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‘Blessed,’ maybe, but Max Holloway is certainly legit

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There were so many torches being passed in Newark it began to look like the mob at the castle’s gate. Beneil Dariush out-grappled grappling ace Jim Miller, and declared himself ready for the top ten space of lightweights. Aljamain Sterling leapfrogged Takeya Mizugaki in the bantamweight picture, making himself the next, next, next big thing from Ray Longo’s. Paige VanZant, just 21 years old, stunned about everybody by hanging a 30-26 on Felice Herrig.

You’ve got to love these prospects. And then there was Max Holloway.

Here’s the thing about Max Freaking Holloway -- he’s 23 years old and incarnating into something special before our eyes. His one-sided handling of Cub Swanson on Saturday night was methodical, technical, visceral and, from the opening moments, inevitable. There’s something about the gleeful stalking and the way he sizes people up that goes well beyond his years. His striking is on point, and everything else in his mechanics is built around keeping that striking to the fore. It’s as though he learned the "mixed" in the martial arts merely as a means to very "specifically" set people on fire with his fists and feet.

We knew it. We just didn’t know it.

And the perennial top ten fighter Swanson couldn’t get much going throughout the fight at UFC on FOX 15. Whenever he got within range Holloway was lighting him up the New York skyline. Whenever he got out of range he was still under pursuit, still getting marked up from other time zones. Whenever he closed the range completely, the incoming limbs halved into elbows and knees. Swanson was overwhelmed. Holloway was just getting rolling.
Eventually, with just a minute to go in the fight, Holloway put Swanson away with a guillotine. He thanked Jesus, and reminded everyone why he is called "Blessed." He shouted out his coaches. He turned to Hawaii. Later he vowed to avenge his losses. And really, those losses are why we’ve been lulled into ignoring him as anything more than one of Conor McGregor’s early conquests. It was Conor that put Holloway behind the eight ball. And that he did it with a torn ACL speaks louder and louder about how good McGregor truly is.

Here’s the thing, though. The 23-year old Holloway isn’t the 21-year old Holloway who was fed to McGregor in 2013, just as the 22-year-old McGregor that lost to Joseph Duffy has little in common with the one getting long-form profiles in Esquire. Nor is Holloway the precocious (yet raw) 20-year-old that debuted in the UFC against Dustin Poirier.

If a symptom of youth is learning, then Holloway has lived several lifetimes already in the UFC, where he’s now fought 13 times. And since that loss to McGregor he has won all six of his bouts, and finished five. In the stacked featherweight division, where people like Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes are vying for title shots behind McGregor, there’s yet another threat getting bigger in the rear-view mirror.

And that’s Holloway, who grew up fast and mean in well-lit cages. At this point, he is in that proverbial mix. If matchmaker Sean Shelby wanted to play back a fight with Dennis Bermudez, say, who won a split decision against Holloway right before the McGregor fight, suddenly that’s a barnburner. A Holloway-Poirier do over? Book it. A Holloway-McGregor sequel? Now you’re talking. Maybe they could do it in Honolulu.

But the loss to McGregor might have been the best thing to happen to Holloway. Since that time he’s gotten more comfortable in the cage, and more humble outside of it. His performance with Cub Swanson might have been an eye-opener for some, but it was the expected outcome from Holloway himself. He spoke like a man who’d been there before afterwards. He spoke like somebody who was happy that people caught up to where he’s at.

On a night of breakout performances, his stood out as something extraordinary. In the end the sentiment changed from "Holloway’s a fun fighter to watch" to "Damn Max Holloway, we thought we knew but now we know." In other words, Saturday will go down as the night that Max Holloway truly arrived, and what he does from here on out becomes pretty fun to think about.