ESPN’s Ariel Helwani talks Holloway, Ige, Hawai’i MMA ahead of UFC Fight Island events in Abu Dhabi

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Hair aside, a different Max Holloway will be seen when he takes the octagon at Fight Island against Alexander Volkanovski on July 11 in the co-main event of UFC 251.

Although Holloway proclaimed the next phase of his career to be the ‘Hair Era’ before departing Oahu for Abu Dhabi, many are curious to see how the Waianae native will respond to relinquishing his featherweight belt to Volkanovski back in December.

In a conversation with KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello, ESPN MMA reporter Ariel Helwani says the rematch is an intriguing bout on the star-studded card.

“I’m so curious to see how Max Holloway looks in this fight, I’m so curious to see how Volkanovski looks in this fight in his first title defense. Sometimes when you’re the hunted as opposed to the hunter, things change,” Helwani said. “It’s been a while since Max was the hunter and of course, this is the first time that Volkanovki has been the hunted.”

Helwani also noted that for the first time, Holloway held a camp in which he did not spar or have a training partner due to social distancing measures. The communication with his coaches was held entirely on a virtual basis.

Although Holloway has said that he’s heading into UFC 251 as fresh as he’s ever felt, there’s no true way of knowing if that has benefitted him until Saturday’s fight is over.

With an MMA record of 21-5, Holloway already has a career’s worth of accomplishments at 28 years old. He won the UFC featherweight interim title on Dec. 10, 2016 with a win over Anthony Pettis and unified it with a win over Aldo on June 3, 2017. The belt was held on for two and a half years until Volkanovski (21-1) won it in a unanimous decision victory.

In between three official featherweight title defenses, Holloway had a chance to earn ‘champ champ’ status but lost the interim lightweight championship to Dustin Poirier on April 13, 2019, snapping a 13-fight winning streak that lasted for six years.

“That is supremely impressive and there’s a case to be made that maybe if you start your career a little too young, you take on a lot of damage and you’ll kind of burn out sooner than some other fighters that start a little later,” Helwani said. “I’m not subscribing to the notion that Max Holloway is over the hill or burnt out or anything like that. … There’s still a lot of fighting left in Max Holloway in my opinion and I don’t think this is a case of like, ‘Oh, if he loses the fight, he’s done forever’ or anything like that. Far from it.”

UFC 251 will also feature Kailua’s Martin Day (8-3), who takes on Davey Grant (11-4) to kick off the preliminary card. UFC Fight Night 172 will be held four days after UFC 251, and it will also be held on Yas Island. It is headlined by Haleiwa’s Dan Ige, who takes on Calvin Kattar (21-4) in a featherweight bout. At 14-2 overall with a six-fight winning streak, Ige is experiencing a Holloway-esque rise through the featherweight ranks. Although Ige is also 28 years old, he does not yet have the same résumé as his Hawaii counterpart. But a win on July 15, which would come shortly after his split decision victory over Edson Barboza on May 16, may open eyes and turn heads.

“He’s been quietly climbing the ladder because he’s kind of a quiet guy,” Helwani said. “He’s a bit of a soft-spoken guy and doesn’t really puff his chest out all that much, although he did change his name to ‘50K Ige.’ I like ‘Dynamite’ better if I’m being honest because I think you should be setting the bar higher than the $50K (Fight of the Night bonus). But I get what he’s trying to do. This is huge for him.”

If Ige keeps winning, crossing paths with Holloway in the featherweight division may become inevitable down the line.

“If we get to the opportunity where it’s Max Holloway as champion going up against Dan Ige as No. 1 contender and that fight is not in Hawaii, then I’ve lost all hope in the UFC Hawaii dream because that would be the perfect fight, right? We thought there were many opportunities for the UFC to go to Hawaii, we called those opportunities perfect. But this would truly be it,” Helwani said.

In addition to the three Hawaii UFC fighters competing this week, an emergence of prominent fighters from different organizations have put the islands on the MMA map as well. Helwani has certainly come to gain an appreciation for them.

“I’m a huge fan of not just the fighters and the way they compete, I’m a huge fan of the way they conduct themselves,” Helwani said. “I know we’re talking about fighters now but I can speak for the entire state. You’ll never meet a rude Hawaiian, you’ll never meet an obnoxious one. Hawaiians to me are so loveable, they’re so likeable, they have such great spirit, they’re so warm as human beings and that’s the same for all of the fighters, not just the UFC but in Bellator and the other organizations as well. We saw my man Coconut Bombz (Maki Pitolo) recently, it just seems like they’re constantly this tunnel of great fighters coming from Hawaii to the major leagues of MMA, i.e. the UFC.

“Then you go to July 15 and you have Dan at the main event and rightfully so, he deserves to have that spot in the big fight, it’s great. There’s a lot of great fighters. For the most part, it’s a great time and I pray that we get to see UFC Hawaii. Bellator’s done a great job capitalizing on the market. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane to me is one of, if not the face of Bellator. She’s one of their biggest stars, a homegrown talent if you will who’s done an amazing job of just carrying their flag and what I love about her so much is that she’s so loyal to the Bellator brand. You don’t hear that from a lot of fighters, you always hear fighters talk about Bellator and other organizations but it seems like they always have an eye on the UFC. It seems to me like Ilima just wants to fight for Bellator forever and retire as a Bellator fighter which I think is really valuable to them. So I hope we get to see Bellator back soon and get to see Ilima-Lei back one of these days as well because I think that division is doing well too. They’re doing a good job developing that division so there’s a lot to like, there’s a lot to be excited about as always and you could have a champion in a few days once again.”

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