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As more money has entered the sport of MMA, fighters have become more selective in the fights they take. They’re less likely to take fights on short notice. They’re more likely to hold out for fights that have the greatest likelihood of advancing their careers. It’s harder to make the best fights possible than it once was. Athletes gaining more power is only natural as any sport becomes more popular. Still, there’s a tendency for some fans to long for the days of the fighter who would take on anyone at any time for the love of the competition. It’s a bit of a fantasy, but it’s an appealing one.
The attractive ideal of the courageous take-on-anyone competitor was burnished this week by the shocking announcement that Max Holloway would be stepping in on less than a week’s notice to take on Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC 223 main event (now available on Amazon Prime). It’s one of the gutsiest fight acceptances in MMA history, an outrageous gambit that could end in disaster but reflects very well on Holloway’s approach to MMA competition.
Holloway has built up his reputation on the strength of a four-year undefeated streak, which is now on the line against an undefeated fighter from a higher weight class. That opponent has peaked for Saturday in what will be the biggest fight of his career. Meanwhile, Holloway hasn’t been able to train due to a serious ankle injury. The deck is stacked against Holloway despite the fact that he’s the champion of his own weight class, a position that usually allows a fighter to dictate terms.
There’s also the matter of the specific opponent in question. Khabib Nurmagomedov hasn’t been just effective in recent fights; he has been scary. He takes down opponents and then violently disfigures them with his fists. If losing to an elite striker is death by sniper and losing to a jiu-jitsu ace is death by poison pill, losing to Nurmagomedov is death via being mauled by a lion. It’s an altogether unattractive proposition, even if fully prepared.
Holloway’s decision to take this fight calls back to some of the gutsier calls in MMA history. Perhaps the closest comparison is Wanderlei Silva’s decision to fight Mark Hunt on short notice at Pride Shockwave 2004. Like Holloway, Silva risked a four-year undefeated streak against a larger opponent. Silva was scheduled to compete already on the card, unlike Holloway. However, Silva was giving up much more weight in what looked like a bad style matchup. Silva lost the decision to Hunt that night. He was 27-3-1 before that bout and 8-10 from then on.
For pure guts, it’s hard to top what Kazushi Sakuraba did at the 2000 Pride Grand Prix Finals. After a legendary 90-minute war of attrition against Royce Gracie, it wouldn’t have hurt Sakuraba one bit if he forfeited his next scheduled fight on the same evening against Igor Vovchanchyn. A devastating heavyweight kickboxer with a 41-2 record, Vovchanchyn was one of the most feared fighters in the sport. Vovchanchyn’s opening fight had gone a little over 10 minutes compared to the smaller Sakuraba’s 90. In spite of this, Sakuraba went out there and was actually winning before he hit a wall. Sakuraba was the biggest superstar in the company, but instead of getting preferential treatment, he seemed to get put in worse positions than anyone else. That attitude took a heavy toll on one of the sport’s greatest icons.
He isn’t a popular figure among many MMA fans, but few have shown more guts stepping into the Octagon than Phil Brooks, aka “CM Punk.” The former pro wrestler stepped away from a field at which he was extremely successful to try his hand at something he wasn’t naturally suited for in his mid-30s. He elected to do so not on smaller shows but on the biggest stage with the biggest spotlight. It wasn’t just that he was likely to get beaten up; he was risking public humiliation in the process. One can question the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s decision to give him a shot and label him foolish, but there’s no questioning his courage. Needless to say, his 134 seconds in the cage didn’t go well.
Perhaps the biggest inspiration for Holloway’s approach towards fighting is fellow Hawaiian B.J. Penn. The daring Penn epitomized the just-scrap mentality more than anyone and constantly challenged himself against larger fighters. It’s a big part of what made Penn such a beloved figure. Unfortunately, for every fight like his upset win over Matt Hughes at UFC 46, there was a loss like his beatdown against Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94. The fluctuations in weight likely didn’t help Penn’s longevity, either.
While we remember fighters taking big risks against the odds, the history of those gambles is that they often don’t turn out all that well. Of course, the suspicion that will be the ending is part of what makes the effort emotionally resonate. We are drawn to the story of the battle against the odds, from The Alamo and the Battle of Thermopylae to “Glory” and “Rogue One.” If taking a fight with a supremely motivated Nurmagomedov with little to no prep time sounds like a terribly risky idea, it probably is. That’s what makes Holloway’s gamble so compelling.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.
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