Not that long ago, rising UFC featherweight Max Holloway (5-1) wasn’t even interested in getting into the fight game.
Growing up in Hawaii — a state that has long embraced mixed martial arts — and attending schools where fights were common, Holloway was initially more interested in baseball and football.
“The part of the island I grew up … people would fight every day in school and stuff,” Holloway said. “But I wasn’t a fighter. I was a just calm kid. I liked playing football and baseball and I wasn’t really into fighting until tenth grade. I met a new friend and he said I should check out the training there. Once I went in the ring for my first fight, I couldn’t get enough of it.”
At 20 years of age, Holloway is the youngest fighter on the UFC roster. As impressive as that is, though, he made quite a mark on the sport even before that.
Holloway raised quite a few eyebrows in March 2011 taking on Harris Sarmiento for the X-1 lightweight title. A Strikeforce veteran, Sarmiento came into the match with over 50 fights to his credit and experience against some of the biggest names in MMA, while Holloway was 2-0 as a professional.
“It really didn’t faze me,” Holloway said of the experience difference. “When I first started, that was a guy you’d look up to being a Hawaiian fighter. But I had a lot of confidence going into a fight like that.”
Despite his lack of experience, Holloway controlled much of the action on the feet and won a decision after five rounds. After another win on the local scene, Holloway had the opportunity to take an even bigger step up in competition.
At UFC 143, a late injury left featherweight contender Dustin Poirier looking for an opponent. Without giving it a second thought, Holloway accepted the chance, even though he was facing a top contender with as many UFC wins as he had total professional fights.
“I go by the saying that to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” he said. “At the time I didn’t know Poirier was ranked so high. Maybe that was kind of good that I didn’t know that sooner, because I probably would’ve been more nervous getting ready. When I found out, I was like ‘Wow, this guy is like top four.’ The first thing that went through my mind is I could be in the top ten after this.”
Things didn’t go as planned, with Poirier taking Holloway to the mat midway through the first round to secure a submission win. For young fighters breaking into the UFC so early, a one-sided loss can be devastating and damage their confidence.
But Holloway took the setback in stride and learned a lot from his first appearance in the Octagon.
“It showed me a lot,” Holloway said. “I thought my ground [game] was decent, but he kind of exposed me in there. I got back to the gym after that fight, worked a whole lot on my wrestling, takedown defense, and a lot of defensive and offensive Jiu Jitsu. That was kind of a wake up call.
“What I took away form the fight was the crowd, the energy. Now I know how the week up to the fight [in the UFC] goes.”
Holloway put that experience to good use. With a full training camp to prepare, he stepped in against fellow youngster Pat Schilling (5-2) at The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale.
Schilling looked to get the fight to the ground and use his submission game, but Holloway showed good patience and takedown defense. Using his striking skill and impressive length and reach, Holloway picked Schilling apart en route to a lopsided unanimous decision victory.
On multiple occasions Holloway managed to drop Schilling with accurate shots to the body.
“I’ve always had body shots,” Holloway said. “Pat surprised me. I wasn’t thinking he’d have his hands up that well, but he had his hands up a little too high. I saw that opening and went for those body shots.
“He’s a real tough guy,” he said of Schilling’s ability to go the distance in the fight. “He’s got my respect. A couple of times maybe I could’ve went in there more aggressive, but these days guys are losing two in a row and getting cut and I want to make sure I keep my job.”
Next up for Holloway is a match with serious fight-of-the-night potential. At UFC 150, the dangerous Hawaiian striking specialist will go up against Justin Lawrence, one of the standouts from the last season of TUF and training partner of middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
“Hopefully we can have a kickboxing war out there,” Holloway said. “He’s pretty short, so if I can stick my jab out early, I think I’ll be fine.
“But, what most people don’t know, my kicks are better than my hands are. I got way better kicks. I was just gun shy against Pat because I didn’t want to get taken down. But if all goes as planned, you’ll see that in this fight.”
While Holloway knows Lawrence has a dangerous stand up game of his own, he’s also making sure to fine tune his takedown defense in case Lawrence doesn’t like how things go on the feet.
“Not trying to be cocky or disrespectful to anybody in the UFC, but even for the guys that call themselves strikers, I think they’ll be the ones to shoot in [for a takedown] first.”
For Holloway, the fight against Lawrence is hopefully the first of many steps leading to a spot near the top of the featherweight division. Even at such a young age and plenty of time to continue improving, Holloway doesn’t want to take anything for granted. He wants the toughest opponents so he can move up into the top ten sooner rather than later.
“I want to be in the title picture around this time next year,” he said. “If you aren’t trying to fight the best guys, I don’t know why you’re in the game.”
Holloway added, “God puts me in places for a reason. I’m just following his lead.”
Holloway asked to thank all of the MMA fans, his family, friends, and wife, his training partners, sponsors Alienware, Hayabusa, and Lexani, and his management team at SuckerPunch Entertainment and Blue Chip Management.