clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Max Holloway

Filed under:

MMA Fighting’s 2017 Fighter of the Year: Max Holloway

Max Holloway is MMA Fighting’s 2017 Fighter of the Year.
| Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Max Holloway told us this was coming.

Sitting upon a dais in Toronto at UFC 206, draped in formal wear colored-coded with implications — black suit for the funeral of a legend, golden lining for the ride yet to come — Holloway ended 2016 by letting the MMA world in on a secret of how exactly the new year would play out. “Tune in,” he insisted, his gold-plated tie shimmering in the night. “This is just the beginning.” That was before the hunt for Jose (W)aldo kicked into high gear, before Holloway did the damn thing not just once, but twice, ending the reign of an all-timer with two of the most eye-opening back-to-back performances in UFC championship history. No one knew then that when Holloway casually dismissed the 145-pound GOAT as just another guy, he really meant it.

But time would show it soon enough.

“I’m going to prove to you guys, prove to myself, and prove to everyone that I’m the best motherf*cker walking on two feet,” Holloway promised. “And you guys are all going to witness it. This is the ‘Blessed’ show now.”

Prophetic? No, Holloway was merely telling the truth.

So it is fitting that in a year personified by young lions devouring an elder guard, the most seasoned of those lions reigned supreme by campaign’s end.

What Holloway accomplished in 2017 was the vindication of a philosophy long thought dead, the antithesis to a movement that has pervaded and poisoned the UFC well since a billion-dollar sale transferred the sport from the clutches of fights fans into the hands of the Hollywood elite. In an era where the chase of the money fight takes precedence over divisional sense, Holloway’s run to the top of the featherweight division was a breath of fresh air. Ten straight wins to land interim gold, then two more to erase any doubt about the reign of the new king.

Not bad for a guy who was once 3-3 in the UFC. And it was his definitive dispatching of Aldo that earned Holloway MMA Fighting’s honor of 2017 Fighter of the Year.

The circumstances were never favorable. Holloway began 2017 by traveling to Aldo’s home country of Brazil for UFC 212’s unification bout, venturing into the belly of the beast to unseat the division’s greatest champion. There, his ‘anyone, anywhere’ mantra was tested. Surrounded by thousands of his foe’s countrymen in the ultimate away game, Holloway was forced to overcome a wake-up call of an opening round before overwhelming Aldo with a masterful display of Hawaiian attrition. His pressure was suffocating, inescapable, a Diaz-like march that gradually sucked the will out of Jeunesse Arena before consuming Aldo in an awe-inspiring third stanza.

As far as changing of the guards go, it was a thunderous statement. The sort of coronation Holloway always knew himself capable of.

In a sport of big-game hunting, he had finally captured his silver back gorilla. Who was next? As long as they could sign on the dotted line, Holloway didn’t care.

Max Holloway vs Jose Aldo Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“Too many cry babies in this game,” the new champion said dismissively that night. “I could've sat there and wept and cried, ‘Where is my title shot, blah, blah, blah.’ I don't want to say it, but you’re a b*tch. You're a b*tch if you act like that, for real.

“I never cried one time. When we got the Aldo fight, the email was in my inbox for 15 minutes. It took me a under a minute to send it back. I didn't even know it was in there, I was randomly checking my email and I was like, ‘Oh UFC agreement, what?’ and send it back with my signature. Stop crying. ‘I deserve this, I deserve that.’ You guys don't deserve sh*t. Keep trying, keep working hard. We’re here now. They can't deny me now.”

How right he was…

And he proved the truth of his words the second time around, when disaster struck less than three weeks before UFC 218.

In retrospect, it was another crossroads decision that didn’t even end up entertained. Frankie Edgar broke a bone in his face, and now a re-motivated Aldo wants to step up on short notice and run things back? Come on, brah. Haven’t you been paying attention? They’re all just cupcakes in the end, and Max Holloway is a fan of every cupcake flavor. He doesn’t discriminate. There are plenty of whoopings to go around.

So Holloway did himself one better, one-upping his own coming out party with the kind of repeat performance that words struggle to do justice. The rematch at UFC 218 was a supped up version of his masterclass at UFC 212. Holloway needed an additional 48 seconds to bring things to a close. He landed 70 more significant strikes. He was a terrifying force. And he was once again crowned UFC featherweight king.

Heading into 2018, who knows the heights this ride can climb? Edgar is undoubtedly next, but what happens if Holloway does it again? How long until the roundtable of all-time greats must fetch another seat for the pride of Waianae?

It may be sooner than you’d think.

For now, Holloway’s assault on a divisional history still in its infancy is telling enough: He sits atop the No. 1 spot in wins (14), stoppages (9), knockdowns (8), and knockouts (7) across all of the UFC’s featherweight record books. He is the youngest fighter ever to accumulate 15 victories in the UFC. His 12-fight win streak that propelled him to the title is the fifth-longest run of success in company history, placing him in rarefied company among the legends of the sport. And he just turned 26 last month.

In other words…

It is what it is, braddah. Welcome to the Blessed era.

#UFCHawaii


2. Demetrious Johnson

If ever there was a year that could’ve been Demetrious Johnson’s year, it was 2017.

