When Brian Ortega didn’t answer the bell for Round 5 against Max Holloway on Saturday, the narrative quickly, and rightfully, became about Blessed’s greatness. The discussion was suddenly about whether Max is the best featherweight ever, if he’s the best pound-for-pound fighter in world, speculation about who could possibly beat him and if that person even existed. Max Holloway’s run through the featherweight division has been incredible, dominant, and filled with quality win after quality win, and those kinds of discussions are totally warranted. You would think that this sort of thing is novel, that this sort of reverence is reserved only for fighters have cemented their status at the top of the sport, but the problem is that the sort of things that were discussed on that night are discussed after nearly every title fight. Max Holloway actually deserves this kind of talk. The fact that this happens all too much diminishes the importance of it when it is actually warranted.
A while ago, I wrote about Rashad Evans. When he won the title from Forrest Griffin, everyone rushed to crown him the fighter for a new generation poised to tear through the old guard and dominate the division, postulated at who could possibly beat him, talked about the stellar line of fighter he beat up until that point. A lot of the same things that were said on Saturday night. Then they said the same things about Lyoto Machida. Joe Rogan shouted about the “Machida Era.” Karate was suddenly relevant again and MMA was going to have to adapt. Next up it was Shogun, who had reclaimed his past Pride glory, and cemented himself as one of the greatest fighters ever, this time under the UFC banner. Things were more measured with Shogun because Jon Jones was waiting in the wings, but they still were said. All these things, all the praise and predictions, all of the lionization and deification that was heaped on these fighters, they weren’t wrong per se. It’s just that they were exceedingly true the moment they were uttered and were decreasingly so from that point forward. The point of the Rashad article linked above was that the things people were saying were actually right, but circumstances changed. Jon Jones showed up and Rashad Evans became a footnote in his legacy. The point is, as much as you think you know, things can change fast.
Let’s look at Chris Weidman. The second he beat Anderson Silva, the whole world changed. Weidman seemed poised to reign over the division for years. When he beat Silva the second time, that cemented things. But then came Luke Rockhold, and Yoel Romero, and Gegard Mousasi, and Jacare Souza. Now, if talked about Chris Weidman the way people talked about him 3 years ago, you’d be locked up in a state hospital. The same thing goes for a litany of recent UFC champions. Remember when Cody Garbrandt beat Dominick Cruz, Garbrandt was going to run the division. Same thing happened with Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz, even for Miguel Torres before him. Brian Bowles even seemed unstoppable for a couple on months. Every Daniel Cormier fight comes with this sort of talk, and he is certainly a great fighter, but he’s not as good as Jon Jones, and he won’t ever be. Valentina Shevchenko just won the Women’s 125 title and people are already talking like she’s run through the entire division. Ronda Rousey, I don’t think that one needs any more explanation. The instinct is always, except when it come to the Nicco Montano’s of the world, to project greatness. The problem is that very often, it just ends up being wrong and that does a disservice to the fighters who truly deserve it.
I don’t know if Max Holloway is the best Featherweight ever, I still think I lean toward Jose Aldo on that point, although its very close. I don’t think that he is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, I give that edge to Khabib Nurmagomedov. But, he’s in those conversations. He’s one of the greatest fighter’s ever, no string of losses, no supernova of talent that follows him will change that fact. His resume, the streak he’s on right now, this run on sustained dominance is that good and it might just keep getting better.
I’m not sure if there is anybody currently in the UFC picture who can beat Max Holloway, Brian Ortega was a favorite on Saturday and Ortega took a beating that was on an entirely different level. There’s Renato Moicano, Alexander Volkanovski, and Zabit Magomedsharipov. All interesting fights, maybe one of those guys could pull off an upset. Maybe Chad Mendes could wrestle him long enough to pull out a win. But the fight that has the most potential, is a rematch. Conor McGregor beat him before, its not out of the realm of possibility he could do it again. But, McGregor might not ever fight at 145 again, so we might not ever know. Does it really matter? Not really in the grand scheme, Holloway’s wins will speak for themselves and Conor will probably sell a millions pay-per-views a couple more times, but its the sort of fight, that if Holloway keeps this up and McGregor stings some wins together, then things get interesting. We have the potential for one of the biggest fights in MMA history and it is exactly the kind of fight Holloway needs.
Fight sports has never been a complete meritocracy. Wins can only get you so far, no matter how many you rack up in a row. Demetrious Johnson put together one of the greatest streaks in MMA history, no one cared, then he lost and got traded to One for Ben Askren, he learned this the hard way. No one cared about Anderson Silva until Chael Sonnen came around, now people think, wrongly, that he’s the best fighter ever. It takes a big fight for people to care, and people, people other than the hardest of the hardcore, have to care about you to talk about you as the greatest ever. Max Holloway, for all of his impressive wins, doesn’t have a victory of any serious magnitude. He has two huge wins over Jose Aldo, but Jose Aldo was never been a ratings draw. The Ortega fight, as great as it was, isn’t going to move big numbers. The Conor fight could be that fight. Or maybe it could be Khabib at 155. But that’s the kind of fight that Max Holloway needs, even if it doesn’t make the most sense for the division, it makes the most sense for Holloway. Because without it, he’s the sort of fighter that only the hardcore fans know and care about, and as great as Jake Shields is, Max Holloway doesn’t want to be Jake Shields.