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Analysis: Forget Conor McGregor, Max Holloway has historic chance at UFC 223

Featherweight champion steps in against undefeated top lightweight

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway gestures while responding to reporters’ questions during Media Day for UFC223, Thursday, April 5, 2018, at the Barclays Center in New York ahead of his upcoming lightweight title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Conor McGregor looked so emaciated before weighing in the second-to-last time he fought at 145 pounds that Urijah Faber asked him if he was going to survive and inadvertently incited a minor quarrel backstage at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

That’s a notable memory nearly three years later not because McGregor is once again causing conflict and chaos ahead in the bowels of an arena — this time at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. — but because of the main event scheduled to take place Saturday night.

McGregor’s nutritionist is the highly respected George Lockhart, whom Max Holloway has pressed into action ahead of UFC 223. McGregor was known for drastic weight cuts at featherweight — it’s part of the reason why the rumblings indicated he’d never fight in the weight class again after beating Jose Aldo, which has so far been proven correct — but Lockhart told ESPN.com that Holloway’s weight cut this week was tied for the biggest he’s ever overseen.

Holloway (18-3 MMA, 15-3 UFC), the reigning featherweight champion, threw all caution to the wind when an opportunity to win a second title, at lightweight, presented itself on Sunday. He accepted a spot filling in for the injured Tony Ferguson to face Khabib Nurmagomedov (25-0 MMA, 9-0 UFC) on a pay-per-view card scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Saturday night in Brooklyn.

Many fighters are accused of not wanting to fight Nurmagomedov at all; Holloway jumped at the opportunity to fight him with less than a week’s notice.

“This is how legends are made,” Holloway said at a news conference earlier this week.

The specter of McGregor inevitably looms over everything that happens in the lightweight division, especially when the absent champion shows up and starts throwing guard rails through van windows. In a just world, however, this would be an opportunity for Holloway to step out of McGregor’s shadow.

If Holloway wins, he would technically accomplish the same thing McGregor has already pulled off in holding both the lightweight and featherweight titles simultaneously. But it would be so much more impressive considering the double-header of horrors in his way.

Cracking Nurmagomedov’s perfect record shapes up as daunting enough, well before having to go through hell just to lose enough weight to become eligible.

It would belong in any conversation of the most remarkable feats in mixed martial arts history.

“If you want to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, you make no excuses,” Holloway said. “Everyone talks about this guy being one of the best in the world. I want a piece of it. That’s what real fighters do.”

There’s a misconception that Holloway has nothing to lose by agreeing to fight Nurmagomedov. It’s true that most current fans won’t think any less of him if he succumbs to the long odds — he’s currently around a 4-to-1 underdog in sports books — but that doesn’t mean the fight comes without risk.

Any fight can alter an athlete’s career forever in a sport as brutal as mixed martial arts. Nurmagomedov has shown the ability to overwhelm an opponent to the point where he’s never the same again.

From a less morbid standpoint on the effects of a potential loss, consider that despite his championship, Holloway is still building his profile in hopes of becoming a superstar in the sport. The surest path to that level is sustained dominance, and Holloway’s got quite the head start.

He’s won 11 straight dating back to an August 2013 loss to Conor McGregor. That’s not the type of streak that can be re-created overnight.

“If you look at him, he hasn’t lost in five years, hasn’t been taken down in four years,” UFC President Dana White said. “He has the most finishes in the 145-pound division. He’s a (expletive) stud, and comes in to fight Khabib on one week’s notice.”

White seemed to stumble with superlatives to attach to Holloway under the pressure of an open-to-the-public news conference. That will never happen again if Holloway prevails at UFC 223.

He would get endless praise, and deserve every bit of it.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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