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LOS ANGELES — It would be hard to blame Max Holloway if he chose to hate Conor McGregor.
McGregor, after all, is a big reason why the UFC’s featherweight championship situation is both muddled and quite disputed.
After knocking out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds flat to claim the belt last December, McGregor was allowed to spend 2016 fighting outside the division, which culminated in a second-round finish of Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title and become the company’s first two-weight-class champion.
The UFC stripped McGregor of the belt last week. It proclaimed Aldo, despite the fresh and vivid evidence of the 13-second knockout to the contrary, as the “undisputed” champion. It also proclaimed the winner of Saturday’s UFC 206 main event between Holloway and Anthony Pettis as the interim titleholder, presumably to fight Aldo down the road.
But despite all this, and despite McGregor continuing to muddy the waters by proclaiming he is still the 145-pound champ, and, oh yeah, despite the fact McGregor handed Holloway his last loss back in 2013, Holloway says he bears no ill will toward McGregor.
If anything, the Waianae, Hawaii native, who turned 25 on Sunday, admires McGregor for grabbing the brass ring, and says that any fighter who aspires to be the best would do the same if they were given McGregor’s opportunities.
“Everybody hates on this guy,” said Holloway (18-3), who takes a nine-fight win streak into the bout. “For what? If you had this opportunity, you know damn straight that you’d take it. If I had the opportunity, yes, it’s history. I want to break history. Conor McGregor set this bar and I’m trying to break it. If you’re not trying to break it, then why are you in the game?”
Holloway also recognizes that McGregor has a unique ability to draw attention upon himself. He admires the bombastic Irishman’s ability to make the UFC revolve around him, but at the same time, he doesn’t think imitating someone else is the way to go.
“It takes a special human being to do that,” Holloway said. “Conor’s special, you can’t hate on the guy. If everyone could do it, then everyone would be doing it. It took him, you don’t understand, you have to find your niche. I’m finding mine. I’m me.”
Indeed, in a mixed martial arts business which at times seems to reward bluster as much as actual performance in the cage, Holloway has earned his keep the old-fashioned way, by making people take notice of his skills in combat.
Since losing to McGregor, Holloway has blossomed into one of the sport’s most exciting competitors, finishing six of his nine opponents in his current win streak and earning multiple postfight bonuses in the process. Such an approach might not get you to the top as fast as making loud and brash claims in interviews and at press conferences. But the way Holloway sees it, staying true to yourself will get you where you want to go in the end.
“I’m not the guy who goes running around, bull-[expletive] around, flopping my chest around, throwing my arms around, that’s not me,” Holloway said. “It’s fake for me and I can’t be fake. I have to be the real Max Holloway, this is the real guy sitting right in front of you guys. Real, honest, what you see is what you get. If you like it great, if you don’t like it, great, at the end of the day you buy the pay-per-view and I’m getting money and that’s it, thank you.”
The public brushback to the idea of multiple belts at 145 has somewhat obscured the fact that Holloway vs. Pettis, on its own merits, has the potential to be an absolutely sensational main event. Like Holloway, Pettis at his best is one of the sport’s most dynamic competitors. The former UFC and WEC lightweight champion found himself in a rut after dropping three straight fights, including two split decisions, but has experienced a rebirth since dropping to featherweight.
“I know what Anthony can do,” Holloway said. “When I was first starting he was tearing up the WEC and people like him and Jose Aldo were who I aspired to be. I think this matchup is great, but, Dec. 10, tune in. We’ve got some stuff up our sleeves and I can’t wait to show.”
On paper, Holloway vs. Pettis seems to have the making of an obvious Fight of the Night. But Holloway doesn’t see it that way. Holloway believes Fight of the Night honors go to two evenly matched fighters. He’d rather earn one of the UFC’s Performance of the Night bonuses for leaving no doubt who is the better man.
It’s a mindset that’s helped mold Holloway from a fighter who lost to some Irish guy on the middle of a card three years ago into a headliner today.
“I ain’t trying to go for Fight of the Night,” Holloway said. “That means the guy is my equal. I don’t want no equal in there. I go out there and I make people wonder why is this guy here. Why is he in there. This is a horrible matchup. I’m not going to make this any easier. When you get Fight of the Night, that means you’re equal, that means you’re competitive. I want to, me I’m doing the damn thing or finishing you or making it look easy. That’s always my game plan going in there is showing how Max Holloway fights.”