Max Holloway is everything the UFC and its fans could possibly want in a young champion. His high-octane, aggressive, and dangerous but technical style makes him appealing to both the base desire to see blood and the intellectual side of fandom simultaneously. He could conceivably reign over one of the promotion’s most stacked divisions for years to come.
Holloway is a polished, violent 25-year-old kickboxer out of Hawaii, and already a veteran of 17 bouts inside the Octagon, including a loss to rising megastar Conor McGregor back in August of 2013. But Holloway has won 11 fights in a row, eight of them inside the distance. He capped off that run with a vicious finish of longtime featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo in June.
The real question about Holloway has nothing to do with his performances or his personality. He can and should beat Aldo in Saturday’s rematch at UFC 218 in Detroit to retain his title, probably in entertaining fashion. It’s about whether the UFC can put him in position to be a star and turn into a consistent draw for a promotion that desperately needs new blood at the top of its cards.
This is the single biggest challenge currently facing the UFC. The promotion is on track to sell under half the pay-per-views it notched in 2016, which was its best year ever. Aside from an abysmal, injury-riddled 2014, this will be the worst year for selling fights in the last decade. Dana White claims that this is “the best year, by a long shot, in the company’s history,” an evaluation driven by deep cost-cutting and a piece of the massive haul from McGregor-Mayweather. If he’s not lying outright—and he’s at least exaggerating—relying on a once-in-a-lifetime (God willing) boxing match and serious belt-tightening still isn’t a sustainable business model.
McGregor is the biggest draw in MMA history and unlikely to fight again until the UFC makes him the right offer, perhaps including an equity share in the company. Georges St-Pierre, recently returned from a four-year retirement, is 36 years old. He’s unlikely to defend the middleweight title he won by choking Michael Bisping unconscious a few weeks back and will pick his next fight, if it even happens, with extreme care. Perennial fuck-up Jon Jones is once again on the sidelines due to another failed drug test after doing big business in his rematch against Daniel Cormier. Neither of the Diaz brothers, Nick or Nate, are in any hurry to fight again. The UFC can’t pencil any of its biggest draws into the schedule on a regular basis. Outside of that core, the promotion simply doesn’t have anybody who can convince fans to open their wallets and pay for fights.
If this sounds like a problem for a company that still depends on pay-per-view for as much as half of its annual revenue, that’s because it is. The UFC is currently negotiating a new TV rights deal, and it’s all but certain this will move at least some of the fights that are currently on pay-per-view to broadcast TV. Even so, fans are still more likely to tune in for fighters in whom they’re invested, and there’s little chance pay-per-view will disappear entirely.
The UFC can function partially as a content mill, churning out faceless violence for consumers who don’t particularly know or care who’s fighting. An endless stream of Fight Night cards on Fox Sports 1 or its Fight Pass streaming service offers forgettable morsels of well-matched, competitive combat that leave little long-term impression. The ratings are consistently solid, if not growing, while the events themselves cost little to put on. That only goes so far, though: For WME-IMG to maximize its $4 billion investment in the UFC, there have to be names and faces for fans to latch onto.
In terms of in-cage talent, the promotion has the fighters on its roster to produce a compelling, top-notch product. UFC 218 is a great example of that: It features Holloway at the top, stunningly gifted heavyweight Francis Ngannou in the co-main event, a flyweight matchup between Olympic gold-medalist wrestler Henry Cejudo and 24-year-old Sergio Pettis, and a match featuring my personal favorite, violence machine Justin Gaethje.
Events like Saturday’s are going to tell us a great deal about what the UFC’s future will look like. It’s not a given that any of these fighters will break through. Combat sports stars can’t be manufactured on an assembly line. There’s no formula, as the UFC has discovered with its repeated attempts to make Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt happen. It takes an alchemical mixture of idiosyncratic charisma, looks, in-cage style, relentless marketing, public relations work, and above all, the right moment to produce a bona fide draw. Then, of course, the fighter has to go out and win their fights, preferably in highlight-reel fashion.
The roster is stacked with talent, the result of years of globe-trotting and picking up practically every interesting prospect. With enough of that talent working through undercards of Fight Nights in Saskatoon, Shanghai, and Sioux Falls, there are plenty of opportunities for young fighters to work their way up the ladder. Through that slurry of youthful potential, a draw will have to emerge for the UFC to find a healthy measure of success.
Will it be Darren Till, an undefeated 24-year-old native of Liverpool who viciously knocked out longtime contender Donald Cerrone in October? Or “Platinum” Mike Perry, the Florida Man meme made flesh in the form of a power-punching knockout artist? Or Robert Whittaker, the 26-year-old Australian interim middleweight champion? Or Ngannou, with his insane knockout power and incredible life journey from homelessness to the cusp of a title shot? Or Gaethje, who has literally never been in a fight that was anything less than a brutal knockout or fight of the year contender? Or Khabib Nurmagomedov, the charismatic, oft-injured and undefeated Russian? Or will it be Holloway, whose long road to the top has led him to Saturday’s rematch with Aldo?
The talent is present. The opportunities for useful matchmaking, to test young fighters and their developing skills and display them to best effect, are there. WME-IMG is an entertainment company with its fingers in practically every corner of the media landscape; it has the platforms to put those fighters in front of millions of potentially interested viewers.
The problem is that finding a star, whether it’s Holloway, Whittaker, Nurmagomedov, Ngannou, or even more grizzled, older versions of Northcutt or VanZant, is a winding and uncertain road. They can’t simply pick and choose. Fighters aren’t predictable. Holloway was 3-3 in the UFC after his loss to McGregor and has now won 11 straight. Whittaker was 2-2 in the promotion before rattling off eight consecutive wins. It takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff while simultaneously doing all the things necessary to expose those fighters to potential fans and build their profiles.
Fighters like McGregor and Rousey, the lightning-in-a-bottle types, are the exceptions. The UFC bet big on them, and those bets paid off. Most bets won’t, but that doesn’t they aren’t worth making. Every single one of those fighters I mentioned, and more besides, will need a major push if the UFC wants to find a star or two. Max Holloway fucking rules. Francis Ngannou has the rare physical gifts to be an NFL lineman if he’d been born in Miami instead of Cameroon. Justin Gaethje is one of the most fun fighters in the history of MMA, a walking testament to the entertaining possibilities of physical trauma.
The UFC’s financial success depends on one or more of them becoming the kind of fighter the public is willing to pay to see. At least in theory, the UFC is a fight promotion. It needs to act like it.