When the UFC unveiled its new championship belt design, Max Holloway began referring to the colored gems champions would receive for each successful title defense as “Soul Stones,” a reference to the six “Infinity Stones” Thanos needed to collect and affix to the Infinity Gauntlet in Marvel’s Avengers series.
Six months after losing the featherweight title to Alexander Volkanovski and a handful of days ahead of their championship rematch at UFC 251, the 28-year-old Hawaiian has reconsidered which role he has chosen to assume from the now completed series, which wrapped last spring.
“I remember I was Thanos and I was collecting some stones, but maybe I was on the wrong side,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe I’m The Avengers and we’ve got to go figure things out.
“I’ve been seeing memes going around that ever since I lost the belt, the world has been going through some stuff. Hopefully we can be like The Avengers. Hopefully we can snap and the world will come back to normal.”
Even without the radical alterations to life resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that Holloway feels like things in the world are a little unusual given that this weekend’s fight card is the first time in six fights where he won’t walk to the Octagon as a UFC champion.
Max Holloway: Every UFC Finish
Max Holloway: Every UFC Finish
He made his first claim to the featherweight throne by claiming the interim title at UFC 206, then rose to being the undisputed ruler of the 145-pound weight class six months later when he ventured to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and vanquished Jose Aldo.
Even after suffering his first loss in five-and-a-half years when he moved up to lightweight and faced Dustin Poirier for the interim title last April at UFC 236, Holloway quickly returned to his kingdom and dispatched Frankie Edgar, extending his winning streak in the division to 14 consecutive fights.
Then, just when it seemed like Holloway remaining atop the featherweight division was inevitable, Volkanovski confidently marched into the Octagon last winter and knocked the king from his throne.
They run it back this weekend in Abu Dhabi, and Holloway is excited about being the hunter, instead of the hunted.
“Last fight, I was on the side where there was no way they saw him beating me, and now I’m on the backside where there is no way I can beat him,” said Holloway, who welcomed the reduction in media obligations that came from preparing for this fight during quarantine. “It’s exciting times and I just can’t wait.
“These are the kinds of fights that get me super-excited and it just puts a big smile on my face.”
Throughout his rise to the top of the featherweight division and his extended reign as champion, fans and media became used to hearing Holloway’s signature phrase, “It is what it is.”
It became a catch-all for the engaging Hawaiian, but as he readies to compete as the challenger and not the champion for the first time in three years, it also serves to help illustrate his mindset heading into Saturday night’s second go-round with Volkanovski.
Commonplace as it may have become, Holloway’s “it is what it is” approach means that he’s never going to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows.
Victories never resulted in spending sprees or wild celebrations and his December loss to the streaking Australian didn’t send him into a tailspin either.
“A fight is a fight,” began the 28-year-old, who has logged 22 of his 26 career appearances inside the Octagon. “You’ve been talking to me for every fight, from the first one, and I’ve always told you the same thing: a fight is a fight and we’re 0-0 in every fight.
“This ain’t a title fight. This ain’t a championship fight. This ain’t reclaiming something that I’ve lost — it’s just another fight,” he added. “One fight don’t define me. One loss don’t define me. I got five losses in my column. At the end of the day, it’s just another fight.”
Don’t mistake his ability to frame things in such simplistic, manageable terms to mean that Holloway wasn’t irked by the defeat.
No one likes to lose, and it’s infinitely more frustrating for elite athletes who tirelessly work at their craft when they come up short, Holloway included. But rather than get angry, “Blessed” and his team have used this rare setback as something instructive — an indicator that they need re-assess their approach and make changes in order to come back even stronger.
“I saw an interview today where Georges St-Pierre was talking about how defeat was his greatest teacher and I believe that,” said Holloway. “If you’re perfect all the time, you don’t grow, you don’t get better. You need defeats to remind you that you need to change something.
“I hate losing; you can ask anybody,” continued the avid gamer, who admitted he’s gotten heated on his Twitch stream a time or two in the past. “But at the end of the day, it’s a great teacher; it shows you what you need to improve and makes me figure out stuff so that I can keep growing, keep learning.
“It’s never a loss; it’s all learning,” he added. “A loss isn’t a loss if you learn from it and I learn every time.”
While Holloway doesn’t go into details about the errors he made in his first meeting with Volkanovski or the adjustments he’s made in preparation for this weekend’s rematch — “A magician doesn’t give away his tricks,” he laughed — there is clearly something different about the former champion this time around.
For the first time in quite some time, he has something to prove, and after getting knocked from his perch atop the featherweight division at the end of last year, Holloway is eager to step into the Octagon, square off with Volkanovski for a second time, and set things right in the world.
“I cannot tell you how excited I am to go to Fight Island and fight,” said Holloway. “A lot of people keep saying this and that, counting your boy out — I’ve been seeing that I’m the underdog now, that I have no answers — and that makes me excited.
“I was put on this Earth to fight. I’ve been fighting my whole life. I don’t need a crowd. I’ve got my team, my family, my friends, and we’re going to go out there and remind the world. Everybody keeps saying the Blessed Era is over, but last time I checked, eras are for years and years and the Blessed Era is still going to be in effect for many years to come, I can promise you that.”
Iron Man and company needed to be defeated by Thanos in Infinity War in order to regroup and make things right in Endgame.
UFC 245 was Part I of Holloway’s battle with Volkanovski — the one where he lost — and this weekend, it’s time for Part II.
“This weekend, you get to watch one of The Avengers go and avenge the world,” he said. “Hopefully we can snap and the world will come back to normal.”
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