Somehow, between his last fight and his latest title defense at UFC 231, Max Holloway had become vulnerable. The man that dumped the featherweight G.O.A.T. Jose Aldo from his throne, and then smashed him around one more time for good measure, walked into Scotiabank Arena as an underdog against Brian Ortega.
Like a lazy right hand slung in his direction, it was nothing but a spectacular miscalculation leading to slow doom. Holloway has a way of making opponents and skeptics alike look silly for ever questioning anything about him, even if there is legitimate reason for doubt. If ever there seemed an appropriate reason to speculate about the end of Holloway’s reign, it was last night. After all, the Hawaiian had already endured a nightmare 2018 which took him through the first inactive streak of his career. He had suffered a leg injury, endured a troubling weight cut severe enough that doctors pulled him from a scheduled fight, then withdrew from yet another fight after coming down with mysterious, concussion-like symptoms. When he reappeared on the scene, he returned with no answers about what in the hell had gone wrong, leading many to fill the vacuum with fearful assumptions.
Losing the featherweight championship would have seemed like an appropriate, if unceremonious conclusion to the year, especially against Ortega, a heretofore undefeated fighter who had done his best work in the late rounds.
At the least, it was supposed to be close and dramatic. Yet when the lights went down in Toronto, Holloway’s “Blessed Express” rolled on with MMA’s highest-performance engine, able to sustain redline speeds far past any competition. Why did we ever doubt him? Like he’s fond of saying, It is what it is.
On Saturday night, he set a UFC single-fight record, landing a staggering 290 significant strikes. Overall, he landed 307 strikes en route to knocking the swag right out of the bold challenger. To put that into perspective, the four other winners on the main card (Valentina Shevchenko, Gunnar Nelson, Hakeem Dawodu and Thiago Santos) landed a combined 306. Holloway landed more strikes in four rounds than four winners landed in 12! There are few opponents who will not crumble under that kind of pressure, and while Ortega was wildly courageous throughout, Holloway has become a master of piling up strikes sharply and relentlessly until the only escapes are either unconsciousness or a merciful official.
One thing you notice in watching a Holloway fight is that the perception of a round’s length is inversely proportional to the action within it. Holloway rounds seem endless, because once the bell rings, the punches, elbows, kicks and knees never seem to stop. His opponents enter round one looking relaxed and fresh, but minute by minute, their energy is slowly eroded as they’re forced to fight at a pace beyond their capacities.
Ortega did his best for three rounds, but if there is any doubt about Holloway’s greatness, he ended it before the start of the fourth round, turning to the UFC commentary team and announcing that he would be ending the fight shortly. This, by the way, was after what was easily Ortega’s best round, one in which he briefly seemed to hurt the champion with power strikes including a straight right.
Holloway seems to have a sense for the end, as if he can see his opponent’s energy meter edging toward “E.” Over the next five minutes, he proceeded to turn up the pace meter to 11, throwing 203 strikes while battering Ortega. Shortly after the conclusion of the round, the commission doctor took a look at the bloodied, bruised, exhausted challenger and called a stop the action.
Calling your shot is the stuff of legends in sports, just another thing to add to Holloway’s growing list of accomplishments. (He also set another UFC record on Saturday, most significant strikes landed in UFC history — 1,627.) That it came in a fight in which he was feared to be compromised makes it all the more stunning.
Holloway’s volume may be his most overwhelming trait, but his precision is a complementary piece that goes mostly unrecognized. He throws short and straight punches, rarely at full power, content that he is deconstructing his opponent a little at a time. Death by 1,000 cuts. It takes unshakeable confidence to craft that kind of plan. It takes something close to fearlessness to execute it.
That’s where Holloway is now, a champion at the height of his powers, living in the rarefied air not just at the top of the current sport, but nearing legends. After successfully defending the belt again, after winning his 13th consecutive fight, Holloway is moving into the historical conversation.
At just 27 years old, Holloway should have miles of road ahead of him. If he can sustain his level of excellence through the years that usually make up the athletic prime, he will likely set a few mind-boggling records. There are talks of him moving up a division to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov or Tony Ferguson. He’d love to rematch Conor McGregor. There are some serious (and seriously fun) possibilities. But this sport is not easily navigable. At least it’s not supposed to be. Holloway managed to flip his nightmare year in a single night, but what else should we expect from a combat marvel? As we’ve known all along, it is what it is.