This should be perfect. Even though the fight was born from the most cursed matchup in sporting history — Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov — UFC 223’s bout between Nurmagomedov and Max Holloway is everything to love about the sport. This is Holloway, the Hawaiian killer on a 12-fight win streak vs. Nurmagomedov, undefeated smasher of souls. Few fights are better. Two elite combatants, dominators, destroyers, meeting each other at their peak. It’s not something you see often in MMA.
And the stakes are high. Holloway is the featherweight champ and has a chance to become the second-ever multi-divisional UFC champion and one of the few to ever capture gold in two UFC weight divisions.
This is a fight that’s too good for six days’ notice.
Instead of a series of conference calls and hype shows comes the meta-drama that hovers over Holloway attempting to make weight on top of an 18-hour flight from Hawaii. Brian Butler, Holloway’s manager, told Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour that Holloway wanted the fight to be at 170 pounds, but the UFC wanted it to be a title fight. It paints a picture of the UFC, desperate for gold behind the names on the marquee that has been undeniable since WME-IMG bought the company. Every PPV needs a title fight, even if the title is now so watered-down that it’s a diluted, thrice-handed down belt. It feels like a title in name only, an interim-interim title.
Butler explained how the fight came together in a typical, exciting, and haphazard fashion that’s become all-too-familiar with MMA fans. The call came through, and Holloway jumped to it: “He said, ‘Let’s (expletive) go, bro. This is how legends are made.’”
He’s right. A title fight against a monster like Khabib on six days’ notice featuring a fascinating amount of MMA math — this is as good as it gets. Almost. Let’s break it down real quick:
Max Holloway is the undisputed featherweight champ, defeating Jose Aldo, who became champion after Conor McGregor was stripped of the belt. Since this fight is for the “undisputed” lightweight title (without McGregor being officially stripped of his lightweight title), it means that Holloway is technically fighting to become yet another dual-weight champion … without ever beating McGregor. The twist that keeps on giving: Holloway is on a 12-fight winning streak, with his last loss coming to McGregor in 2013.
So if Holloway wins, and McGregor comes back to fight him, it’s featherweight and lightweight champion Max Holloway vs. lineal featherweight (and still possibly) lightweight/lineal lightweight champion Conor McGregor. That’s astonishing in itself, but can Holloway even do this with a weight cut, travel and zero prep time for someone who is arguably the pound-for-pound toughest in the UFC right now? That subplot adds to the drama, but it also deflates the reality enough to want more. To truly want a flawless fight to be flawless.
While Holloway stops eating and starts sweating, Khabib simply needs to show up and “smesh” as he’s wont to do. Holloway is dangerous, of course, and as we’ve seen, anything can happen in MMA. But still, the odds are stacked against Holloway. What does it mean if he loses and his growing aura of invincibility in a featherweight division that has contenders waiting in the wings is shattered? Holloway is not Conor McGregor, who lost to Nate Diaz on short notice but was too bright a star to ever burn out. The rematch only added to his mythos. If Holloway loses, do we get Holloway/Khabib 2?
What happens to Brian Ortega, who was thrust into the No. 1 contender position after he knocked out Frankie Edgar on short notice at UFC 222? That’s where Edgar’s dreams were sent packing, and as a 36-year-old, Edgar doesn’t have much time left. Thankfully, Holloway is only 26, so he has time and the sport’s culture on his side. It makes a perfect fight with logistical odds in extreme favor of Khabib tolerable.
Unlike boxing, fans in MMA are incredibly forgiving of losses on a record. BJ Penn will never not be a legend even with his 16-12-2 record because he was a natural 145er who was wild enough to move up to heavyweight to fight Lyoto Machida. Same with Japanese trailblazer and UFC Hall of Famer Sakuraba. They took chances and they lost, sometimes terribly. But they tried to do the impossible when the opportunity arose and those are the acts remembered in MMA. More than even knockouts or submissions, MMA fans remember bravery.
Holloway is following in his Hawaiian hero’s footsteps by taking on a bigger man who is well-trained and well-prepared for the biggest fight of his life. The storyline might sell PPVs, and we’ve been so caught up in how great this fight is that we haven’t gotten the chance to stop and wonder if it should really happen right here and right now at UFC 223.
After McGregor blatantly pulled UFC strings to leapfrog heavy competition into becoming the third multi-divisional UFC champion and the first in history to become a concurrent dual-weight champion, all bets were off. Holly Holm moved up in weight to vie for a chance at the dual-weight history books, Georges St-Pierre moved up to 185 for the first time to defeat Michael Bisping and become the middleweight champion (while an interim champ waited in the wings). Bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw attempted to move down to fight flyweight GOAT Mighty Mouse Johnson, and now light-heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier is preparing for his chance at dual-weight championship resumé material with his fight against heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic.
Even Rafael dos Anjos is getting in on the dual-weight title love.
Oh, and if Khabib wins this lightweight title, he wants the lineal welterweight champion and already-stripped former middleweight champ GSP as his next opponent. And maybe Ferguson’s interim won’t even go away. He told MMA Fighting: “I mean seriously, there is a precedent for having a fight for a “real” title and keeping an “interim” title intact. They just did that with Robert Whittaker last year.”
This isn’t to say any of these men don’t deserve it. Some divisions have been cleaned out (for the most part), and they are all absolutely worthy of their success in multiple weight classes, especially Cormier and Dos Anjos. But in a series of decisions that are no-doubt backed by data showing fan interest rising when a title is on the line, it seems like right now the only people willing to move weights on short notice are champions. At one point, if this trend keeps up, the should be UFC concerned about the diminishing weight behind these historic fights.
Holloway actually has opponents ready to defend against. Khabib is in the unenviable position of being the best fighter to have the cruel MMA Gods dangle championship gold with no clear championship opponent or even No. 1 contender. We have to look beyond this weekend if Khabib wins. Who does he fight and when? Maybe McGregor in 6-7 months? Maybe never?
Holloway has a division with Ortega, Stephens, Elkins, and the Korean Zombie to go back to. If Holloway loses, we’re still in a lightweight division waiting game. If Holloway wins, both divisions are potentially held up further. For future matchmaking reasons alone, this fight is a huge deal. It will make waves that could be felt for years to come. Should a fight like this that can send quakes through two divisions really only be given a few episodes of Embedded and a couple media interviews?
If this incredible, perfect, undeniable war between Khabib and Holloway means something truly special, should it only be given six days to cook?