Max Holloway was the runaway train we never saw coming. When he debuted in the UFC back in 2012 at just 20 years old, he was the youngest fighter on the roster. Unsurprisingly, Holloway went through early struggles. After his first six bouts in the Octagon, he was just 3-3.
Few fighters have started their careers with this kind of arc and gone on to become a UFC champion. Usually, greatness manifests itself early. But Holloway grew, worked, grinded and started racking up wins. He stopped four opponents in a row. Then, he outclassed veteran Cole Miller. And then, when he choked out Cub Swanson, there was no more hiding that Holloway had evolved past most expectations for him.
Still, he had to further to go. Way further, as he piled up wins against Charles Oliveira, Jeremy Stephens, Ricardo Lamas and Anthony Pettis. By the time he was done—by the time the UFC agreed that yes, he was ready to fight for the undisputed belt—he'd won 10 straight, the longest streak any fighter has ever authored before fighting for a championship.
To take the final step, he only had to beat Jose Aldo, the consensus greatest featherweight ever. He only had to do it on Aldo's home soil.
In a match that imitated Holloway's career, the start was shaky and the finish was stunning. The UFC's most unheralded win streak paved the road to gold, as Holloway captured the undisputed featherweight championship via technical knockout at 4:13 of the third round in Rio de Janeiro.
The stoppage—which came after dozens of unanswered strikes—left the once-frenzied crowd in almost complete silence, pondering Aldo's fall and Holloway's rise, and everything in between.
And there is so much else.
This is the division that Conor McGregor ruled and then abandoned without a second thought, a division that has had his long shadow cast upon it by his absence all the while.
However fair, Holloway and Aldo were fighting that, too, the memories of what McGregor had done to the division, and to both of them before he left to chase the UFC lightweight belt, and then—maybe—boxing.
A relatively short time ago, McGregor starched Aldo with a quickness. And some time before that, he'd drowned Holloway on the mat on the way to a decision win.
Those results don't just go away; they can't be erased. But Holloway has done everything possible to show his improvement. Back then, he was just a kid, young and green. Today, he is still just 25 years old, but he is reimagined, revamped and remarkable. And he is a worthy champion. An 11-bout winning streak is its own statement. So is the way he won.
In the early going, Aldo was sharper and faster and better. Holloway looked slow and unsure, but ate what Aldo had to offer before taking over.
The end came on a four-piece combination, followed by a ground swarm that could serve as an instruction manual for fight-finishing. Overhands and elbows and back-taking and flowing to mount. With every move, Aldo was sinking in quicksand. With every move, Holloway was drowning him.
"No adversity; it is what it is," Holloway said on the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show. "Slow and steady always wins the race. I was taking my time. I had five rounds. I took my time. I knew he'd fade later on, and I took advantage of the shots that were open."
It's important to realize the context of this win; Aldo, we must repeat, is the featherweight G.O.A.T., even if he had his legacy changed by a single punch, one of the loudest left hands ever thrown by a loudmouth.
The thing about it is that it wasn't a fluke, and neither was the man who threw it. McGregor is both a superstar and a super-fighter, yet the aftermath of that punch has stuck on Aldo like a putrid stench.
On an objective level, most people understand that a loss is a loss. But in the moment, emotion matters. The setting matters. The opponent matters.
Aldo's failure was notable because of all the circumstances that predated it. The long lead-up. The world tour. The trash-talking opponent. All of it served to intensify the match, and to magnify the result.
Never mind that McGregor has lost, too. Never mind that he has more career losses than Aldo. All of that is forgotten in the electricity of a magical moment.
Still, as that moment recedes into history and Aldo's entire past comes back into view, perhaps reason will come back to us, too, and context with it. Perhaps as everything returns into focus, we will better grasp just what it is that Holloway accomplished.
In UFC history, guess how many people have had longer win streaks than Holloway? Four. Anderson Silva (16), Jon Jones (13), Georges St-Pierre (12) and Demetrious Johnson (12).
That's legendary consistency and a belt to go along with it. That's enough to conclude that whatever the past, Holloway has reached greatness.
Everything changes in time. Fighters evolve and records are broken and shadows are overcome by light, and Max Holloway is a representation of all of this.
When he first showed up all those years ago, we couldn't see what he could be, not because we're nearsighted, but because it was simply too far off in the distance. The future was whatever he made it. The future is still his.