UFC 231 is now available on Amazon Prime.
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As Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight titleholder Max Holloway returns to action at UFC 231 on Saturday in Toronto, the questions are still swirling about his current status in the sport. It has been over a year since he has competed, and it has been a chaotic one. There was the attempt to take a fight on short notice with Khabib Nurmagomedov, which ended with New York deciding it wouldn’t allow Holloway to compete after a rough weight cut. Things only got stranger a few months later in July, when Holloway was yanked from a fight the week of the event for a second time.
The circumstances surrounding Holloway’s withdrawal in July led to massive speculation. A strange slurring interview Holloway did with Michael Bisping raised red flags, and since then, there hasn’t been consistency in the explanation of what exactly happened. Concussions were mentioned at the time, and since then, Holloway has seemed to cryptically suggest he might have been poisoned. It’s unclear whether Holloway himself is certain of what was going on. Holloway opened up this week about dealing with depression, and that could only be a piece of the puzzle. Hopefully the issues are now behind Holloway, but that seems far from certain.
Holloway remains in his athletic prime, but it’s exceedingly difficult to stay on top for long in MMA. When you’re not at your absolute best, it’s even harder. Elite fighters tend to fall off quickly more often than athletes in other sports. The gregarious and likeable Holloway has a lot of people rooting for him, but that’s of limited value when competing against hungry, undefeated opponents who have spent their lives preparing for the opportunity to take what he possesses.
Holloway, with a 12-fight winning streak, will retain his status as the top featherweight until somebody beats him. However, it’s not altogether clear where he stands at the moment. It’s similar to Fedor Emelianenko after his Pride Fighting Championships career. Emelianenko was still the king of the heavyweight division based on his resume and long winning streak, but questions about his level of competition and the flashes of vulnerability he showed in some of his fights led some to doubt whether he was still the same fighter. Indeed, when Emelianenko finally lost, additional losses quickly followed and he never again approached his previous status.
Another sad example of how reality can catch up quickly with championship-level fighters occurred on Saturday in boxing. Adonis Stevenson was the lineal light heavyweight champion for five years after knocking out Chad Dawson in 2013. However, there were questions about where he stood competitively in the division at age 41. Stevenson retained his championship status but wasn’t fighting the best opponents. Reality sadly arrived when unbeaten Olympic medalist Oleksandr Gvozdyk put Stevenson in a coma following a brutal knockout. Stevenson’s previous accolades masked where he stood at the current moment.
The odds for Holloway-Ortega speak to the questions surrounding the champion. Ortega is basically an even-odds bet, closer than he was just a few months ago in July. That would have seemed unlikely when Holloway blew out Jose Aldo a year ago. There just isn’t the same confidence about what to expect from Holloway. This in some ways works to Holloway’s benefit. It’s an opportunity to make an emphatic statement that would stand out more than if there weren’t all the tumult. Holloway over the course of his career has been defined by incremental improvement. There wasn’t one dramatic moment where he showed how great he had gotten, but rather, he slowly improved in a way that snuck up on fans.
Given this slow improvement, Holloway doesn’t really have a crowning win that stands out above the others, like Daniel Cormier stopping Stipe Miocic or Conor McGregor ending the aforementioned Aldo’s run. Holloway won the interim featherweight title by beating Anthony Pettis, who had lost three of his previous four fights. He then won the undisputed title by beating Aldo -- but only after McGregor vacated the championship he won by knocking out the Brazilian in 13 seconds.
Against Ortega, there is the opportunity for Holloway to dramatically demonstrate how good he remains. This is an undefeated challenger. He has finishes in all of his UFC wins. He is the only man to finish the great Frankie Edgar, who has fought as difficult a list of career opponents as anyone in the history of the sport. Ortega is a serious problem, and the doubt surrounding Holloway would make the win even sweeter. Taking into account where Ortega stands in his career, it would probably be the best win of Holloway’s run to date.
After a long wait, we’re finally going to start getting some answers about Holloway at UFC 231. A win would go a long way to demonstrating Holloway has everything under control. It’s difficult to beat an opponent of Ortega’s caliber if not fully prepared. A loss would be more ambiguous. A loss wouldn’t necessarily tell us that much negatively about Holloway, given that Ortega has been beating everyone. However, the nature of the performance could also serve as a sign that Holloway’s still facing some challenges. Either way, it’s going to be a crucial night for Holloway in Canada.
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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