It was, by all objective measures, one of the most impressive performances seen in the Octagon in quite some time.
Max Holloway didn’t just win a UFC championship. Title changes happen so often these days they’ve nearly become mundane.
Rather, it was way the 25-year-old Hawaiian won the UFC featherweight championship on Saturday night at UFC 212, going straight into the lion’s den in front of Jose Aldo Jr.’s countrymen and seizing what he believed was rightfully his, which made it such a memorable evening.
And yet, even with a scintillating performance that may very well have been a generational passing of the torch, the specter of Conor McGregor still hung over Holloway’s crowning moment.
“He can beg to fight me now,” Holloway said at the UFC 212 post-fight news conference.
Well, easy there, tiger. McGregor, after all, set into motion the long chain of events which ended with Holloway strapping the 145-pound title around his waist at Jeunesse Arena.
The bombastic Irishman, as his army of fans will waste no time reminding you, knocked out Aldo in just 13 seconds to end Aldo’s six-year combined UFC/WEC title reign at UFC 194.
From there, after an epic pair of welterweight matchups with Nate Diaz, McGregor ventured to the lightweight division, where he knocked out Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to become the first simultaneous two-weight-class champion in UFC history. The UFC had been prepared for this eventuality, and had crowned Aldo interim champion based on a win over Frankie Edgar at UFC 200. So the company stripped McGregor of the 145-pound belt and promoted Aldo to full champion.
Aldo, a notorious pouter when he doesn’t get his way, was still in a sulk over being passed up for the McGregor rematch at UFC 205, and had threatened retirement. So the UFC responded by making Max Holloway an interim featherweight champ with his win over Anthony Pettis at UFC 206.
Such was the convoluted backstory which was all supposed to be put to rest when Holloway started slow, then roared past Aldo with a third-round finish which unified the title. But as fine as was the champion’s efforts, there was no ignoring the looming presence of Mystic Mac.
“That guy was the 2015 champ,” Holloway protested. “He can go running around wherever he’s at with the belt and celebrate, but guess what? You can’t take that away from him. This is called the year 2017 right now, he’s the 2015 champ, and I’m the [current] champ.”
And it’s also not like McGregor has placed regaining the featherweight championship at the top of his to-do list. McGregor is deeper in negotiations for a proposed boxing match with undefeated superstar Floyd Mayweather than anyone would have ever suspected we’d reach.
If the fight actually happens, there’s a chance he makes so much money he never fights again. If he does return to mixed martial arts, the biggest potential payday awaiting the UFC lightweight champ is a trilogy fight with Diaz.
Still, while not his first option, Holloway has certainly emerged as a viable backup plan. In the summer of 2013, in McGregor’s first fight in the United States, a 22-year-old Holloway took McGregor the distance in Boston before dropping a unanimous decision, the only time McGregor didn’t get a finish in a featherweight fight.
So while it doesn’t seem McGregor, who looked gaunt when getting down to 145 during the latter end of his run in the division, is going to want to reclaim the featherweight belt any time soon, McGregor-Holloway at lightweight is a potential superfight — and a bargaining chip. Should Diaz get too outrageous with his demands, the UFC could always turn around and make a Holloway fight instead.
Not that Holloway seems too interested at the moment. He’d prefer to model himself after Demetrious Johnson, the flyweight champion whose 10 successful title defenses has tied Anderson Silva’s UFC record.
“Demetrious Johnson, he finds his motivation of keep defending, keep defending,” Holloway said. “It takes a special human being to do that. And that’s me. I want to defend my throne. All my fans know, they love me, I want to defend this, I want to be a champ and keep defending. Come try to take over my village.”
McGregor, by contrast, has always seemed to set his eyes on the next prize, which is why Holloway, who has numerous fresh fights to make among the guys currently competing at 145, isn’t obsessing over the guy who never lost the title in the ring.
“This guy’s over here always trying to look for the bigger thing and that’s him,” Holloway said. “Good for him. I ain’t going to chase someone around. I ain’t going to talk about someone that ain’t talking about me. He gets to choose his fights. Why am I going to cry and beg him to fight me? Get the hell out of here with that [expletive].”
But as long as McGregor remains a larger-than-life figure, Holloway better get used to being asked about that [expletive].