Conor McGregor may no longer be UFC Featherweight champion, but that hasn't prevented his shadow from looming large over Saturday's UFC 206 main event between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis.
After McGregor was stripped of the title earlier this month because the promotion didn't want him holding two belts at once, Jose Aldo, the man "The Notorious" knocked out in 13 seconds at UFC 194 last December to capture the gold, was promoted to undisputed champion.
Holloway vs. Pettis, which headlines the pay-per-view event at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, was then named as an interim championship bout. However, the fingerprints of McGregor's reign still cover the division.
Competing in a championship bout – interim or not – should be a prestigious moment for any fighter. It certainly raises the stakes of the Holloway vs. Pettis fight, but both men agree it's not the most ideal circumstance.
"It's not disappointing, but it was a curveball," Holloway tells Rolling Stone. "If you've been following UFC the last year or so actually, they've been throwing curveballs. You got to be ready to hit that off speed pitch. We're here, we're ready and we taking it. A star is going to be born and his name is Max 'Blessed' Holloway."
The UFC has done plenty of interim title fights in the past, but it's the conditions of how this one came together that's troublesome. UFC 206 was originally headlined by a Light Heavyweight title fight between Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson, but when the champion Cormier suffered a knee injury less than three weeks from the event, the UFC was forced to scramble.
The reaction from the organization was to strip McGregor, promote Aldo from interim champion and reassign the interim tag to the winner of Holloway vs. Pettis. That gives off the perception the belt is nothing more than a promotional tool and not an object which signifies the best fighter in the world at that weight.
Although Holloway, 25, and Pettis, 29, are not at fault for UFC stripping McGregor, the fighters are the ones forced to deal with the fallout. Former Lightweight champ Pettis in particular knows most still consider McGregor to be the real champion of the division, but believes it's his job to cast doubt on McGregor's divisional prominence and create a debate.
"We all saw what Conor McGregor did to Jose Aldo, so there's no denying that," Pettis says. "A technicality made Jose Aldo the champ. It wasn't my decision to make this a title fight, but Merry Christmas to me. You never know because in the UFC they can say, 'You win your next fight and you get a title shot.' Then you won't see one for two years. This right here is a guaranteed shot at one of the goals I want to accomplish, to be a two-division champion."
The interim belt may bring more recognition to what's already a stellar matchup between two of the flashiest and most dynamic strikes in the sport, but at this point even the athletes know the strangeness of the current situation.
Essentially every UFC fighter dreams of one day wearing the gold belt. Holloway, who brings an astounding nine-fight winning streak into the event, has been waiting for his opportunity for quite some time.
Holloway has fought McGregor before, giving the brash Irishman his most competitive fight at 145 pounds but ultimately losing a unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 26 in August 2013. "Blessed" hasn't been defeated since, and was hoping to find himself in a rematch with McGregor once he climbed up the rankings.
Although Holloway could complain about how the entire situation has soured what should be a triumphant moment of finally reaching a title fight, he instead has decided to take it all in stride.
The Hawaiian fighter says he has many years left in the sport, and while he's had to readjust his goals of getting the undisputed belt from Aldo rather than McGregor, he said he's not giving up on the idea of eventually stepping in the Octagon with McGregor one more time.
"We couldn't find Aldo, so I starting calling him Jose Waldo," Holloway says. "After December 10th I need to find the guy, but we'll see what happens. Conor McGregor's coach said it himself: I'm the best 145er."
But more than anything, it's a quest for redemption in his mind.
"I want all my losses back," he continues. "We'll see what happens with the Conor fight. If everything goes good then I think it lights a fire under him to come back down, or worst comes to worst I'll go up to 155 and fight him there."