ATLANTA — When Max Holloway first signed with the UFC in 2012, the promotion offered the 20-year-old featherweight a choice between two opponents for his Octagon debut.
“One is a [Brazilian jiu-jitsu] black belt, and one is a striker,'” Holloway told ESPN. “I told them, ‘That is a cake [decision]. We are fighting the striker.'”
“The striker” turned out to be then-23-year-old Dustin Poirier, who submitted Holloway via armbar in less than four minutes. The two will cross paths again on Saturday in the UFC 236 main event, an interim lightweight title fight for which Holloway is moving up a weight class. The winner will likely challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed 155-pound title this fall.
For Holloway, of Waianae, Hawaii, this interim title fight is a statement on how far he’s come. After going 3-3 to start his UFC career, Holloway has rattled off 13 consecutive wins, won a featherweight championship and defended it twice.
How does the Holloway of today compare to the one who fought Poirier seven years ago?
“The best way to describe it is, like, me right now, I would kill that guy,” said Holloway (20-3). “I would literally put him in a cemetery. There is a cemetery down the road from my house. I’d probably go visit him every day.”
Holloway was a BJJ white belt when he fought Poirier in 2012. He didn’t have a striking coach. His mixed martial arts “team” consisted of himself, BJJ coach Rylan Lizares and former UFC fighter Dustin Kimura. The three trained grappling at Gracie Technics Academy in Honolulu and essentially formed their own MMA program.
It went on that way for over a year. In fact, Holloway didn’t add a striking coach until August 2013, when he suffered his third UFC defeat.
“We were doing all right, you know?” Holloway said. “After I lost to Dustin [Poirier], we won three in a row. My coach [Lizares] kept telling me, ‘I’m not a striking coach. Bring in a striking coach.’ My hard-head self was like, ‘Nah, me and Dustin [Kimura] got this. Don’t worry.'”
As much as Saturday’s fight is a statement on how far Holloway has come, it might be more of a statement on where he’s going.
Now 27, Holloway is already perhaps the greatest featherweight in the history of the sport. But if the cards fall right, he may be on the cusp of a run that would dwarf his previous accomplishments.
Should Holloway get past Poirier (24-5), he would become just the third fighter in UFC history to hold titles in multiple weight classes at the same time. It would set up a superfight against Nurmagomedov, who has mentioned the possibility of a return in September in Abu Dhabi.
It’s no secret that Holloway, whose nickname is “Blessed,” is very confident in his ability to beat the 27-0 Nurmagomedov. One year ago, he agreed to fight the Dagestani on six days’ notice but was ultimately pulled from the bout due to concerns over a last-minute weight cut.
Of Nurmagomedov’s perfect record, Holloway said, “I remember being at my seventh-grade banquet and the DJ saying, ‘It’s that time, guys. All good things gotta come to an end.’ If the ‘Blessed Express’ comes and makes that stop, the good times might be over. That excites me. That fight excites me a lot.”
Holloway’s self-belief isn’t just specific to the Nurmagomedov matchup. It’s actually what he credits for him being where he is today.
Holloway wants to be remembered as the best fighter in the world, but he’s quick to say he’s not even the best fighter from Waianae. Holloway says he grew up watching countless athletes from his hometown underachieve, because history had taught them that was the only option.
“I saw so many guys who were supposed to be in the league,” Holloway said. “They’re supposed to be here, where I’m sitting. They’re supposed to be doing greater stuff than what they’re doing. But I always saw little stuff bring them back. And I always told myself, ‘No way.’ I use that as fuel.
“They’d be the No. 1 standout in school, and then they see their uncles, you know? And their uncles are there, working construction. After work, they go drink. Popping bottles, whatever, and talk about what they did in high school. And I always told myself, ‘That’s not gonna be me.'”
In a way, everything is perfectly set up for Saturday’s rematch against Poirier, who has won eight of his last nine fights to earn a shot at the interim title. Holloway is already a champion; one of the most entertaining, devastating fighters in MMA. And depending on what happens in the near future, he could make his case as the greatest of all time. But to get that opportunity, he has to move up in weight and go through the man responsible for his first career loss seven years ago.
“We’re all lickin’ our chops for this one,” Holloway said. “We’re just ready, you know? It’s history. When it’s all said and done, all the glam, all the fame, all this disappears. My name is in the history book. [My team’s name] is in the history book with me. No one’s gonna ever take that away from us.”