“I believe in my heart and soul that I was born on this earth to fight”
Honolulu-native, MMA Featherweight Max Holloway—born Jerome Max Keli’i Holloway—or Blessed, as he’s known in the fight world, amassed an undefeated record by the age of 19, and at 20 years-old was the youngest fighter on the UFC roster when he made his debut against Dustin Poirier in 2012. The former featherweight champ holds many records and continues to maintain his illustrious career—out of the 28 matches he’s competed in, he’s won 22. In UFC featherweight history, Holloway has: the most wins, finishes, KO/TKO wins, the longest win streak, the longest total fight time, the most significant strikes landed, and the most total strikes landed.
Facing Yair Rodríguez this Saturday, November 13th, Holloway is fighting to keep his #1 ranking—just under champion Alexander Volkanovski—and is favored to win. His opponent Rodríguez is currently #3 in the featherweight rankings with a 13-2 record. Both weighing in at 145 pounds and standing at 5’ 11”, Rodríguez has a slightly longer reach—71 inches as opposed to Holloway’s 69, but Holloway has him beat in leg reach by half an inch. Despite their similar build, Holloway’s celebrated career and impressive record makes him the favorite heading into the weekend.
Below, Pro-skater and Berrics Founder Steve Berra spoke with Holloway exclusively for LEO, where the champ got real about finding his place in the world of MMA, culture shock, learning from his losses, proving people wrong, and how fatherhood pushed him to be great.
Tune in this Saturday, November 13th at 1:00 p.m. PST to watch UFC Vegas 42. Live from Las Vegas, you can stream the fight on ESPN+.
Editor’s Note: You can watch the video here through our YouTube channel or read a lightly edited transcript below.
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$35 OR GET IN A FIGHT
“I fell upon fighting, I guess by accident, really. The story is funny. One of my best friends, Josh Keanu, in ninth grade; he’s like 6’3′, 6’4′, maybe 185 pounds, 200 pounds. Like a big goofy kid. I remember seeing him. He had this blue mohawk. And the gel he was using wasn’t holding it, so he looked like a rooster. I wasn’t even fighting yet, I was just like, ‘Look at this guy, I’ll probably beat him up or something”… One year later, 10th grade, somehow we were in the same class and we become good friends. He tells me he’s a kick boxer.
I was sleeping over at his house; one of his coaches was over. I was hitting the speed bag and they said, ‘Hey, you should come out to training.’ First day, I go, I spar him. That guy beat me up with one punch. Thank God I didn’t call this guy out in ninth grade ’cause I would have been the laughing stock of the school until our senior year [laughs]. So yeah, he beat me up with one punch. Just one punch. It’s the jab. If you see this kid’s jab—he’s a long lengthy kid, he just kept jabbing me. I swear he jabbed my face off, but it was crazy. Then Thursday came, and the coach asked me, ‘Hey, you wanna fight Saturday? Somebody in your weight class just dropped out, and they’re looking for a new guy, and it’s a new guy fighting.’ I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ I’m 16 and $35 was the ticket.
I was going to the fight anyway, and I was gonna buy a ticket for $35. I was thinking ‘Thirty-five dollars or get in a fight against a new guy, and we get in there and do the damn thing.’ I went out there… I trained Thursday, Friday, we weighed in Saturday… and then I went in the fight, I don’t know how, but I ended up doing it. And this is when K1 was hot.
K1 is this kickboxing show that was in Japan. It was just crazy. It was big. I remember going to school the next day and just telling everybody, ‘I’m gonna be a K1 kickboxer.’ Two years later, we were becoming seniors—and that’s the whole BJ Penn era. I saw him fighting and I heard his pay that he was making in one day, I was like, ‘Wow. I wanna be an MMA fighter, this is what I want. I wanna be a UFC fighter.’
I started telling everybody in my senior year, and we got there.”
“After high school, I moved to Iowa. I knew I was gonna fight. We had an opportunity to go train; we were gonna open up a gym or something crazy, but our budget fell through. I remember living there for four months; we didn’t have heat in the house. So I was dressing like I was going to… In Hawaii, we’ve got this place called Ice Palace, there’s ice skating. And I would dress every night like I was going to Ice Palace to go to sleep.”
“You watch Disney channel movies like Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown, and you see guys TP-ing houses. And I remember Halloween day, we wake up, one of my friends’ parent’s house was just TP’ed. I was like, ‘They really do this shit over here. What is going on? I guess it’s real.’ In Hawaii, you don’t see that stuff. I never ever saw that stuff.”
THE DADDEST MAN ON THE PLANET
“Growing up, I didn’t have a father. I was raised by my grandma and grandpa. My mom was always there, but she wasn’t. She was into drugs and stuff. My dad… he was kind of not there at all. Really, he was in and out of my life, and then after 10, I never ever saw him. I always told myself, ‘If I want to ever have a kid, I’m not gonna ever be out of his life.’ That’s why I’m here today though, if that makes sense. I was pushed to a certain point because he wasn’t there, and I got to use that to push me. But if you ask any UFC guy… ask any UFC fan, ‘Who’s the daddest man on the planet?’ You’re looking at him right now.
January 4, 2012, I was in the hospital, 10:03 in the morning, I got an email, and it was the UFC contract. I signed it, sent it back, and then at like 3:03, this little booger pops out, and I was like, ‘What it is this?’ You just feel all these emotions, and you’re just like, “There’s no way I could ever love anything more than this… There’s no way. I love my grandma, I love my grandpa. There’s no way. There’s nobody I’m ever gonna fucking love like this.’ That’s just what I thought, and then it just pushed me to be great.”
