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Max Holloway has been watching Jose Aldo since high school. But now? ‘It’s time for a new era’

Max Holloway faces Jose Aldo in a featherweight title unification match on June 3 at UFC 212.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Max Holloway was 17 years old the night Jose Aldo captured the WEC featherweight title with six-and-a-half minutes of utter fury over Mike Brown. Holloway was still in high school at that point, a neophyte who hadn’t even yet begun his amateur career, and already Aldo was the greatest. And so it went.

The same month Holloway scored his second pro victory, Aldo was crowned as the UFC’s first-ever featherweight champion. Three weeks before Holloway ever made his UFC debut, Aldo demolished Chad Mendes with a knee from hell to effortlessly defend his place atop the 145-pound throne. That was the fifth consecutive defense for Aldo. How long ago it seems...

Nowadays we’re hitting Year Six of Holloway’s UFC journey, and still, the man who lorded over the featherweight class throughout nearly all of Holloway’s adult life reigns supreme. It’s strange. For how much has changed, it’s almost as if nothing has changed at all. Nothing, except that Holloway now calls himself champion as well — albeit of the interim variety. And the 10-fight win streak he’s strung together? A feat both ridiculous and remarkable.

But really, that’s all precursor. The past decade of Holloway’s life has been spent preparing for this moment, the moment that will arrive on June 3 at UFC 212 when “Blessed” finally tests himself against the same man he watched dominate the division for all of these years. It’s a meeting a long time in the making, and Holloway vows he is ready.

“Idols become your rivals, and now I got one of them in front of me,” Holloway says. “And I can’t wait to make that walk and fight the guy. Things happen. Timing wasn’t right (before), and the timing is (right) now. I just look forward to it. I respect the guy. You need to respect the guy. Look, he’s the greatest to do it. Like I said before, since I was 17, I watched this guy sit atop our division. So, man, it’s time for a new era.”

For Holloway, the road to the title has been a lengthy one. While Holloway was busy stringing together win after win, the featherweight division was busy being upended and re-righted, set ablaze by Conor McGregor’s magical run then abandoned once the Irishman set his course for more mysterious waters. Aldo was the biggest causality to the chaos — an all-time legend diminished to a punchline in the eyes of many, the memory of 13 seconds left to dangle over his head like the Sword of Damocles for the rest of his days.

But in McGregor’s absence, a sense of normalcy has also returned to the division, and though Holloway still views Aldo through the long lens, he plans on coopting the Brazilian’s celebrated legacy to kick off his own storied run.

“At the end of the day, he got caught,” Holloway says. “Thirteen seconds, whatever. It happens. This is a sport. He was one of the greatest. He had a long run. You kinda question some things, like maybe why he didn’t get an immediate rematch and blah, blah, blah, this and that. But, at the end of the day, he still fought Frankie (Edgar) for a dominating win and did it, won it. I hold nothing against him. I don’t care.

“I want the undisputed career. I want the best damn career. I want to be the best guy ever to do this. When it’s said and done, a long time from now, (I want) people still talking about my name as being the undisputed (best) fighter in the world. Not only of the featherweights, the GOAT of everything. I want to be like Demetrious Johnson taking pictures with 11 belts, or even like Joanna with her five belts. So, it’s cool. I want to be like these guys and just be dominant, just be dominant and leave no question that I was the best to ever do this.”

Holloway’s goals are more focused now than they have ever been before. Greatness is what he seeks and gold has crystallized in his mind.

“I know I can,” Holloway says. “This is confidence, it’s not cockiness. Everybody keeps saying, ‘oh, this kid is cocky,’ this and that. No. No, just because you don’t believe in yourself, don’t be trying to bring your negative ass energy around me. You keep your negative self away from me, and I’m going to keep my positive self with my circle of boys and people, and that’s what we’re going to do. We stay confident and I know I’m the greatest. I tell myself I’m the greatest, and this is what you need to do.

“The stats, they speak for themselves. Go look at the featherweight stats and records and whatever. If my name ain’t first, it’s at least in the top-three or top-five of whatever. So it is what it is. I’m going out there to be dominant. This guy over here (Aldo) is saying that he chooses when he wants to be in wars and now he’s choosing to finish me early or something. Like, that’s f*cking amazing. I don’t read palms, I don’t read the stars. I’m not a mind-reader or fortune teller, I can’t see the future. But at the end of the day, I want the undisputed [accolades], and I know the things I can control.”

Truthfully, few people predicted Holloway’s run. And how could they have?

A little over three years ago, Holloway was just 3-3 in the UFC, a youngster reeling from back-to-back losses, a fringe prospect simply worried about losing his livelihood. At that point, titles and rankings seemed so far away. And looking back, Holloway can identify the exact moment — a 2013 fight against Will Chope at UFC Fight Night 34 — that became a catalyst for everything that soon followed.

“I was backed up into a corner,” Holloway says. “I had two L’s, two back-to-back losses, and usually when you get your third one, especially to a guy like him — he’s a newcomer coming into the UFC — if I was to lose that fight, I probably would’ve gotten my slips. A little, ‘thank you for your stuff, come again,’ and I wasn’t about that life. I know I’m the greatest, and like I said, I ain’t here to be average. I always wanted to stick out as a sore thumb, so that’s what I’m doing. It’s just confidence.

“I just want to be dominant. You look at these last couple fights, it was dominant wins, and I don’t plan on changing anything come June 3rd.”

Now Holloway exudes the confidence he preaches. Maybe it’s the 10-fight win streak talking, or maybe it’s simply the natural progression of things, a rookie slowly learning and understanding his place in the world, understanding that he belongs.

Holloway vows that UFC 212 will mark the beginning of a new era, a “Blessed” era. He swears by it. And after all this time, perhaps the division hopes so too? After all, a backlog of featherweight contenders have fallen by the wayside due to the greatness of Aldo, some more than once.

It’s a funny question to consider for Holloway, the idea that his rivals and stablemates may be rooting for him to upset the natural order of things on June 3.

But should they? That, to Holloway, is the more important question.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. Maybe,” he muses. “They might think I’m an easier fight, that’s why, so we’ll see what happens. If they’re rooting for me, I’m sure they think that, ‘oh, Max is probably an easier fight than Aldo, so hopefully he can do my dirty work for me, and then I can go and get it.’ But you know, one thing is everything looks different from outside the Octagon until you step in there. When people step in there with me, it’s a whole different story.”

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