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At 26, Max Holloway is the UFC’s Interim Featherweight Champion and is set to film the movie “Den of Thieves” with Gerard Butler and 50 Cent. But even as his star rises, Holloway remains humble and true to his Wai‘anae roots, encouraging the keiki in his community to reach for their dreams. - Photos: Nick Smith

West Side Warrior Max Holloway

Wai‘anae’s First UFC Champion Max “Blessed” Holloway is Living Proof That Fortune Favors the Bold

March 2017 Ka Wai Ola Cover Story By Lindsey Kesel

Anyone who’s ever seen a Max Holloway fight knows where he comes from. On his way to the Octagon (the 6-foot high UFC battleground cage), Max does his walkout with the Hawaiian flag draped around his shoulders, Drake’s “Legend” and “Hawaiian Kickboxer” by Moke Boy playing over the loudspeakers. Not a moment after the fight is over, he’s back to hugging the flag and giving shout-outs to the 808 State. It’s not hard to see that behind the tough and talented exterior, this UFC champion is just a humble Hawaiian at heart, with a huge soft spot for his hometown.

Born on Dec. 4, 1991, in Wai‘anae on O‘ahu’s West Side, you might say that Max Holloway started out with a built-in ceiling, or that the odds were against him. Many of his peers went the route of drugs, picking fights for “respect” and getting involved in criminal activities. But Max did well in school and wasn’t the troublemaker type. He was raised by his grandparents, who took him in and offered stability. Over the years, his drive to transcend the stereotype of a kolohe West Side kid grew from a whisper to a scream, fostered by the values they instilled in him – hard work, honesty, respect for others, even those who don’t show you respect. His grandfather, Jerome Kapoi, told Max to always remember, “The world doesn’t owe you any favors – everything has to be earned.”

Long before the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gained the huge fan base it has today, Max found inspiration in the accomplishments of his personal hero, Jens Pulver, who rose from poverty and adversity to become the UFC’s first Lightweight Champion in 2001. Occasional training sessions morphed into long days and nights in makeshift garage gyms. When he graduated from Wai‘anae High School in 2009, Max’s focus was clear – fight, win, turn pro, join the UFC. His first amateur bout was a kickboxing fight for local promoter Punishment in Paradise. Then came three professional fights under X-1 World Events, the local MMA proving grounds, which helped him get noticed when he dominated well-known fighters in the cage. In 2011, he got a taste of the pro-fighter life when UFC veteran Jeremy Stephens invited Max to live and train with him for six weeks as he prepared for a match-up against Anthony Pettis. Connections from this alliance would go far to get him noticed by UFC brass. Says Max, “I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Max joined the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) in 2012, at the tender age of 20, only four fights into his professional career. In a twist of fate, Max got his UFC contract the very same day his son Rush was born. “It was the best day of my life,” he says. “God blessed me with an angel, then I got called up to fight on the biggest stage in the world. It was surreal.” It took him just four years to secure a top five spot in the UFC’s Featherweight division.

This past December, Max “Blessed” Holloway had his pinnacle moment with the world watching: He defeated Anthony Pettis in a third-round TKO (Technical Knock Out) to become the Interim Featherweight Champion, completing a 10-fight winning streak and walking away with the Performance of the Night bonus. Holloway is only the second fighter from Hawai‘i to hold a UFC championship belt, since BJ Penn won two for the Welterweight and Lightweight divisions.

While Max may indeed be blessed, luck alone is not what brought this local athlete to the top of his game. His meteoric rise in the UFC is a direct result of his chameleon-like ability to morph his fighting style to fit each opponent. It’s athletic ability plus a highly calculated approach – or as he calls it, “out-thinking these guys.” He owes a lot of his tactical prowess to his local coaching team – Rylan Lizares for jiu-jitsu, Ivan Flores for Muay Thai boxing and Darin Yap for strength and conditioning. “We find different ways to dismantle them, then we just keep going,” he says.

Getting ready for a fight typically involves six to eight weeks of training camp, and usually some weight cutting, but he wouldn’t trade even the toughest days for that feeling of stepping into the Octagon. “It’s that Hawaiian warrior spirit… We work hard in silence, and when it’s time to fight, we show what we’re made of,” he says. “On fight day, I get to show my family, my son, the world that I’m fighting my heart out. It’s finally time to go out there and have fun.”

With each fight, Max seems to grow more comfortable and more confident. Many say his mental game is years ahead of his age or experience, and his aggressive striking, boundless energy and “flair for the spectacular,” as one columnist put it, make him entertaining to watch. Plus, he’s a switch hitter – fighting with both orthodox and southpaw stances – a sign of a well-developed striking game and a rare thing in professional MMA. And already the Max Holloway spinning back-kick is a legend in its own right.

Though success and a shiny gold belt have brought a lot of media attention his way – including a proclamation from Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell designating Dec. 15 as “Max Holloway Day” – Max says staying grounded is as simple as surrounding himself with good people and remembering where he’s from. “I’m just a Wai‘anae kid, you and me, we ain’t that different,” he says.

Next steps include setting a date for the José Aldo match-up, where he hopes to win the undisputed title belt. But first, Hollywood wants a piece of Holloway: In March, he’s filming the action-thriller heist movie “Den of Thieves” with Gerard Butler and 50 Cent.

Future goals include convincing UFC President Dana White to host an event in Hawai‘i, and collaborating with other local boy fighters to refine his craft – UFC colleagues Yancy Medeiros, Louis Smolka and Russell Doane, and up-and-comer pros Shane Leialoha, Maki Pitolo, Edward Thommes and Martin Day. “It’s a great time to be a fan of Hawai‘i fighters,” he says. “We’re about to break through.”

Growing up in Hawai‘i has definitely given him an edge, Max says, and he’s always looking for ways to give back to the community that challenged him to make something of himself. He loves sharing his journey with keiki in the local schools to spread the message that they are bound by nothing. “I want to show the kids that if I could do it, anybody could do it. I tell them, ‘The only person that has to believe in you is you.’ When they tell me I’m their hero, I joke around and say, ‘The world’s already got a Max Holloway, go be yourself and break my records. Or if you wanna be a trash man, go and be the world’s best trash man. If you got dreams, reach for the stars and keep going ‘til wheels fall off.’”

Follow Max’s journey on Twitter (@Blessed MMA) and Instagram (@BlessedMMA), and Max “Blessed” Holloway on Facebook.

Read more inspirational stories about Native Hawaiians in the Feb. 2017 Ka Wai Ola.

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Max Holloway received his first UFC contract the same day his son Rush was born. “It was the best day of my life,” he says. – Photo: Jordan Aipolani Rita

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