A LOSS IS ONLY A LOSS
“Just one month later, we got it. It was a short notice fight, and somebody fell out. The guy’s name was pretty big—Dustin Poirier. At the time I fought him I think he was number five or something in the world, or number six in the world. I didn’t care who he was. I was a young buck and we was a headliner for the prelims. When we were in the back, I remember watching and just being like, ‘Oh man, not that many people.’ So I was thinking, ‘Okay, this is like another fight for me, not too many people in the crowd, we’ll be alright, we’ll be fine.’ No, everybody shows up—right before the pay-per-view card.
I remember Bruce Buffer watching the fights. You imagine this guy, you dream of this guy saying your name… I remember he butchered Waianae, Hawaii… And he said, ‘why-not-tay’ or something, which is like, Oh my gosh. That kind of kept me standing, but when he was saying my name, I actually felt weak in the knees; I thought I was gonna faint. And I was like, ‘Max, you’re on national TV bro, you can’t be fainting on TV right now. Get it together.’
So, I end up losing. I end up losing and I end up getting tapped down in the first round. It was a turning point for me and it was great. A loss is only a loss if you don’t learn. And I learned.”
IT’S NOT WHERE YOU TRAIN
“The neighborhood I’m from, the town I’m from, we’re known for fighting. There’s a joke going around: my high school was the first UFC gym on the island, is what they said, just because of how many fights and stuff went on. But it’s not where you train, it’s not the place you train, it’s how you train. Let’s just look at NFL for instance—when you’re Pop Warner and you’re hitting; when you’re in high school, in practice, you’re hitting; when you’re in college, depending on what college you go to, you’re hitting still. But when you go to the pros, they don’t ever hit at practice. Why?
People don’t believe me ’til today, but I don’t spar. I don’t spar. Why take unnecessary hurting. I have wars in my gym more than I have wars in a fight. And I understand you need it; there’s a certain point where you do need sparring.”
“My nickname before was Little Evil. Jens Pulver was one of my favorite fighters at the time, and I wanted a nickname because of him. My first four pro MMA fights, I was known as Little Evil. I remember after one of these fights in Hawaii, I was on Maui, and a fan, it was a random guy, I don’t know who he was. He walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, can I talk to you real quick?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t get it.’ I go, ‘What don’t you get?’ He’s like, ‘You fight for God’s Army, right?’ That was the team I fought for at the time, and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Oh, okay. You believe in God and stuff, right?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I go to church or whatever, and this and that.’ And he says, ‘Then why is your name Little Evil?’ I left, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’
I won that fight; I went in training the next day, and I was talking to my coach at the time, my old coach, and I just told him, ‘Bro I can’t be Little Evil fighting out of God’s Army, it makes no sense.’ It was just stewing with me for a long time, and staying with me, and he was like, ‘No, bro, no, this and that, Little Evil, I gave you the nickname ’cause of this and Jens and blah blah blah.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but it just don’t add up”, and he says, ‘You know what? I’ll think about it.’ One week went by, I came back to training—I remember walking in, and I was like, ‘What? You got my name yet?’ And he says, ‘Man, I ain’t got no name.’ I was like, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘I can’t think of nothing.’ I sais, ‘Bro, how can you not name me? You’re not usually… You’re quick with these. You have it.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I can’t name you, the only word that keeps popping up in my mind is Blessed’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ And he’s like, ‘You’ll take what?’ I said, ‘I’ll take the name Blessed.’ and he goes, “Well, I guess it’s a nickname now.”
PEAKING IN HIGH SCHOOL
“I’m not supposed to be here. One of the things that motivated me a lot was seeing—from the little town I was in—how much talent these guys had. You see these guys, the top high school athletes, this and that, they go find a job, and then every Friday after their regular job, they get beers and they talk about what they did in high school. I always just didn’t wanna be that guy. I’ve got five UFC belts at my house. I have five of them. They’re not hanging on anywhere, they’re in the case, and they’re in my closet. I don’t have to show them off, I don’t have to tell anybody I have them, because the belt don’t mean nothing to me. I always talk about that. I don’t care. When I pass away, that belt is gone. I don’t know who’s gonna have it. My son, maybe my son’s son. I don’t have the belt, but people are still coming up to me, ‘Hey champ.’”
WHY NOT YOU
“I’m more happy with the legacy, I guess, that comes with it. I’ll tell you straight up, I wasn’t the most talented, gifted person ever. Some people would say, ‘No, you were,’ and some other people would say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ But I truly believe everything I ever got in life is because I worked hard for it. What I tell people all the time is this: Just because someone’s telling you you can’t do something… [when someone doesn’t think they can] it’s because someone told them, and they believed it. Whenever somebody came up to me and told me I couldn’t do this, I was like, ‘Cool story. Cool, thank you. Thank you for your input, but just watch me, just watch me. I’m gonna continue to prove you wrong.’ And if you were right, I see you somewhere along there in life, I’ll tell you, ‘Bro, you was right,’ or ‘Sis, you was right.’ But ’til then, keep watching. People ask, ‘Why me? Why am I am the lucky one, or whatever, to get here?’ Nobody asks you ‘But why not? Why not you?’”