Before UFC even heard his name, Jerome Max “Blessed” Holloway knew he’d be fighting in its iconic octagon. He had his sights set on the fighting federation early on and did not veer from the course he set for himself.
And now, fans of the sport from around the world know the name Holloway. His recent win against Anthony Pettis, which earned him the title of interim featherweight champ, was a true showstopper, and people are yearning to learn more about this young “kid” from Oahu’s westside.
THE ROAD TO THE TOP
At barely 18, Holloway graduated from Waianae High (2009), and his plans for the future were singularly focused: Make it to the UFC and dominate. He got into kickboxing while a sophomore Searider, and his passion for the world of mixed martial arts continued to grow from there. His inspiration came from watching Jens Culver, who made his mark when UFC events still were in double digits.
“He was a beast, an animal,” Holloway recalls. “I was nicknamed ‘Lil’ Evil’ after him, that’s how much of a fan I was.” His new nickname, “Blessed,” has since taken over and pays homage to how he feels about his life thus far.
“I’m not lucky,” Holloway continues. “I am blessed, but I worked my ass off to get here.”
It all started when Jeremy Stephens took Holloway under his wing, so to speak.
“He flew me out to live with him,” Holloway recalls. “(Stephens) was getting ready for a fight with Anthony Pettis.”
This was back in 2011 for UFC 136.
Stephens utilized Holloway as one of his main training partners — “I was the Anthony Pettis for his training camp” — and through Stephens’ promotional training videos uploaded to YouTube, Holloway connected with his management team.
Holloway’s official promotion to the UFC in 2012 (although he went pro in 2010) was not a move away from the Islands because, as he says, “Hawaii will always be my home.”
Rather, it was a step toward putting the Aloha State on the map.
He quickly got a match with Dustin Poirier in February 2012 for UFC 143 when original contender Ricardo Lamas was unable to fight. It was a quick few-week turnaround, and Holloway lost the bout in the first round. Not one to be deterred, he came back with wins over Pat Schilling, Justin Lawrence and Leonard Garcia — all in that same year.
And it really has come full circle for Holloway. He ended up fighting Stephens in December 2015 (winning by unanimous decision), Lamas in June 2016 (also winning by unanimous decision), and Pettis, whom he recently defeated by technical knockout (strikes).
But the road to his current status as UFC’s interim featherweight champion has been rough, and it took a lot of faith and sacrifice to get there. Thankfully, the tenacity it takes to reach the top is something Holloway grew up with.
“Nothing was given to me, everything was earned,” he says. “I worked hard, and that’s just a bunch of years of hard work paying off. I do work hard, and I make sure no one is working harder than me.”
THE INTERIM CHAMP
Holloway’s appointment to the UFC is nothing new for the Islands. Numerous athletes have made their way to the fighting federation. But it’s what Holloway is doing — and has done — during his tenure that is making waves.
Riding an impressive 10-fight win streak, Holloway now sits at No. 10 on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list. His most recent round-three win over Anthony “Show-time” Pettis back on Dec. 10 also earned him the interim featherweight champion title.
“I was able to finish a man that never was finished before,” he says of Pettis. “He was a guy that I watched coming up, he was the guy that really added his own flavor to this sport. (Pettis) is a former champion, a guy who is very well-respected in this sport.”
Tacked onto his Dec. 10 win was the “performance of the night” distinction, an accolade with which Holloway is quite familiar. He earned it back in October 2014 when he knocked out Akira Corassani, and again in April 2015 when he submitted UFC vet Cub Swanson. (He also earned a Fight Night bonus for “knockout of the night” in January 2014 in his victory over Will Chope.)
Commentators recapping this month’s bout are quick to note Holloway’s affiliation with the Islands and give lofty mention to his hometown of Waianae, where he resides to this day. Even the simple phrase “… fighting out of Waianae, Hawaii” gives specificity to Holloway’s culture, history and heart. Those looking back on his fight are right to say “the pride of Hawaii” and that his strikes have “the power of the nation of Hawaii behind (them).”
