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I’m probably not alone in saying that the UFC 212 main event between Jose Aldo and Max Holloway was incredible and horrible at the same time. The fight itself was incredible -- there was a narrative arch to it and plenty of big-strike action, as well -- but there is an unmistakable anxiety that comes with watching two great fighters go at it.
It’s impossible to remove myself emotionally from such fights. I also tend to think it’s boring to do so, since the real weight of watching sports is in the human connection that permeates the immediate entertainment. Regardless, this was a tough test, for both men in the Octagon and for me to watch.
I’m a teacher. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorite students, but we do: Some kids are simply more enjoyable than others, in the same way that some coworkers have better personalities than others. It shouldn’t affect how students are treated or evaluated, but having classroom favorites is an unavoidable reality. The same logic applies to being a part of MMA media. Objectivity is important, especially when it comes to reporting and analysis, but when the fights are on, you’d have to be pretty cynical to not feel any sort of way about any of the action.
I’ve watched every Aldo fight live starting with his demolition of Rolando Perez. He is the main reason I knew what the Versus TV channel was. Even as he transformed from flying-knee dynamo into unanimous decision dictator, his reign atop the featherweight division was unprecedented, his technical wizardry unmatched. He’s authored must-see material for over a decade. Then, there’s Holloway, whose humility, scrappiness, busy fight schedule and exciting style has steadily endeared him to new fans since 2012. Both of them are hard not to love if you’re a fan of fighting.
That’s why the fight was horrible for me to watch. The stakes of a fight are so great that, unlike the sanitized safety of watching favorite basketball teams play each other, watching favorite fighters beat up each other is a much more intense emotional experience. The nervousness of one favorite eating a big shot exists at the same time as the excitement of another favorite landing said big shot. It’s hard to process.
The flow of the Aldo-Holloway fight only exacerbated this. Aldo clearly took the first two rounds, scoring with flurries that in the past have required medical staff to enter the cage. Aldo the Great was in vintage form, too quick and too crafty for everyone, even the surging contender. The end of the second round saw that edge start to erode as Holloway’s hands started to drop. We all know what happened in the third.
Aldo’s reign was incredible, but Undisputed Champion Holloway is a much-needed breath of fresh air. His slow-boil strategy in the Aldo fight was not just a smart tactical move; it was a synecdoche for Holloway’s career ascension. Among the current crop of champions, there are few who got their UFC career off to a more unimpressive start. Holloway debuted in the UFC after just over a year of fighting professionally. He was a late-replacement for injured Ricardo Lamas and faced an 11-1 Dustin Poirier on a four-fight World Extreme Cagefighting/Ultimate Fighting Championship winning streak. Even if he had won that fight, Holloway would have needed a fake ID to buy a celebratory drink. He went 3-3 in his first two years with the promotion, losing to the best and most well-known opponents and beating guys who would soon scrub out into the minor leagues. He was not an uber-prospect like Cain Velasquez or Jon Jones, who were expected to win titles before their first Octagon round ended. At best, Holloway was panning out to be a pretty great action fighter.
Maybe that’s why his development came so sneakily, or maybe it just happened that way because all eyes were on Hurricane Conor McGregor. Regardless, Holloway’s 11-fight winning streak is proof that incremental growth over a period of time is a viable -- and necessary -- promotional mechanism. There will be some fighters like McGregor who can be thrown into the spotlight after a few fights and know how to make the most of it, and maybe Holloway was ready for the top before his crack at it materialized. We’ll never know. Either way, Holloway did well to detour through the division one step at a time. At a time when star-building seems to come down to getting put in front of as many screens as possible, Holloway’s success is a good lesson for the new owners. Of course exposure is critical to getting that crossover star, but the slow-boil method will also get a lot more mileage out of people who are simply good at fighting. The latter is in far greater abundance than the former.
Holloway’s crockpot cooking of Aldo made for anxious excitement, but it was also a fine way for the torch to be passed to the next generation. Kings conquer kings, and now that there’s a young monarch in the division ready to hold the throne, the debris that McGregor left behind seems to be tidied up for the most part. I’ve spent countless hours of my life watching the careers of Aldo and Holloway. To see their stories collide was a hell of a ride, exhausting and awful in all the best ways.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.