“Surprise, surprise, surprise — the king is Max,” Holloway quipped, following his impressive fourth-round doctor’s stoppage win over Brian Ortega in Toronto.
After putting his own spin on a Conor McGregor victory introduction, Holloway let out a loud “ha!” After a long year of injuries, health concerns, depression and confusion as to just what was ailing him, Holloway had the last laugh. “Blessed” goes into 2019 still as the UFC featherweight champion and with a performance that solidifies him as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
It’s almost hard to believe the year ended the way it did for Holloway earlier this month. Over the summer, there were whispers that he may never fight again. At the very least, UFC president Dana White said he wouldn’t be back in the cage for a long time.
Holloway, 27, had to pull out of UFC 226 in July with concussion-like systems after being hospitalized during fight week. To make matters worse, Holloway still has not been able to get an answer from doctors on just what it was that made him slur his speech during interviews that week and experience “flashing vision.” An investigation has been launched.
The uncertainty and severity of the symptoms made onlookers uneasy about Holloway getting back into the cage so soon at UFC 231 on Dec. 8. That scary spot on UFC Tonight, where Michael Bisping called him out for not looking right, was just five months earlier. How could Holloway be recovered? And just what was it that was ailing him?
Holloway’s nutritionist Tyler Minton spent training camp with Holloway in Hawaii before UFC 226. After the fight got called off, Minton said his phone was flooded with well wishes and questions about whether Holloway would be OK. Minton told everyone Holloway would be fine, but he knows that wasn’t good enough at the time. The questions extended right up until UFC 231.
“I know they don’t necessarily believe it, because I’m supposed to say that,” Minton told MMA Fighting. “If nothing else, just look at how the predictions changed. All of a sudden, Brian Ortega is the favorite. That was sold on people’s fears. Me and the coaching staff, we’re just like, ‘Well, they don’t know what we know.’ They don’t know that Max is 100 — he’s fine, he’s good.”
Minton is one of the leading nutritionists right now in MMA, working with the Lockhart and Leith company. Minton has essentially lived with, cooked for and tended to the nutritional needs of some of the biggest names in the sport, including Daniel Cormier, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Luke Rockhold and Holloway.
Minton refers to Holloway as his little brother and Holloway calls Minton his “ohana,” Hawaiian for family. The two have a close relationship and Minton said it crushed him to have to do Holloway’s nutrition remotely for his UFC 231 fight camp due to personal issues.
Even Minton said he’s unsure what exactly was going on with Holloway’s health during UFC 226 fight week. He said he detected nothing unusual leading into that week and when Holloway went to the doctor they didn’t see any abnormalities in his level that would have pointed to weight-cutting issues, which many — including UFC president Dana White — immediately pointed to as the reason for Holloway’s woes. Minton said he heard White say Holloway was water loading — the process of drinking a great amount of water before flushing it out via dehydration — but that was not the case.
“It had nothing to do with the water load, because again we hadn’t even started one,” Minton said. “And we hadn’t even started cutting calories. Fight week, there’s a lot of times they’re eating more calories fight week than they are outside. Which seems counter productive, but at that point the body fat is lost. These guys have lost as much body fat as they’re gonna lose during camp, so we’re no longer really trying to do that. What we’re trying to do is give them enough calories to fuel them for the week, so they don’t feel bad. And then we have the energy to cut the weight. If you completely starve someone during fight week, they’re not gonna have the energy to cut the weight. And then no matter how great you rehydrate them and refuel them, they have such low calories throughout the week, they’re not gonna be able to perform. Calories are really pretty substantially high, some around 3 or 4,000 calories a day during fight week. And they’re not really working out any more.”
Minton said he knew something was truly wrong with Holloway when Holloway admitted himself. He’s not the kind of fighter who would normally do that, Minton said.
“Just when he said he didn’t feel right,” Minton said. “Because again, Max is a special kid. He’s a gangster. So if Max doesn’t really feel that everything is going alright, that’s when I was like, ‘Hmm, there’s something going on here.’ That was the big indicator for me.”
To rewind for a bit, UFC 226 was actually Holloway’s second failed fight week of 2018. “Blessed” was supposed to fill-in to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the UFC lightweight title at UFC 223 in April on just a week’s notice. Holloway was there in Brooklyn, did the weight cut, but the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) pulled the plug out of fear it was too dangerous, which Minton vehemently disagrees with. Holloway had to pull out of the fight and Al Iaquinta ended up fighting Nurmagomedov.
“Usually our weight cuts, the diet starts weeks out,” Minton said. “But the cut itself starts seven to 10 days out. We only had a few days. We hadn’t been prepping ahead of time. We had no idea. It was difficult, but like Max has said before, we were on track and really kind of ahead of schedule, so it was kind of a shocking thing to find out it was being pulled by the commission. Max has a good attitude, so it wasn’t anything he bashed anyone about or said anything bad, but it was a really kind of a confusing call.”
Minton doesn’t like getting into numbers as far as how much Holloway had to lose before UFC 223 or UFC 226, because those figures can be misconstrued. Minton once tweeted that Holloway has one of the biggest weight cuts down to 145 pounds in MMA. But he wants to clarify that big is one thing, tough is another (and they’re all tough), but a bad weight cut is something totally different.
“I hear people say all the time, like ‘Well, Max has bad weight cuts, blah blah blah,’” Minton said. “Well, if Max had that bad of weight cuts, would Max be able to go out there and do what he does against Aldo and then you see it with Ortega? That doesn’t look like a fighter who had a really bad weight cut. So when I say tough it’s from the standpoint that he’s a big human. You can’t have a dangerous, unhealthy weight cut and go out there and do what he does.”
After the bizarre and scary experience at UFC 226, Minton said he let Holloway breathe for a bit. Holloway opened up earlier this month about experiencing depression at the time, so Minton said his team wanted to provide support, but not be overbearing.
As soon as Minton heard Holloway could be fighting Ortega in December, though, he got on his cell phone. That was around late August.
“As soon as it even started getting rumored, I’m already started texting the kid,” Minton said. “‘OK, what’s your weight? He’s what we need to start changing, this is what we need to do. There was even a few times where I was calling him and he goes, ‘Man, I haven’t booked anything yet.’ I was just going off the rumor. I was like, ‘Don’t play with me, I don’t care. This is what you need to do. Stop pretending with me.’”
The rest is basically history. Holloway was indeed fully recovered from July. He made weight right on the nose at 145 and didn’t look any worse for wear, at least not more than a fighter usually does after a large weight cut. Most importantly, Holloway looked sensational against Ortega, the true top contender, beating him up for four rounds and getting stronger as it got later.
Minton said there was no sigh of relief after Holloway’s dominant victory. This is what Holloway and his team knew would happen all along. While the MMA world walked on eggshells, Team Blessed remained confident.
“I don’t want to say it was relief, because again it was just one of those things,” Minton said. “Like the kind of thing when you know something happens, when it happens it’s just kind of like, ‘OK.’ … “To be able end this year on such a positive note was awesome. But again, there was no surprised. There was no doubt that he was gonna make [weight], no doubt that he could win.”
Now the question is does Holloway stay at featherweight, continuing with those big weight cuts. Or does he move to lightweight, which White said he’d like to see next. Minton said it wouldn’t matter to him and he could even see Holloway fighting in the future at welterweight.
“At 145, at least for now, he’s gonna keep making the weight and he’s dominating,” Minton said. “But at 155, I’d also note there’s gonna be a little more of an aspect of being able to feed him for performance. So I have no doubt he’ll be OK at that weight class. So it’s more what him and his coaches want him to do.”
In other words, as Holloway would say, it is what it is.