Hawaiian Kickboxer: Understanding Max Holloway through his walkout song

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Max Holloway set for a 'bigger and better bounce-back'

You can tell a lot about fighters by their choice of walkout song. It reveals who they are as both competitors and people.

Max Holloway is among the few fighters who have found the single best song to represent who he is and how he fights: Moke Boy’s “Hawaiian Kickboxer.” Not only do Holloway and Moke Boy share the same hometown of Waianae, Moke Boy wrote the song when he got kicked out of Waianae High School and had to go to to Nanakuli High School: “When I went Nanakuli I had to learn how fo’ fight cuz they like beat you up,” he said.

But the humble simplicity of the song is fitting for Holloway, who remains grounded after achieving incredible success in a sport beloved by most people from Hawaii. While Holloway often draws comparisons to the state’s first great MMA offspring B.J. Penn, their choices in walkout music share the same Venn diagram as the fighters themselves.

Penn walked out to a version of “E Ala E” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole that began with the introduction of another Iz track, “Hawaiʻi ’78,” both of which are iconic songs by Hawaii’s most iconic musician. It fits Penn, whose ambitions and accomplishments were always mythopoetically grand. The songs to which Penn walked out are deeply rooted in Hawaiian identity and specifically Hawaiian sovereignty, whereas Holloway’s song choice is more fit for potlucks than protests. In that way, “Hawaiian Kickboxer” is more representative of the typical, everyday people of Hawaii, and as such, it is a better reflection of the culture in which Holloway grew up.

If the culture of Hawaii, specifically Waianae, informed Holloway’s fighting style, and “Hawaiian Kickboxer” is representative of that culture, it is only right that Moke Boy’s lyrics would also accurately depict “Blessed” as a fighter. When we break down the song into its chorus and two verses, it is clear they do. For the lyrics in Hawaiian, I have provided translations in parentheses.

Verse 1

E hoʻomaka kakou i ka, haʻawina (everyone begins with the lessons)
E kia
ʻi aʻe, hoʻopili mai (to guard your space, adhere to this)
E keia manawa, peku kakou (right now, everyone kick)
He mana, ka mākou (our power)

When Holloway entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was 20 years old and 4-0 as a professional. He went 3-3 in his first two years in the promotion, with his three losses coming against the highest-ranked, most well-known opponents he faced. Needless to say, he was not a lock to become a future contender.

Yet each of those losses provided formative lessons for the young fighter that have helped him achieve the longest winning streak in the UFC featherweight division’s history. In his debut loss to Dustin Poirier, Holloway’s lack of takedown and submission defense was exploited. He has since developed a stalwart takedown defense — on his current 14-fight featherweight tear, opponents have only completed 7 of their combined 80 takedown attempts — and transformed his grappling from a potential liability into a weapon; in half of the bouts he attempted a submission, he eventually got the fight-ending tap.

In his 2013 loss to Dennis Bermudez, Holloway was robbed, but Bermudez was able to muddy what should have been an easy unanimous decision for “Blessed” by decisively winning the third round. Compare that to now: Holloway is known for turning up the heat during the later rounds, and only 4 of Holloway’s last 14 wins have gone to the judges scorecards. In each of those decision victories — against Cole Miller, Jeremy Stephens, Ricardo Lamas and Frankie Edgar — Holloway handily won. To put it in perspective, those four fights accounted for 14 total rounds, each round scored by three different judges. Of those 42 total rounds scored, judges awarded Holloway’s opponents a grand total of six rounds combined. Lesson learned.

There is also Holloway’s loss/moral victory against Conor McGregor, where Holloway was and remains the only UFC featherweight to make it to the final bell against the former 145- and 155-pound champion. If there was ever any question about Holloway’s grit, chin or composure, they were answered that night. He may not have been able to launch much in the way of meaningful offense in that fight, but he took big shots and stayed competitive in the fight until the final bell.

The second line of the verse about guarding your space is on-point in terms of Holloway’s sound defensive technique. His understanding of range and angles makes him a difficult and unpredictable target to hit. Part of his success on the feet comes from the fact that he has potent kicks in his arsenal, a weapon most high-level MMA fighters from Hawaii have not had. Specifically, his spinning back kick has been lethally accurate, tying back to the third line of the stanza.

The fourth and final line of the verse mentions the familiar word mana, which means strength or power, often in a spiritual way. The interesting part about the line is that mana is pluralized by the modifier mākou. This also applies to Holloway because he is the first fighter from Hawaii who has achieved the type of success he has without leaving for the continent. While the state proudly supports all of its athletic talent regardless of where they decide to train, there is something special about the fact that Holloway has been able to become who he is in the cage while still running around the same neighborhood streets on which he grew up. In this way, his mana is representative of — if not directly stemming from — the massive support he has behind him in Hawaii. In the eyes of many, his power is our power.

Chorus

Oh, Hawaiian kickboxer
Mai nana lalo, nana imua (don’t look down, look forward)
Oh, Hawaiian kickboxer
Mai nana hope, imua! ho! (don’t look back, forward! ho!)

It’s a chorus, so there’s not much to unpack here, but the lyrics are still applicable to Holloway’s style. He is a high-volume pressure striker, constantly pressing the action and moving forward. He tends to circle out rather than backpedal, always staying in range to flick his long-limbed jab in an opponent’s face at a moment’s notice. He has always looked forward for bigger and better fights, including championship ambitions in multiple higher weight classes, and has constantly called for an inaugural UFC card in Hawaii every step of the way.

Verse 2

The strong and the brave gather in a circle
Making ready for the session
They train their bodies and their minds to think as one
That’s how you make Hawaiian kickboxer

We’re back to English for the final verse, and most of its relevance to Holloway lies in that third line, though the first line certainly brings to mind the epic final 10 seconds of his fight with Ricardo Lamas.

In his early UFC fights, Holloway was at times dynamic to the point of recklessness. He has since tempered those tendencies to become a more rigorously process-oriented fighter, throwing his patented spinning kicks and flying knees more judiciously and opportunistically — and to greater effect. It is a genuine pleasure to watch technically and athletically gifted fighters mature in such a way; Holloway didn’t outright abandon the dynamism of his earlier fights so much as he simply learned to utilize it more selectively. He has no doubt shored up technical deficiencies over time, but the greatest evolution in his game has been his fight IQ. When Holloway is at his best, he recognizes his opponents’ reactions and adjusts for them instantaneously; his body is the Tekken character on the screen, his brain the controller.

Holloway uses his long reach brilliantly, keeping opponents at the snapping end of his jabs and maintaining that distance at different angles to avoid heavy counter shots. When he closes the gap, he regularly tags his opponents with accurate crosses, even as they are backing up. His distance management is made more effective by his ability to seamlessly switch stances, from the orthodox position with his left foot forward to the southpaw position with his right foot forward. This allows him to step forward and continue throwing strikes without needing to reset, giving him clean openings while also disrupting the opponent’s rhythm.

Holloway gets the most out of his technique and physical tools through tactical intelligence, and he does so with more consistency than anyone else in the division. His style is a beautiful blend of well-conceived preparation, physical talent and technical application; it is the body and mind working together to accomplish the single goal of winning a fight.

Just as there are layers to Holloway’s game, there are layers to who he is as a person and what he represents to fans, especially here in Hawaii. Many of these nuances can be understood through his signature walkout song. He is the living embodiment of a Hawaiian kickboxer. At 28 years of age, it is scary to see how good he has become, and even scarier to think of how good he could still become. He represents the past and the present simultaneously: he is a throwback to the Hawaiian warrior spirit of old, and the reigning king of the 145-pound division.

A version of this article was previously published on Sherdog.

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