Max Holloway: Hawaiian Kickboxer

By Eric Stinton Oct 14, 2016

You can tell a lot about fighters by their walkout song. Especially in the Reebok era, where self-expression on fight night is pretty limited, the song that fighters choose to play on their way to the Octagon reveals much about who they are as both competitors and individuals.

This is particularly true for those who stick to one song for a prolonged stretch of fights. For someone like Ronda Rousey, who walks out to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” the song is an apt description of her public persona, whereas Robbie Lawler’s relentlessly entertaining energy in the cage is perfectly represented by Sam and Dave’s “Hold On (I’m Comin’).”

Max Holloway is among the few fighters who have found the single best song to represent who they are and how they fight. Moke Boy’s “Hawaiian Kickboxer” is Hawaiian country music, and Holloway’s hometown of Waianae, Oahu, is most definitely Hawaiian countryside. In fact, singer Moses Kamealoha III -- Moke Boy himself -- is from Waianae and wrote the song when he got kicked out of Waianae High School.

The humble simplicity of the song is fitting for Holloway, who remains grounded after achieving considerable success in a sport beloved by most people from Hawaii. While Holloway often draws comparisons to the state’s greatest MMA offspring in B.J. Penn, their choices in walkout music share the same Venn diagram that the fighters themselves do.

Penn walked out to a version of “E Ala E” by Israel Kamakawiowoʻole that began with the introduction of another track, “Hawaiʻi ’78,” both of which are iconic songs by Hawaii’s most iconic musician. It fits Penn, whose ambitions and accomplishments were mythopoetically grandiose. The two songs to which Penn walked out are deeply rooted in Hawaiian identity and specifically Hawaiian sovereignty, whereas the soft-spoken Holloway’s song choice is more fit for potlucks than protests. In that way, “Hawaiian Kickboxer” is far more representative of the typical, everyday people of Hawaii, and as such, it is a better reflection of the culture and upbringing in which Holloway grew up.

If the culture of Hawaii, specifically Waianae, informed Holloway’s fighting style -- and I believe it did -- and “Hawaiian Kickboxer” is representative of that culture, it is only right that Moke Boy’s lyrics would also accurately depict “Blessed” the fighter. When we break down the song into its chorus and two verses, it is clear that they do. For the lyrics in Hawaiian, I have provided translations in parentheses.

Verse 1

E ho’omaka kakou i ka, ha’awina (everyone begins with the lessons)
E kia’i a’e, ho’opili mai (to guard your space, adhere to this)
E keia manawa, peku kakou (right now, everyone kick)
He mana, ka mākou (our power)


When Holloway entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was 20 years old and 4-0 as a professional. He went 3-3 in his first two years in the promotion, with his three losses coming against the highest-ranked, most well-known opponents he faced. Needless to say, he was not a lock to become a future contender.

Yet each of those losses provided formative lessons for the young fighter that have helped him achieve the longest winning streak in the UFC featherweight division’s history. In his debut loss to Dustin Poirier, Holloway’s lack of takedown and submission defense was exploited. He has since developed a stalwart takedown defense -- on his current 9-fight tear, opponents have only completed four of their 51 takedown attempts -- and transformed his grappling from a potential liability into an offensive weapon; 40 percent of his submission attempts have elicited the fight-ending tap.

Against Dennis Bermudez, let’s be honest, Holloway was robbed. At the same time, though, Bermudez was able to muddy what should have been an easy unanimous decision by decisively winning the third round. Compare that to now: Only three of Holloway’s last nine wins have gone the distance, and in each of those three decision victories -- against Cole Miller, Jeremy Stephens and Ricardo Lamas -- Holloway handily won seven of the nine rounds on the judges’ scorecards. Lesson learned.

Of course, there is also his loss/moral victory against Conor McGregor, where Holloway was and remains the only UFC featherweight to make it to the final bell against the current 145-pound champion. If there was ever any question about Holloway’s grit, chin or composure, they were answered that night. He may not have been able to launch much in the way of meaningful offense, but he took big shots and stayed competitive in the fight until the final bell.

