Max Holloway watched UFC 222 from the couch, but not by choice.
Holloway, the UFC’s reigning featherweight champion, was forced to withdraw from his March 3 title defense against Frankie Edgar after suffering an undisclosed ankle injury in training. Reflecting back on the situation Monday on The MMA Hour, Holloway said he was devastated by the news. His injury was not only a massive blow for the UFC, which had to scramble to find a replacement UFC 222 main event on one month’s notice, but also for himself, considering the stakes involved and Edgar’s history with Hawaiian legend B.J. Penn.
“It was difficult, man. It was a tough pill to swallow, for sure,” Holloway told host Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. “I’ve never, ever pulled out of a fight in my life, not even in my amateur days. And for the first time to be that? So much history was on line.
“Things happen though. Things happen for a reason and this injury popped up and it wasn’t my day. It was a tough pill to swallow, man. I was trying to find every single way out of this, trying to talk to the doctors and this and that and figure out a way so we could still go out there and fight, but it wasn’t budging, man. They had the last call, they had the final call — they called it, and it was definitely a hard one.”
According to Holloway, his ankle injury was simply a matter of getting caught in an unlucky position in training rather than a lingering issue that slowly snuck up on him. Holloway said his physical therapy has been progressing well since and he’s hoping to receive doctor’s clearance to return to action soon. He’s been able to avoid surgery — and should be able to do so for good as long as his rehab continues to be effective at its current pace.
“We’ve got one more doctor’s meeting before everything, in like a month or so, and we’ll see what happens,” Holloway said. “I don’t know when it is exactly, but that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to get cleared.
“The surgery happens if the injury [rehabilitation] won’t hold up, so we’re waiting. The doctor gave us a certain timeline and we’re just playing it by ear now.”
In the meantime, much has changed in Holloway’s absence.
Instead of waiting for Holloway to heal up, Edgar opted to stay on UFC 222 and compete in a No. 1 contender’s match against undefeated featherweight Brian Ortega. The decision proved to be a regrettable one — Ortega steamrolled Edgar via first-round knockout to steal the former champion’s shot at gold and become the first man to finish “The Answer.”
Holloway admitted to being surprised by the manner of Ortega’s victory, but he wasn’t shocked to see the jiu-jitsu wizard stamp his claim as the next title contender.
“Ortega is undefeated for a reason,” Holloway said. “He’s good. He had knockouts on his record. I thought if he finished [Edgar], it was going to be a submission, because he’s pretty [skilled] there too and he’s super good on the ground. So I thought if it was a finish, it’d guaranteed be a submission. But he went out there and did his thing.
“This is a sport. It goes on, it keeps it moving. And I wasn’t mad at all. People keep thinking that Frankie is out of the picture completely. After the Ortega fight, we’ll see what happens. A couple more wins and [Edgar] is back in the discussion again, so I don’t really care. It’s time to move on, it’s time to focus on the next guy up, and that’s Ortega supposedly, so I can’t wait. I’m just ready. I’m ready to fight, man.”
Whenever it happens, a title fight between the 26-year-old Holloway and 27-year-old Ortega will be a true watershed moment for the UFC’s featherweight division, a battle between two young stars who have established their dominance over an older generation of 145-pound contenders. And Holloway agrees with Ortega that the matchup has the potential to be the biggest featherweight fight since Conor McGregor challenged Jose Aldo in 2015.
“It’s huge,” Holloway said. “I’ll tell you this much, a lot of people are talking about this fight more than the Frankie fight, I feel like. So I can’t wait.
“The guy is looking super good. He’s looking super good, I can’t take nothing away from him. He told me to pick my poison and he’s got striking, everybody knows his jiu-jitsu, so I’m excited. These kind of things intrigue me. When I see danger, you guys all know I walk straight to it. I ain’t trying to run away from no danger. If it’s supposed to be dangerous for me, then I’m going to go and take a peek. I want to go and look and see what’s so dangerous about it.”
Technique aside, Holloway noted that the one aspect of Ortega that has impressed him the most is the young challenger’s chin and toughness.
“He can take a shot, so it should be a fun one,” Holloway said.
“Two guys coming up and both in their prime, so people are going to be in for a great fight.”
The biggest question now is where and when Holloway vs. Ortega will take place, and the answer to that depends on two variables: Holloway’s health, plus the UFC’s ability to book a long-awaited event in Holloway’s home state of Hawaii.
Local reports from Hawaiian news outlet KHON2 revealed earlier this month that negotiations between the UFC and the Hawaii Tourism Authority for an August event at Aloha Stadium had stalled, largely due to disagreements between the two parties on specific financial terms. Holloway heard the same reports, and while he’s still holding out hope that the issue can be resolved in time for August, he’s nonetheless confident that, at this point, UFC Hawaii is only a matter of time.
“I’m over here waiting,” Holloway said. “I’m waiting just like you guys.
“I think the talks with Hawaii have come a long way. This is the closest they’ve ever had to having a fight event down here, so we’ll see what happens. I don’t know, like how you said, that snag — usually when the NFL comes down [for the Pro Bowl], they give the NFL a $5 million compensation. So I think the UFC was trying to ask for that and then they kinda re-countered and they’re kinda just starting back-and-forth countering, so we’ll see what happens. I’m just glad that the HTA is actually taking the time to finally listen to the UFC and they’re finally talking about it.
“If it happens this year, it happens this year. If not, I’ve got to keep doing my job, and hopefully next year around the summertime it happens. So we’ll see happens. I’m positive that it’s going to happen. We’ve come leaps and bounds ahead of what it was before, so we’ve got the ball moving. We’ve got to just keep on creating hype.”
UFC 227 in Hawaii is the ultimate goal, but if it doesn’t come to fruition, Holloway said he would be just fine with a July return at UFC 226 instead.
Still, though, everything depends on the success of his recovery.
“That’s the timeline we’re looking at right now,” Holloway said. “My doctors, my physical therapists, my coaches, that’s all of the times that we’re looking at right now. They’re trying to see that July and August return, and that’s all I can do, be positive and keep training, keep getting this thing strong. And I can’t wait, man. I can’t wait to make that walk again. It’s a pretty crazy experience getting injured this bad and I don’t wish it on no one.”