Photo via instagram.com/mightymouse125

The UFC’s perennially underappreciated champion had a campaign to remember. He out-grappled a world-class grappler, then out-scrambled a world-class scrambler, doing both effortlessly (and seemingly just to prove a point). He shattered the UFC’s all-time title defense record and captured every Submission of the Year vote in existence in one fell swoop, becoming the sport’s all-time winningest titleholder while debuting a Hollywood-esque signature move the combat sports world had never before seen. He even feuded with the UFC — and won! In a year that lacked one true standout fighter, Johnson owned 2017. He also finished with more first-place votes in our poll than any other fighter, besting Max Holloway by a margin of seven to four.

So why is Johnson not MMA Fighting’s 2017 Fighter of the Year?

Well, I’ll be honest. It’s because three of our 15 voters left Johnson off of their ballots entirely. If even one of Dave Doyle, Peter Carroll, and Chuck Mindenhall rank him at No. 5 on their lists, we’re having a different conversation entirely. (I love all three of you immensely, but it’s true!) Regardless, in the end, we must let the cards fall where they may, and so Johnson ends up slotted at No. 2 on our year-end list, runner-up to Holloway in the closest awards race of our site’s history.

But the future is bright for “Mighty Mouse.” With a highly-anticipated champion vs. champion superfight against T.J. Dillashaw resting on the horizon, as well as juicy rematches against Henry Cejudo and the returning Joseph Benavidez waiting in the wings, if things go according to plan, Johnson could have built himself quite a case for Fighter of the Year by this time in 2019. Maybe then at least one of those three would vote for him. (Sorry! Couldn’t help myself!)


3. Robert Whittaker

When first we marched into 2017, with Michael Bisping reigning over the UFC middleweight division as champion, prevailing wisdom was that one member of the four-person quadrumvirate who held a stranglehold over the division would be the man to unseat him. Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero — those were the four challengers being considered to storm the 185-pound gates. But then an ex-welterweight from Auckland slipped in under the dark of night, and over the course of a stunning four-month span, middleweight learned the truth that is Bobby Knuckles.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Once a middling 170-pound prospect, Robert Whittaker reinvented himself in 2017 as a ferocious 185-pound contender. His underdog takeovers of Souza and Romero stand as two of the year’s best wins — the former of which was done in vicious fashion after escaping the alligator’s legendary clutches, and the latter of which was accomplished after fighting four rounds on a torn left knee. He even won gold in the 97kg division in the Australian national wrestling championships.

The aforementioned knee injury ended up keeping Whittaker sidelined throughout the autumn and winter, but Bobby Knuckles returns Feb. 10 at UFC 221 to make the first defense of his title in his home country of Australia. This time around, Rockhold will be the man looking to stop the rise that few saw coming.

But in the meanwhile, there’s some other good news: Whittaker appears to be finally coming around to one of the game’s best new nicknames.


4. Rose Namajunas

Joanna Jedrzejczyk opened as a four-to-one favorite over Rose Namajunas when the third title fight for UFC 217 was first announced. A few months later, as Nov. 4 rolled around and the bizarre dynamic between the two women had been laid bare, Jedrzejczyk’s odds had been pushed to that of an overwhelming nearly nine-to-one favorite.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

So what does that mean in the grand scheme of things? It means even the gambling world, which generally has a pulse on these things, had no clue of the shock that Namajunas was about to unleash upon the MMA ranks.

It took little more than three minute for Namajunas to fell Jedrzejczyk with her own medicine at UFC 217, handily sinking the unsinkable titan with a first-round knockout in New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden. Namajunas’ post-fight speech was a simply the cherry on top of an already feel-good sundae — following a fight lead-up filled with threats and taunts of mental distress, an emotional Namajunas spoke openly about coming together as one. In her biggest moment, “Thug Rose” showed the greatness that many believed she possessed when she was egregiously dubbed by Dana White as “the next Ronda Rousey” in 2014.

The historic moment capped off a perfect 2-0 year for Namajunas, punctuating her previous second-round destruction of Michelle Waterson. She, along with Holloway and Whittaker, now stand as much-needed reminders that careers in the fight game are a fluid thing, and the inherent foolishness of writing off an athlete still in the infancy of their run.


5. Rafael dos Anjos

When Rafael dos Anjos first announced that he was moving up to the welterweight division, he was met by little more than doubt. The 33-year-old Brazilian had been a successful — and at times dominant — champion at 155 pounds, but welterweight was a different demon entirely, and his 5’8” frame didn’t scream 170-pound king.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

All he did in 2017 was put those doubts definitively to rest, and in doing so, emerge as standout example of the benefits of fighting closer to your natural weight class rather than destroying your body to gain a size advantage among the lighter ranks.

Dos Anjos’ three performances at welterweight in 2017 were all successful, with each being more impressive than the last. He kicked off the year with a win over ex-Strikeforce champion Tarec Saffiedine, then steamrolled over perennial contender Neil Magny in less than a round. But dos Anjos saved his best for last, capturing a unanimous decision over former UFC titleholder Robbie Lawler in December at UFC on FOX 26. The victory put dos Anjos in pole position to challenge Tyron Woodley for the belt in 2018, and he has high hopes of becoming the first Brazilian two-division champion to ever compete inside the Octagon.


Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2017 Fighter of the Year played out.

Honorable Mentions

News

Roundtable: What is Dana White’s most memorable feud with a UFC champion?

News

Dustin Poirier predicts winner of Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler: ‘Fight’s over in 2 rounds’

News

Israel Adesanya confident Robert Whittaker beats Dricus du Plessis at UFC 290, open to trilogy bout

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting