherweight title, Holloway’s 2017 campaign didn’t get started until the midway point of the year. He waited on a date for a title unification bout with Aldo, and after months of pestering the Brazilian with a clever “Where is Jose Waldo?” campaign, he finally got his chance to become undisputed champion.

It was no easy scenario, though. Aldo, who had only ever lost to UFC Lightweight champ Conor McGregor in a nearly 12-year stretch leading into the bout, got to fight on home soil in Rio de Janeiro when he put the belt on the line in the main event of UFC 212 on June 3.

Rather than being intimidated by the hostile territory, Holloway relished the situation. He viewed the opportunity to dethrone Aldo in front of his own people as an alpha move which would make victory all the more meaningful. He followed through with a scintillating title-winning performance.

The early stages of UFC 212 headliner were highly competitive, but there was never a moment Holloway appeared in danger. Aldo came out strong and was attacking his challenger at a successful rate. Holloway, however, never showed signs of being flustered, and displayed stellar poise as he calculated his fight-ending moment.

Aldo has historically displayed signs of slowing down in fights as the rounds progress. Holloway, meanwhile, has a deep gas tank which allow him to push the pace and deliver one of the highest striking output rates in UFC history. Holloway gained in confidence as the action wore on, and by the midway point of the third round, he was in complete control.

Holloway’s offense befuddled a worn down Aldo. The fight eventually hit the ground in the latter stages of Round 3, and that’s when Holloway’s killer instinct burst thrived. He pounded out his bloodied foe en route to the stoppage, making him just the third fighter in UFC history to wear the undisputed Featherweight belt.

“It’s what kings do,” says Holloway. “If you want to be the best you have to beat the best. He was an undisputed champ, I was the No. 1 contender, interim champ. I had one belt, he had one and it was time to unify. What better place to do it than in his home country, his home town and his backyard? It was my night. He had a great start, but I had a great finish.”

Conquering Aldo in such a definitive manner is a remarkable feat. It put Holloway in rare company of those who have defeated “Scarface,” but unbeknownst to him and the rest of the world at the time, he would have to do it all over again six months later.

Holloway was originally scheduled to make his first title defense against Frankie Edgar in the main event of UFC 218, which took place on December 2 and marked the organization’s return to Detroit after more than seven years. Edgar suffered a broken orbital bone in training less than a month out from the event, though, and Holloway was left without an opponent.

There’s been several instances throughout UFC history where a marquee fight has fallen apart and the company could not salvage the situation. Some champions are highly protective of their position and want to ensure they have a full training camp’s worth of time to prepare for one specific opponent. Holloway is not the type to stress about which man is standing across the Octagon, and he took the shakeup in stride.

The knowledge that he’d got the better of Aldo once provided Holloway with an iron-clad confidence he could get the job done again. He did, putting on a performance at UFC 218 which strongly resembled his work from UFC 212.

There was minor tactical intricacies Holloway switched up from the first fight to the second, but the end result looked the same. The fight once again ended with Holloway on top of Aldo throwing heavy strikes until the referee mercifully called off the bout. Just like that, Holloway became the first to beat Aldo twice, spurring UFC commentator Joe Rogan to assign Holloway with the label of “best Featherweight ever.”

“Landing a one punch KO is great and can happen anytime,” says Holloway’s longtime manager, Brian Butler-Au, of SuckerPuncher Entertainment. “But settling into a fight and schooling the GOAT twice, is a whole different level.”

Showing the character which perfectly personifies him, Holloway rejected the notion that he’d eclipsed Aldo. He insists there’s much more work to do before surpassing Aldo’s accomplishments which were build over more than a decade of dominance.

“That guy is the greatest of all-time, I truly believe it and people keep calling me that because I beat him twice,” says Holloway. “I still think I have a long way to go. I hold a bunch of records, but he holds a bunch of championship records. When I catch up to his championship records then I can see myself in the talks of greatest of all-time at featherweight, and then the world.”

Despite his humility, Holloway’s numbers speak for themselves. He’s crafting quite a legacy, and if it continues, Aldo’s name will be left behind in the conversation. His overall resume can be discussed alongside the likes of Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson, who are widely regarded as the four elites in UFC history.

Although Holloway’s success in the Octagon shines a bright light, his qualities outside, when camera aren’t rolling, are also worthy of praise. Despite his youth, Holloway is a father of a five-year-old son, Rush. He’s remained loyal to the coaches, training partners and team who have helped him get to the dance, a rare attribute in a sport where many seek out “super camps” that house dozens of big names.

“People get some success, they get some money, they get some power and they put themselves on this pedestal above other people,” says Holloway. “They forget people and try to fit in with their new crews they think they need to be around with. I didn’t believe that. I’m still human being. I tell people all the time: I’m UFC champ, but at the end of the day I still need to use the bathroom just like you, I need oxygen just like you.

“My coaches deserve a lot of respect,” he continues. “We don’t have guys who get some success and switch to these bigger camps. I’m in this small gym and we don’t get enough respect because I don’t have a lot of teammates in the UFC yet. But, it’s coming.”

In a sport where being brash and outspoken is seemingly rewarded, Holloway’s attitude is noticeable and refreshing. But as his manager explains, the world isn’t privy to half his unique makeup.

“I’ve been working with Max since he was a teenager and we knew early on that he was a special talent,” says Butler. “The most surprising thing about him is not how he performs in the octagon, but rather his genuine character, loyalty to his circle and maturity to the rollercoaster that he is now on. I have so many behind the scenes stories I could tell you about Max that only add to how good and deserving he is as a person. Having that true genuine character, mixed with how strong his mind and physical gifts are for this sport, has everyone around him excited and confident that this is only the beginning.”

The @blessedmma Era continues. #AndStill #UFC218

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Holloway agrees “The Blessed Era” is only getting underway. The future is bright, and 2018 could potentially serve as a year where Holloway takes things to the next level. His next title defense will likely be a re-booking of the failed UFC 218 matchup with Edgar, and after that Holloway seeks to rid his weight class of any contenders the public and UFC view as a threat to his throne.

There’s also Holloway’s constant push for the UFC to finally bring an event to Hawaii. The promotion has never hosted an event in the region in more than 24 years of existence, but Holloway is persistent in the narrative that he’s finally going to force it to happen.

Beyond that, there’s also the looming possibility of a rematch with McGregor. “The Notorious” was the last man to defeat Holloway, winning a unanimous decision in an early career matchup between the two at UFC Fight Night 26 in August 2013.

Years later, Holloway and the Irishman are both UFC titleholders in different weight classes. McGregor sent a subtle jab in Holloway’s direction following UFC 218, but Holloway came back with a haymaker. Whether a second fight will materialize remains to be seen, but regardless, Holloway believes no one can stand in the way of his UFC takeover. And in his mind, a stellar 2017 was only a sliver of what’s to come.

“In 2018 I want two or three title defense and two or three times of putting the hammer down and letting everyone know that I’m here to stay for a long time,” says Holloway. “‘The Blessed Era’ is in full effect. There’s a lot of new contenders rising. I’m excited about the future. It’s about proving my worth now. I get to show that 2017 wasn’t a fluke. I’ll fight everyone and anyone. This is just one year of champ life and I’m not ready to give it up.”

Mike Bohn is Rolling Stone’s combat sports reporter. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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