Opinion: A Fighter Forged from Conflict

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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You’ve probably never been to Waianae, Hawaii. Though it is only 30 miles west of Waikiki, they are worlds apart. With a population of around 13,000, there are more tourists on the island on any given day than people who actually live in Waianae. A little more than 8,000 of its residents are of Native Hawaiian ancestry -- which is not the same as simply being from Hawaii -- making Waianae one of the most Hawaiian places on the island. The ethnic composition of the area is a small but important part of its reputation.

At the heart of the ahupuaʻa, or land division, since Waianae can hardly be called a city, is the high school. Waianae High School has held the dubious distinction of having the highest dropout rate in the state for over a decade. Around 30 percent of the students drop out, and nearly all of them are male; graduating classes are around 85 percent female. Of the students who stay enrolled, 70 percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunch assistance. Nearly 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, a reality exacerbated by rampant drug abuse, particularly crystal meth. Waianae is home to the oldest and largest encampments of homeless people in the state.

There are a lot of tough, rugged places in Hawaii, but none like Waianae. To represent the hot, dry side of Oahu is a well-understood shorthand in the islands for “don’t [expletive] with me.” To know Waianae is to understand newly crowned interim Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight titleholder Max Holloway.

If you search “Waianae” on YouTube, most of the first-page results will be some kind of fight. This includes several of the riots that took place at Waianae High School, many of which happened while Holloway was an upperclassman. Police presence and lockdowns are not uncommon or unheard of. When asked about having a hypothetical rematch with Conor McGregor in Hawaii, there’s a reason why Holloway said: “[The UFC] better get a load of security guards.”

I remember watching a football game between my hometown’s high school team and Nanakuli, a school close to Waianae but within the same ahupuaʻa, where a fight broke out at the scrimmage line and resulted in benches and bleachers clearing for an all-out brawl on the field. Amidst the screams of “chee-hoo” and general noise of people punching and getting punched, an anonymous battle cry punctured through: “Waianae What’s Up!” It’s the Hawaii equivalent of Tupac’s famous “Riverside mother [expletive]!”

You’ve probably never been to Waianae, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a place of both great pride and great problems, where the natural beauty is at odds with human pain. It’s exactly the type of place that breeds the kind of fighter and person that Holloway is.

Holloway is as tough as the town he comes from. Before “Blessed” tore through 10 straight opponents and became the first man to finish Pettis, perhaps his biggest claim to fame was being the only man to last 15 minutes in the cage with McGregor. That was when Holloway was 21 years old and just three years into his professional career. The same left hands that wilted Philadelphia’s finest and Brazil’s best, the same timing, power and speed that dropped Stockton, California’s grittiest, barely fazed the kid from Waianae. That says a lot about the type of mental fortitude and physical durability Holloway possesses.

There’s more. The most refreshing part about Holloway’s win was his post-fight responses to potential showdowns with McGregor and Jose Aldo. While most fighters are understandably happy to wait for money fights and title shots, Holloway isn’t about that: “I don’t believe in guys waiting for title shots … I believe I’m the best damn guy in the world. If I gotta defend [the interim belt] 10 times before I get the real thing, that’s what I’m gonna do.” Holloway understands what this game is: getting in the cage and fighting people. Belts and titles are great but ultimately ornamental. His goal is to be the best, and to be the best you have to prove it in every fight. He continues to carry the always-ready-to-throw-down mentality that growing up in Waianae more or less requires. If you need an in-fight example of what this mentality looks like, fast forward to the last 10 seconds of Holloway’s win over Ricardo Lamas.

Yet, the most inspirational aspect to Holloway’s MMA ascension is the fact that he still lives and trains locally. Every other Hawaii-born fighter has moved to the mainland at some point, believing the conventional wisdom that whatever Hawaii has to offer does not compare to the opportunities in the continental United States. That idea is basically true, in MMA and everything else; Hawaii is too small to host upper-crust talent, let alone develop it. Holloway doesn’t buy into that, and his current run proves that where a fighter comes from has as much, if not more, to do with success than where a fighter trains. What’s inside the man is more important than what surrounds him. Being an everyday local is a large part of his appeal; everyone from Hawaii knows someone like Holloway, even though there’s no one quite like him.

All of these things are vital and powerful ideas to understand, but there’s a more immediate reason why I tend to loosen the grips of whatever journalistic integrity I have when it comes to Holloway. His influence in the islands is not a matter statistical contrast between the state of his hometown and his success as a professional fighter. His influence is not theoretical or abstract. It’s real and palpable.

Before I moved to Korea, I was a public school teacher in the central district of Oahu, in between my hometown and Holloway’s. I taught the “troubled” kids -- kids from broken and impoverished homes, where lessons frequently digressed into sales pitches on the benefits of not going to jail. My students got in fights, stole cars, did drugs and drank on campus and ran away from their homes.

One of those kids was Jonah, a rough-and-tumble dude who, as an eighth grader, dwarfed me and most of his other teachers. He was a beast of an athlete and quick to get physical with anyone and everyone. He was recruited to play for one of the top high school football teams in the state, and I encouraged him to do so as a positive outlet and potential path to a higher education. However, he wasn’t interested. Instead, he wanted to be a professional fighter. He wanted to be “the next Max Holloway.” His mom was hesitant, but when she gave in to his wishes to train at a nearby MMA gym instead of play football, there was a night-and-day difference in his demeanor. He was less agitated, less aggressive and more willing to do his work and study. This speaks to the potential benefits of martial arts in general, but in a place where wild scrapping is more common and preferable to disciplined practice, it speaks to the positive gravity that Holloway has among young people across Hawaii. He’s genuine and real and motivated by the realities of island life he knows better than anyone.

Hawaii is a place birthed from conflict. Underwater volcanoes cracked the seafloor spewing magmatic heat that fought against the cold, immovable ocean for millions of years until it pierced open air. Plants and animals fought against the barren landscape to take root and form a pullulating oasis. Seafaring Polynesians fought against the wild and unpredictable expanse of the Pacific to build civilization, united through conflict with each other and later threatened to the edge of extinction by conflict with colonial cultures. Growing up in Waianae, a place riddled with social ills and commonplace physical conflicts, Holloway has harnessed all of it -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- to become a UFC champion. More importantly, he has emerged from it all as a force of positivity and inspiration for people who need it most.

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.
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