After overcoming the most difficult 12-month stretch of his mixed martial arts career, Max Holloway is finally on the comeback trail.
The reigning UFC featherweight champion is slated to return from a year-long absence this weekend when he takes on undefeated challenger Brian Ortega in Toronto in the highly-anticipated main event of UFC 231. The matchup was initially scheduled to go down at UFC 226, however Holloway was pulled from that contest during fight week after displaying some scary neurological symptoms, such as slowed, slurred speech. At the time, Holloway’s issues were labeled “concussion-like symptoms,” however a concussion was subsequently ruled out in the weeks after UFC 226 as a potential diagnosis.
Holloway has spent the months since his summer incident undergoing a battery of tests to determine the root of his medical issues, and although he has been medically cleared to return at UFC 231, the search for an answer to his questions remains ongoing.
“We don’t know. We took the tests [for what] they thought it was,” Holloway explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “Like I said before, we took all the testing, we passed all the testing, and [all of the results] came back looking great, so at the end of the day, we’ll see. I’ve still got an ongoing private investigation with trying to figure out what’s going on, me and my team, because we’re still trying to figure it out. But at the end of the day, it’s not the big things that they thought. So right now I can’t comment too much on it because we’ve still got the investigation going on, but that’s it.”
While he still may not have the answers he seeks, Holloway is anything but dismayed about his current state. The 26-year-old champion said he has made a full recovery and is feeling better than he ever has before. He is excited to compete after sitting out the entirety of 2018 between his early-year injuries and his mid-year neurological scare.
“Man, I wish I could let you guys into my camp, but ninjas move in silence,” Holloway said. “This camp has been one of the greatest ones ever. I’ve been breaking numbers, doing a lot of amazing stuff, just fighting a lot of people, so I can’t wait. Man, I just can’t wait for Dec. 8 and to show you guys what I’ve been working hard for. People keep sleeping — it’s time to wake them up again and let them know that the ‘Blessed’ era is still in full effect, and jump on the ‘Blessed’ train now. The ‘Blessed’ express, we’re at the pit stop right now, we’re waiting for you guys to all get inside. It’s better to be sitting down inside than chasing us, because it’s a really fast train, so don’t be one of those guys jogging behind it.”
Holloway certainly has his work cut out for him.
The challenger to his throne at UFC 231, Ortega, is an undefeated 28-year-old who has racked up a flawless 6-0 record inside the Octagon. All six of those wins have ended in either grisly knockouts or sublime submissions — a streak highlighted by a three-fight run that saw Ortega tap out Renato Moicano and Cub Swanson, then become the first man to ever knock out former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar.
“Everybody keeps saying this is going to be one of the hardest fights for me, and I believe. I believe every fight is hard,” Holloway said. “Everybody keeps saying this guy is undefeated and this and that, 14-0. I’m 0-0 every fight, I’m undefeated. He’s fighting an undefeated fighter too. But at the end of the day, my favorite thing to do is when people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s going to do this to me. This guy’s going to do this to me.’ I go out there and I show what’s really up, and then they’re like, ‘Damn, okay, maybe not.’ I like making people question themselves, so Saturday night, just tune in.
“The man is dangerous,” Holloway added. “He’s just a dangerous guy all around. He showed that he can knock you out with a punch, with a kick, with a knee. He showed that if you give him something, he’s going to try to take it home with him. And he also showed that he’s got a chin on him. That Mexican blood in him is crazy. It’s going to be a crazy fight. Mexicans and Hawaiians, we’re born fighters. But it’s going to be crazy and amazing, and I just can’t wait to [fight]. This is one of those guys. This is a fight where everybody keeps talking about, ‘Man, I wish these guys could fight this guy, or blah, blah.’
“Here it is, two young guys, and for the fight that matters most, for a belt, for a champion, for a world championship fight. So I can’t wait to do it, man. I just can’t wait to go out there. And this fight excites me because this is one of those guys that, when it’s all said and done, they look at my career and they look at the list, and they’re like, ‘Damn, who did this guy not fight?’ That’s just what I want to be. I want to be the best ever.”
While Ortega may be one of the most well-rounded contenders at 145 pounds, his submission skills are where the California native truly shines. “T-City” has established himself as one of the most uniquely dangerous grapplers in the UFC today, having captured a number of late-round submissions in fights where he was behind on the scorecards. And it’s that type of ever-present skill set that excites Holloway as a champion.
“That’s the jiu-jitsu way,” Holloway said. “You’re never out of the fight. I got one of the greatest jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world, Rylan Lizares, and his trainer was Pedro Sauer, and every time I talk strategy with Pedro it’s like, ‘That’s the Gracie way, to the death.’ Like, I’m just going to take it or hurt you or I make you quit. So I think it’s cool, that he’s really living that Gracie jiu-jitsu lifestyle and that’s dope.”
It’s no secret that 2018 has not been the sort of dream campaign Holloway envisioned for himself when he captured several Fighter of the Year awards in 2017. Between the injuries that pulled him out of a UFC 222 title defense against Edgar, his ill-fated booking against Khabib Nurmagomedov that fell apart on weigh-in day, and the frightening medical issues that forced him off UFC 226, seemingly nothing has gone right for the man who goes by the nickname “Blessed.” But now Holloway has overcome, and he plans to end a nightmare year by getting back on track against one of his most formidable challengers yet.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, man,” Holloway said. “I found out a lot about myself [in 2018], I found out a lot about just life in general, and it’s just a learning experience. You live, you learn. So I’m jut blessed, man. I found out that I’m blessed. I’m really blessed. It’s bigger than the nickname. So all I can say about this year is I’m blessed. It’s crazy. I went through a rough time, a bunch of rough times, but we’re here. It’s not how you start the year, it’s how you finish. I’m going to finish strong come Dec. 8.”