The second line of the verse about guarding your space is on-point in terms of Holloway’s sound defensive technique. His understanding of range and angles makes him a difficult and unpredictable target to hit. Part of his success on the feet comes from the fact that he has potent kicks in his arsenal, a weapon most high-level MMA fighters from Hawaii have not had. Specifically, his spinning back kick has been lethally accurate, tying back into the third line of the stanza.

If you are familiar with the Hawaiian language even a little bit, you have probably heard the word “mana,” which means strength or power, often in a spiritual way. The interesting part about the last line is that it is pluralized by the modifier “mākou.” This also applies to Holloway because, as I’ve written about before, he is the first fighter from Hawaii who has achieved the type of success he has without leaving for the mainland. While the state proudly supports all of its athletic talent regardless of where it settles down to train, there is something special about the fact that Holloway has been able to become who he is in the cage while still running around the same neighborhood streets on which he grew up. In this way, his “mana” is representative of -- if not directly stemming from -- the massive support he has behind him in Hawaii. In the eyes of many, his power is our power.

Chorus

Oh, Hawaiian kickboxer
Mai nana lalo, nana imua (don’t look down, look forward)
Oh, Hawaiian kickboxer
Mai nana hope, imua! ho! (don’t look back, forward! ho!)


It’s a chorus, so there’s not much to unpack here, but the lyrics are still applicable to Holloway’s style. He is a high-volume pressure striker, constantly pressing the action and moving forward. He tends to circle out rather than backpedal, always staying in range to flick his long-limbed jab in the opponent’s face at a moment’s notice. He has always looked forward for bigger and better fights, calling out McGregor, Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar -- the only featherweights currently ranked ahead of him -- and pushing for an inaugural UFC card in Hawaii every step of the way.

Verse 2

The strong and the brave gather in a circle
Making ready for the session
They train their bodies and their minds to think as one
That’s how you make Hawaiian kickboxer


We’re back to English for the final verse, and most of its relevance to Holloway lies in that third line, though the first line certainly brings to mind the epic final 10 seconds of his last fight with Ricardo Lamas.

In his early UFC fights, Holloway was at times dynamic to the point of recklessness. He has since tempered those tendencies to become a more rigorously process-oriented fighter, throwing his patented spinning kicks and flying knees more judiciously and opportunistically -- and to greater effect. It has been an absolute treat to watch such a technically and athletically gifted fighter mature in such a way, where he has not outright abandoned the dynamism of his earlier fights so much as simply learned to utilize it more selectively. He has no doubt shored up his technical deficiencies, but the greatest evolution in his game has been his fighting IQ. When Holloway is at his best, he responds instantaneously to what he and his corner know he should do; his body is the Tekken character on the screen, and his brain is the controller.

Holloway uses his long reach brilliantly, keeping opponents at the snapping end of his jabs and maintaining that distance at different angles to avoid heavy counter shots. When he closes the gap, he regularly tags his opponents with accurate crosses, even as they are backing up. His distance management is made more effective by his ability to seamlessly switch stances. This allows him to step forward and continue throwing strikes without needing to reset into the same stance, giving him clean openings while also disrupting the opponent’s rhythm. Holloway gets the most out of his technique and physical tools through intelligent application, and he does so with more consistency than anyone else in the division. His style is a beautiful blend of well-conceived preparation, physical talent and technical application; it is the body and mind working together to accomplish the single goal of winning a fight.

***


Just as there are layers to Holloway’s game, there are layers to who he is as a person and what he represents to fans, especially in Hawaii. Many of these nuances can be understood through his signature walkout song. He is the living embodiment of a Hawaiian kickboxer. At 24 years of age, it is scary to see how good he is now and even scarier to think of how good he could become. He represents both the past and the future at once; he is a throwback to the Hawaiian warrior spirit of old, and he is the future of the 145-pound division.

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