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The first time a Hawaiian fighter fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, was at UFC 112 in 2010. Maui native and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3 winner Kendall Grove kicked off the main card with a second-round technical knockout loss to Mark Munoz. Three fights later, Frankie Edgar claimed the lightweight title in a controversial unanimous decision win over B.J. Penn, the defending champ from Hawaii. The Aloha State went 0-2 for the night.
Over a decade later, it felt as if history repeated itself in the worst way. At UFC 251 on Fight Island in July, Martin Day extended the Abu Dhabi losing streak to Oahu when he got knocked out by Davey Grant in the third round of the first fight on the card. In the same card’s co-main event, Max Holloway was on the wrong end of a split decision against Alexander Volkonovski. The eerie similarities between Hawaii’s two greatest fighters losing belts they should have won a decade apart did not have much time to gestate, as Calvin Kattar beat Dan Ige four days later. Prior to UFC on ABC 1, Hawaiian fighters were 0-5 all-time in Abu Dhabi. A rational fan would look at those five fights and point to the fact that Penn was the only Hawaiian fighter who was a favorite in his bout, but a true fan would understand that a curse was afoot. Everyone becomes a little superstitious when a pattern holds long enough.
By the time Punahele Soriano stepped into the Octagon at UFC on ABC 1, discussion of whether or not there was ever a curse was moot. If there was one, he definitively severed it with a first-round TKO over Dusko Todorovic. This was not a guaranteed win by any stretch of the imagination. Both men were undefeated coming into the fight, and the Serbian was the slight favorite. In the opening minutes of the fight, Todorovic seemed like the more seasoned fighter, dipping in and out of range and landing shots while Soriano winged looping power punches into the air. Commentator Dan Hardy picked up on Todorovic’s composure: “People are starting to now realize about mixed martial arts [that] it’s not about two guys throwing kicks and punches at each other. There are games within games. There’s trickery and traps being played, psychological warfare.” Shortly after that otherwise true assessment of the game, Soriano offered a brick-fisted rebuttal, wading forward with minimal technique and maximal aggression until a straight left sent his opponent to the canvas. Todorovic recovered but was a visibly changed man, and Soriano continued to walk him down before putting him away at the end of the round.
What Holloway did was on another level. Not only did he double-down on Soriano’s curse-breaking performance, but he suffocated the very idea of the curse with a record-shattering performance. If there was a single-fight striking record he didn’t already own, he took it, and if he already held the record, he extended it. He broke the records for most significant strikes landed and attempted in a fight and in a round, surpassing the previous records by over 100 strikes. He made Kattar the third fighter to receive a 42-point scorecard in UFC history—Gil Castillo and David Loiseau were the other two—and now has surpassed Georges St. Pierre for the most total strikes landed in UFC history. He made a legitimate Top 10 featherweight look like a random, regional-level late-replacement. Out of respect for Kattar’s toughness and perhaps pity for his role as the sacrificial lamb, they were both awarded “Fight of the Night,” though it could hardly be considered a fight in a competitive sense.
It was undoubtedly the finest performance of 29-year-old Holloway’s career. He put on a striking clinic against a formidable standup specialist and authored a signature moment in doing so when he evaded a Kattar combination without looking, all while simultaneously telling the cageside commentators that he was the best boxer in the UFC. It was a career-defining moment, one that will play on his highlight reels for as long as people continue to watch the sport.
There’s debate to be had about who is the best featherweight ever, and it’s hard to argue that no one has been as great for as long as Jose Aldo. Yet I can’t imagine any version of any featherweight fighter who could have stepped into the cage against that Holloway at UFC on ABC 1 and emerged victorious.
Holloway may have also been the first person to firmly justify a third fight against someone who holds two wins over him: current champ Alexander Volkonovski. Usually, being 0-2 against the champ puts you in No Man’s Land, and all you can do is hope for someone else to become champion to clear the path to a title fight. However, with this dominant of a victory against this good of an opponent—and the fact that he has a convincing argument for winning the second fight against Volkonovski anyway—Holloway is in a prime position to contend for the title again, whether Volkonovski has it or not; or he could just go to lightweight, where former featherweight foes Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Charles Oliveira are currently excelling. There is no shortage of big fights for “Blessed,” and no questions about whether or not he’s capable of rising to them.
For Hawaii fighters, they can breathe a little easier now if they get booked to fight in Abu Dhabi. For Hawaii MMA fans, 2-5 feels pretty damn good right now.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.
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