Max Holloway Has the Ingredients to Be a Superstar, but Can He Break Through?

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterNovember 30, 2017

HONOLULU, HI - JUNE 05: Max Holloway raises his UFC Championship belt as he greets his fans upon his arrival at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on June 5, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Holloway became the the undisputed UFC Featherweight Champion after beating Jose Aldo. (Photo by Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

As the undisputed king of the UFC men's featherweight division, Max Holloway seems to have it all.

Just shy of six months into his reign as the 145-pound champion, Holloway enjoys all the trappings of future UFC stardom, including youth, athleticism, skill and swagger to spare. If he jets through Saturday's title rematch against Jose Aldo at UFC 218 the way the odds say he should, he'll also become the first man to make a successful defense of the featherweight strap since 2014.

So we'll officially be able to add dominance to Holloway's list of positive traits.

Yet, it doesn't quite feel like the 25-year-old Hawaii native has had his breakthrough moment. As the Sporting News' E. Spencer Kyte notes, the run-up to Nov. 4's UFC 217 in many ways felt like a potential coming-out party for up-and-coming bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt.

By comparison, Holloway isn't getting the same treatment.

"Despite a longer tenure on the roster, a lengthier winning streak and a more formidable body of work than [Garbrandt], no one seems to be in a hurry to declare Holloway a future UFC superstar and it makes absolutely no sense to me," Kyte wrote.

Yeah, what gives? Shouldn't Holloway also be in line to become one of the UFC's big promotional young guns? And what, if anything, will it take him to cross the aisle into star status?

Here, Bleacher Report MMA Lead Writer Chad Dundas and Featured Columnist Matthew Ryder try to puzzle out an answer.


Matthew Ryder: Holloway is a certifiable bad hombre.

The reigning featherweight champ has won 11 straight fights, racking up an interim title and a legitimate one in the process and doing it all before his 26th birthday.

The last time we saw him, he was in the process of laying Aldo flat with a slick combination during their first fight at UFC 212 [in June]. That's an accomplishment only the vaunted Conor McGregor can claim to have matched.

Oh, and Holloway was the only man to survive a full fight with McGregor when the Irishman was blistering his way through the 145-pound class a few years back, and he remains the only man other than Nate Diaz to have done so today.

He is very, very good at this MMA thing.

So yeah, the dude who gave us the #BlessedEra is the real deal, and with at least a few years before he reaches his athletic and technical peak, he may well be in a position to become one of the best to ever "do the damn thing," as he likes to say.

Yet it appears acceptance by a more mainstream audience is less of a guarantee. Those within the proverbial MMA bubble know what they’re watching in Holloway, know what they’re listening to when he wildly proclaims that he’ll fight anyone, anywhere, at any time, but those beyond it are not yet drawn in. 

      

Chad Dundas: Can it be as simple as saying some fighters possess that charismatic X-factor while some fighters don't?

At the risk of sounding like a downer here, the UFC has long had its share of ultratalented champions who never made a dent with mainstream audiences. Demetrious Johnson is probably the archetypal contemporary example. Daniel Cormier appears set for the same fate. Even current heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic probably falls into the category of overskilled and underloved.

Not everybody can be McGregor, though I agree Holloway has more potential than most.

From a craft standpoint, he's certainly one of the best in the sport. His penchant for showing up in suits and gold-plated Octagon ties ain't bad, either. Yet, I'm not sure there's any one thing about the guy that definitively sets him apart from the crowd.

If anything can do it, perhaps it would be the emergence of a career-defining feud or opponent. Ronda Rousey, for example, certainly benefitted from her ongoing beef with Miesha Tate. McGregor partially used his protracted tiff with Aldo as a springboard to stardom. Even Anderson Silva needed Chael Sonnen to help him become a pay-per-view player.

Who might be that figure for Holloway? That's the real mystery. The current 145-pound landscape has a wealth of possibilities, but again nobody who is a surefire home run.

We can say with relative certainty that it won't be Aldo. At 31 years old, the former champ's best days are already behind him. It also probably won't be Frankie Edgar, the one-time lightweight champ who was set to fight Holloway at UFC 218 before pulling out with an injury.

If Holloway gets past Aldo and is rebooked against Edgar, it'll be a good legacy-builder for him, but it won't put him over the top.

The champ needs somebody like Yair Rodriguez, Brian Ortega or Cub Swanson to suddenly blossom into the sort of foe he could have a trilogy of fights against—or at the very least a marketable rivalry.

If Holloway can get himself embroiled in a blood feud that could take center stage in the UFC, maybe that would be his golden ticket. If not, I'm not totally sure what else that guy can do.

       

Ryder: I agree and disagree with that take, I guess. I can't say I see Holloway as lacking that X-factor at this stage, but might instead posit that most people simply aren't grasping what they're seeing just yet.

To me there is a realness in Holloway that is almost unmatched in the sport: When he says he lives for the fight and he's in a perpetual state of being willing to throw down with anyone alive, you believe that.

Not many fighters have that special something, that unwitting salesmanship born out of speaking what's simply, almost unnervingly, true to them.

Nick and Nate Diaz have it, BJ Penn had it, and honestly not many others have—not even McGregor, who's notorious bluster often feels like a performative exercise built into his getting ready for combat.

Holloway has it.

When he speaks, eyes flickering with fire and postured like a predatory bird looking to strike, there's nothing more important in the world at that moment than what he's speaking to. He believes it, and that makes you believe it.

If people don't realize the rarity of that breed, that's on them.

What I do agree with is that he needs a major feud to get him over the hump. I like the names you mentioned and would also throw Jeremy Stephens in there—not necessarily on merit (he's 6-5 at 145 and already lost to Holloway once), but because he's got a violent style and a bit of an attitude problem.

If he could force his way into contendership over the next year or so, he's already shown he's not afraid to run his mouth, even if the results are mixed. That might be the type of thing that brings out the best in Holloway as a self-promoter, and it might also get him more of the attention he so desperately deserves.

Until that attention comes his way, though, there's not much more to be done besides hold discussions like these and wait for Holloway to break through.

The ingredients are there, but who knows how long the wait will be.