Three straight master classes against the top of the featherweight division. Four straight wins in title bouts. Thirteen consecutive wins overall.
Yes, the resume of UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway gets more impressive with each bulletpoint. But with plenty of positive outcomes and post-fight bonus awards, Holloway’s favorite fight is an unexpected one – one he lost, in the first round, by submission, to the guy he fights again this Saturday at UFC 236 in Atlanta for the interim lightweight title.
“That was my first time in the show, in the big lights,” Holloway said of facing Dustin Poirier at UFC 143 in Las Vegas on Feb. 4, 2012. “I was having fun out there. Everybody says, ‘But you lost.’ Yeah, but imagine if I won that fight.”
Holloway means that in a positive and grateful way, showing the experience of a fighter now with 19 fights in the UFC as opposed to the zero he had before that bout.
“My life would have been very, very crazy. I would have been one of those guys who gets shot up to the top real fast,” Holloway said. “If I won, I would have got pushed into another big, high-profile fight and who knows. If I so happened to get past that one, what would have happened? There’s a lot of guys that get this big push and get big too early, too fast. So I’m thankful for that fight. It made me sit down and rethink my fighting.”
Holloway won his next three, then lost his next two. At 7-3 overall, and 3-3 in the UFC, Holloway feared what many young fighters fear: being cut from the UFC roster and having to start over on smaller stages and work their way back to the top.
Next came a short-notice fight with Will Chope, a second-round TKO of Chope, a knockout of the night bonus and the beginning of a five-year rise to the top of the featherweight division and near the top of the pound-for-pound list of the best MMA fighters.
“All these guys got to stumble without the world seeing,” Holloway said. “I stumbled in front of the world and I kept going, and I stumbled hard in front of the world again and I kept going.”
In the denotative sense of the word, yes, this fight is a rematch. That's why it's written as "UFC 236: Holloway vs. Poirier 2." But to compare Holloway and Poirier as fighters now with them seven years ago is silly. Neither fighter was old enough to rent a car on their own, let alone be evolved MMA fighters. They had a total of 16 pro fights, with only four of them in the UFC, and all four of those were by Poirier.
“He was a kid, I was a kid," Holloway said. "This sport is amazing. Me and him hit some lows in this sport and now we’re at the highest level in what people call the most stacked division and we’re fighting for gold.”
This fight is for the interim lightweight title, a division Holloway has yet to compete in during his UFC career and one Poirier has gone back and forth in, along with featherweight. Always considered one of the top fighters in whichever weight class he was competing in, Poirier (24-5, 1 no contest) has long sought a title fight. After three straight finishes and post-fight bonuses -- with wins over Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez -- Poirier finally gets his chance.
“He’s a killer,” Holloway said of Poirier. “Those are the fights that excite me. These guys that are supposed to be killers. I go in there, I do my thing, and they don’t look like killers. He’s one of the top dogs for sure, I got nothing but respect for him.”
If Holloway wins on Saturday, he'll become the sixth UFC fighter to win titles in multiple weight classes and the fourth to do so simultaneously. Either way, Holloway (20-3) will remain the featherweight champion. That offers Holloway zero comfort or consolation should Poirier be the victor.
“If I lose, I’m still a loser,” Holloway said. “OK, I didn’t lose my title, but I still lost. Do you still carry yourself as the champ after that? I’m going to carry myself as the champion, but in my mind, I’m going to be like, ‘No, I lost.’
“That’s just my mindset. Some people might be comforted with that, ‘I could fall back.’ There’s no falling back. Every single fight I approach like it’s my last fight. It’s like a samurai getting ready for his last battle. I eat a good meal, I eat what I want to eat for my last meal and I’m OK with life after that. I’m going to leave it all out there and anything happens, anything happens.”
Which division Holloway may fight in next was something he deemed not worth worrying about right now. There are more important – and immediate – issues at play for the young man from Waianae, Hawaii.
“I got Dustin. I’m focusing on him first,” Holloway, 27, said. “When a king leaves his throne open, somebody tries to come and invade.”