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Max Holloway puts his legacy on the line at 'the Super Bowl of the UFC'

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway defends his title on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at UFC 226. (AP)

LAS VEGAS – Max Holloway is just 26 years old, and he’s already faced three certain UFC Hall of Famers, won a world title and made two successful defenses, and has become one of the elite fighters in the sport.

And yet, there is much more work to be done for the featherweight champ.

Holloway is yet a household name. His face isn’t on billboards hawking products in Peoria, and there are plenty of streets where he could stroll down unrecognized.

It’s a sign that great fighting skill alone doesn’t make a pay-per-view star.

Holloway, who defends his belt on a loaded UFC 226 card against No. 1 contender Brian Ortega on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, is nowhere in the league – as a fighter – of pay-per-view icons Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor.

The one remaining piece to the puzzle for Holloway is time. He hasn’t fought three times in a calendar year since 2015, when he fought four times, and Saturday’s bout will be his first of 2018.

If the UFC can get Holloway to the post more often, it’s inevitable that he’ll become one of the faces of the company. He’s too good, and too entertaining, for it to be any other way.

But he gets it. He was supposed to fight Ortega in March, but had to pull out because of an injury. Then he agreed to step in in April to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title, but the New York State Athletic Commission wouldn’t allow him to cut any more weight and he was off the card.

So his bout against the unbeaten Ortega will be his debut in 2018. To see him fight is to love him, and he knows it.

“It just was depressing, man,” Holloway said of his inability to fight in March and April. “That was, look, I was used to fighting two to four times a year. Last year, I had two. The year before that I think I had two. This year is my first one and I’m supposed to have two. The depressing stuff was it got taken away from me.

“Doctors are doing their job. I’m not hating on the [doctors] because they’re just doing their job. So, it was out of my hands. It was a bit depressing but, you know, like I said, I’m focused and I can’t wait. I can’t wait for [Saturday]. It’s finally here. We’re a [few days] away and I can’t wait to go out there and remind the world.”

This is a guy who has two wins over Jose Aldo, another over Frankie Edgar and a decision loss five years ago to one Conor Anthony McGregor.

Holloway has beaten Jose Aldo twice. (AP)

He’s been in with the best of the best, and he’s not one to build up a bout artificially. But he appreciates how good Ortega is and knows it’s going to take everything he has to come out on top. Holloway calls the bout the best in the history of the division, and if it’s off, it’s not by much.

This is the kind of fight that makes a name for a fighter. Ortega and Holloway could forever be linked in fighting history, like Ali and Frazier, Leonard and Hearns, Tyson and Holyfield.

They’re almost certain to meet again, but the winner of the first will have a huge leg up. He’s already ranked sixth on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list, and should move up with an impressive win over a talent like Ortega.

Fighters are judged by their performances in the biggest moments, when the spotlight is brightest, and it doesn’t get much bigger than what the UFC has put together for Saturday’s show.

“It’s a legacy thing and when it’s all said and done, I want to leave a legacy in whatever way,” Holloway said. “If not, if it’s helping the division, if it’s fighting big names, I just want to be remembered as one of the greatest all-time to ever do this in the sport. That’s just what I want to do. I sacrifice a lot of time away from my family, away from my son and I just want to make them proud, make my family proud and my fans crowd and, you know, leave a legacy.”

He’s a man of his word, clearly. In addition to two bouts with Aldo and one each with McGregor and Edgar, he’s also fought Dustin Poirier (currently ranked No. 4 at lightweight); Cub Swanson (No. 5 at featherweight), Charles Oliveira, Jeremy Stephens (No. 4 at featherweight), Ricardo Lamas (No. 11 at featherweight) and ex-lightweight champion Anthony Pettis (No. 12 at lightweight).

There are few who have regularly faced such opposition, and from such a young age. If Holloway continues on the path he’s on, he’s going to leave a difficult-to-reach legacy.

And it all comes from being willing to fight anyone, anywhere and at any time. When it comes on a massive show like UFC 226 with millions of eyeballs watching, all the better.

“You want to be a part of the big card,” Holloway said. “You want to be part of history. We got a match in the main event going for history. One of them trying to be the longest reigning defending heavyweight champion and one of them trying to hold two belts at the same time. And then, you have a big super fight. I’m not talking about the main event. I’m talking about the co-main event, too. It means a lot to me to be able to have this spot on this card. This is like the Super Bowl of the UFC, a blockbuster, a big blockbuster hit that comes out in the summer, this is it.”

And if that’s true, it’s only appropriate that Max Holloway is a part of it. He’s proven that even at the tender age of 26, he’s more than deserving.

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