Free from quarantine and experiencing Abu Dhabi for the first time, Max Holloway is keen to get acquainted with the place.
Given the extensive safety protocols created for this month's UFC Fight Island, however, he will have to take a rain check.
"The only bummed part is me and my team like to go out and indulge in the culture and act like we're from here," the Hawaiian mixed martial artist tells The National as he looks out onto Yas Marina Circuit from the W Abu Dhabi.
“You guys hear me saying ‘the Ninth Island’, the ‘10th Island’; this the 11th Island and I can't even walk around and explore. But hopefully I can come back later on and make a trip of it, because it seems pretty cool."
Twenty-four carat cool.
“Before we came down I was looking for an ATM that dispenses gold or something,” Holloway jokes. “I’m a boy who loves gold; you guys have seen my chains. That’s one of the stops we gotta do.”
Holloway's hoping for gold wrapped around his waist when UFC 251 wraps up. Considered one of the finest UFC featherweight fighters of all time, the former champion takes on Alexander Volkanovski in the Fight Island opener, a rematch of their tussle in December, which the Australian won on points.
For Holloway, that unanimous decision in Las Vegas still rankles. A veteran of 26 professional MMA fights, a career that comprises five belts and as many losses, he thought it was he who should've won on the cards.
Little surprise, then, that Holloway is intent on re-establishing his seat on the throne.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 16,” Holloway says. “I’m 28 now. I had four title fights – not four fights, four title fights – in a matter of 12 months. I know how to take title fight and what it takes and the training you need to get there. I feel great. I can’t wait to go out there and restore order, I guess.”
Considering his track record, and his popularity throughout the sport, Holloway does not feel he needs to remind anyone of his ability.
In contrast, Volkanovski has been making his own case loud and clear in the build-up.
The current titleholder, who by defeating Holloway captured his first championship crown, believes he is not getting the credit he deserves for putting away the previous top dog.
Holloway views his own bid differently. “At the end of the day, I got nothing to prove,” he says.
“I don't know, if you go look at the other side’s interviews and stuff, he feel like he got something. Cool story, bro. You know, we all good over here.
“I got five titles in my closet, chilling. This guy could beat me two more times, he's not gonna have as many titles as me. That’s just the way it is. That's just how it goes. This is just another fight.
“The man, I don't know why he’s tripping. He called me out. The dude called me out and he telling me all this and that and I’m blown away right now. But God bless and praise his way. And I’ll see him at the end of the week.”
UFC takes over Yas Island
Staged mid-pandemic, Sunday marks the culmination of an unusual period of preparation. Holloway has been a strong advocate of the stay-at-home orders in Hawaii, so says he did all of his pre-rematch training via Zoom.
Apparently, he didn’t see his coaches in person until they were boarding the plane last week to Las Vegas. There, they had the first of what will eventually be five Covid-19 tests, while they were mandated to quarantine for two days before departing for Abu Dhabi.
A lack of sparring could raise a few eyebrows given the magnitude of the task in front. Holloway, however, doesn’t concur.
“I feel super good,” he says. “I feel recharged. I feel unstoppable. I just can't wait to go out there and do my thing come July 12.”
And besides, unlike Volkanovski, he is not in search for validation.
“I still feel like the champion,” says Holloway, who will auction off his UFC 251 fight kit to help support food banks in Hawaii. “People still love me like I'm the champion. I don't know what his problem is. That's his prerogative. But me? I'm good. I'm living. I believe I was put on this earth to fight and I get to fight here in a little bit.”
Amiable and accommodating throughout the interview – a nod perhaps to his island-life background – there beats an intensity to Holloway this week that took root in December. Looking back now, he feels somewhat enlightened.
“I learned not to leave it in the judges’ hands,” he says. “So come July 11 there’s going to be fireworks. Make sure you guys tune in live, because this is a fight you're not gonna want to miss.
“There's a fire under me that I can't really put in words, I can't really explain it. It’s just gonna be a sight to see, I can promise you that.”
The excitement is obvious, even if this colossal commitment means he will get to visit the “sick” Yas Links, or hurtle a racecar around Yas Marina.
“I’m super excited. I can't wait,” says Holloway, a grin most probably forming behind his logoed facemask. “Man, this event, Fight Island, is huge. With this time going on, not knowing when sport was going to go on, I’m thankful for [UFC president] Dana White, thankful for UFC, thankful for Abu Dhabi for hosting this and hosting Fight Island.
“I got ‘Mortal Kombat’ vibes here. You might see a Scorpion over there and I might be hitting someone with a ‘Get over here!’ It's gonna be fun.”