Holloway has made it a point to remember where he came from, and the love he has for his community is evident. He comments on the negative connotation attached to his city, and has made it his mission to dispel that.
“You look at the city I’m from …” he begins, with emotion brimming in his voice. For a moment, he can’t continue.
He elaborates by saying that the Waianae Coast always has been a place and niche culture looked down upon by many people.
“I’m not supposed to be here, and that’s the truth,” he continues. “You look at the things I’ve seen, the things that I went through, I’m not supposed to be here.”
But, despite all odds, he is.
THE HOMEGROWN HERO
Hundreds gathered Dec. 15 (now known as Max Holloway Day) at Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center’s Ka‘aha‘aina Cafe to see the UFC interim featherweight champ. It was a time to honor the Waianae native as the area’s “Homegrown Hero,” and give him a warm welcome back to the Islands following his win over Anthony Pettis.
“The Homegrown Hero Award is about someone who is willing to dream big,” stated WCCHC CEO Nick Hughey.
Holloway received proclamations from Mayor Kirk Caldwell, the state Legislature and the rest of Congress for all he’s done to represent Hawaii on an international level.
“I’ve been all over the world and there’s no place like Waianae,” the champ stated at the event. “Everyone here — we’ve got million-dollar hearts, million-dollar dreams.”
His ties to the island still are strong (he trains solely out of Gracie Technics Jiu Jitsu Academy with Rylan Lizares, Legacy Muay Thai with Ivan Flores, and Tactical Strength & Conditioning with Darin Yap), and is proud to say he still resides in the westside.
“A lot of people think that we need to leave the Islands because we don’t have the resources,” Holloway explains. “But that’s just not true.”
During his speech, he also reiterated his constant mantra of how important hard work and dedication are to the craft.
“I represent the underdogs, all the guys who are just hard workers and the people who were told they couldn’t be anything,” he says.
He recalls his time growing up and when he got his first taste of professional fighting. While many in the field were training at world-renowned facilities, Holloway was putting in work day and night at garage-style gyms.
But it’s not about where you train; it’s about how you train. And, he adds, many in the UFC circuit today and in days past represent the Waianae Coast.
“We work hard in silence, and when it’s time to fight, we show what we’re made of,” he says.
THE BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD
At press time, his next match still is undetermined — but that’s fine with him. While the UFC was his dream as a young adult, his attention now also includes spending time with his son and fully recovering following his Dec. 10 victory.
“(But) 2017 will be a great year,” he says. “The new year is looking up.”
Next year will be an exciting time for Waianae’s “Blessed” — on personal and professional levels. His son, Rush, is slated to start kindergarten, and hopes are high for a bout with Jose Aldo.
Next week, Holloway will be celebrating two epic milestones in his life: the birth of his son and the signing of his UFC contract — “I got my contract at 10:03 in the morning on Jan. 4, 2012, and Rush was born at 3:03 in the afternoon.
“With my son, he’s growing up so fast,” Holloway notes, glancing over at his mini-me. “He’ll probably go to school right up the road from my house in Waianae.”
And while developments within the UFC might be undecided at this point, there is one thing Holloway is certain of.
“Jose Aldo is next, for sure,” he says, with a refined confidence in his voice. “We just need a date now.”
In the nearly five years he’s been with the UFC, Holloway has gone through ebbs and flows many can only dream of. The quick rise to fame and the pressures of performing in front of an international audience are enough to make anyone falter. Despite the often-hectic situations thrown his way, Holloway has put his focus on something so basic, so simple.
“2017 is just one more year to go out and live life,” he says. “A good day is always a day that you’re breathing, and I’m just blessed to be here on this earth.”
Keep up with Holloway on Facebook (BlessedMMAoffical), and Twitter and Insta-gram (@BlessedMMA).