What It’s Like to Go to War in the Octagon

According to former champion Max Holloway, the "best boxer in the UFC"

August 11, 2023 8:20 am
A photo of Max Holloway in the UFC Octagon with his arms spread out to either side.
Max Holloway will fight The Korean Zombie (also known as Chan Sung Jung) this August 16th in Singapore.
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Max Holloway has been called the “best boxer in the UFC.”

Hailing from Oahu, Hawaii, the 31-year-old fighter knocked out former champion Jose Aldo in 2017 to become the UFC Featherweight Champion…then defended his title three times.

Over the course of his already-legendary career, Holloway has set a few brutal records including “most strikes landed” and “most significant strikes landed” during a fight in the UFC. Now, Holloway’s preparing to bring those rapid-fire blows to Jung Chan-sung, aka The Korean Zombie, in their upcoming Fight Night bout in Singapore on August 26.

We sat down with the former champion to discuss his training regimen, mental strength, the fight scene in Hawaii and what it’s like to go to war in the Octagon.

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InsideHook: I’d like to start with how you first found your way into the fight game.

Holloway: I found I was a natural when it came to fighting. Only three days into fight training [at the age of 15] my coach asked me if I wanted to do a real fight that very weekend. I had walked into the gym on a Wednesday, and they asked me if I wanted to fight someone that Saturday. One of my friends, the one who originally brought me to the gym, was fighting that same card. They said if I fought I could watch the rest of the night for free, instead of paying the 35 dollars. I didn’t think twice. 

The only catch was that I needed to get permission from my mother. But honestly that was easier than getting the 35 dollars. She said, “Sure you can do it, you just better win.” That was it. I got addicted on that mat. I decided right there I wanted to be a K-1 fighter. I also happened to be growing up and training around the time when BJ Penn was dominating in the UFC. I remember when he was going to fight George Saint-Pierre. I remember thinking that the money that they were making was a lot too. I started training mixed martial arts with the goal of getting into the Octagon, and the rest is history. 

What was it like growing up fighting in Hawaii?

Fighting was big. There are UFC Gyms in Hawaii now, but I like to say that the first UFC gym was really the Wai’anae High School. That’s where I went to school and we were constantly fighting. I was getting into fights all the time with my group of friends. I got in one real street fight when I was in the 8th grade. My younger brother took this other kid, picked him up and body slammed him, because he was watching too much WWE. One of that kids’ friends had said something to me while we were in PE together.

I told that kid that if he said one more thing about me or my brother that I was going to punch him in the face. He started to say something and I turned around and punched him right in the face. I guess I won because we didn’t really do anything more before a teacher came to break it up. If you ask any of the kids that I went to school with they will tell you that the first punch you learn is the “Wai’anae Left Hook.” Everybody did it. I don’t even know why, but it looks cool, and it sounds cool. 

There’s throwing a punch and then there’s taking a punch…which I believe is the tougher one, mentally. How did you react when you started getting hit hard in fights and sparring sessions?

I guess I’m one of the blessed ones who’s able to push through it right off the bat. I remember getting punched for the first time, and I didn’t think once about if it hurt or not. I just knew that I was going to punch him back and it was going to be harder. Not everybody is like that. The ability to push through those moments, knowing that I can stay in the fight and protect myself is one of the greatest feelings. I know that if I am pushed, or if something was to threaten my friends or family, I am capable. I am a protector. I can be that for anyone, even strangers. 

If someone was asking me for the motivation to push through those moments of pain, I would say that it’s your chance to have your own superpower. You can be a superhero is the eyes of other people. Keep pushing. That feeling and ability is worth it. That feeling and mindset doesn’t just apply to physical pain either. Once you teach the body to endure, you can accomplish a lot of the things that you want to. That’s not something that can be taken from you once you secure it. This is something that you see in the UFC too. It’s not always how you start the race. Sometimes it’s how you finish.

As a fighter with immense grit, who’s won the “fight of the night” award in UFC on many occasions, is there a fight that comes to mind as your greatest test?

Personally, the biggest crucible was the Andre Fili fight. Nobody knew at the time, but that whole week leading up to the fight I had the flu. I was able to hide it from everyone leading up to it. On my way into the Octagon the symptoms I was feeling just went away, the adrenaline kicked in, and right after the fight it hit me again. I didn’t work out one day during that whole week. I remember trying to work out that week, hitting mitts, and my ears were echoing and my head was aching. 

My coach was trying to pull me from the fight. I knew as long as I made weight I was going to be good. I stepped in there and was hitting him with punches but in the end that’s not how I finished him. Andre’s whole Alpha Male fight camp was known for the guillotine, which made it more crazy that I was able to submit him with a guillotine. I still don’t understand how I didn’t get “submission of the night” for that one, because I took out a fighter with their own weapon. I’m still mad at Dana [White] about that one. 

Given that you were able to come out of the Octagon victorious in that weakened state, what do you think is the most important element to getting the win?

Everybody puts so much on your physical state going into these fights, but so much of this is that mental strength. There are so many fights that I’ve won solely because my mindset was unbeatable. Even when it comes to the physical part of the fight, your mind is working, deciding when to sacrifice pawns and when to bring out the big guns. But every piece on the board is a part of you, and you’re putting yourself in that position to win. 

The physical training is important so that you can make sure that you are showing up to play with every piece available to you, but it isn’t everything. I tell people when they ask why the top ten guys in the UFC are in that position, and the answer is the mental game. So many guys in the UFC have the physical part down, or maybe are naturally gifted physically, but if they don’t have their head right, they aren’t making it to the top. 

For the fans of UFC who haven’t sparred or trained martial arts with striking, the punishment that fighters face and the blood can be really shocking. How do you keep your mental state strong when you’re in physical pain?

Pushing through those moments is really when the experience comes in. Once you know what you can recover from, especially when you’ve been there before, it becomes easier to make those physical sacrifices. That’s also when you look for those deeper motivators. I think about how much time that I’ve putting into getting to that moment, and whether or not I’m willing to waste that time. The time I spent away from my family, missing birthdays, or holidays. The answer is that I’m not willing to waste that time. I never am. That’s when you stand up and get back in there. 

Once you’ve pushed through those moments of adversity in the Octagon, and you’ve gotten the victory, what’s the aftermath like from the fights where you really went to war?

Every fight is different, and there are broken bones that have occurred, which adds another element. For the cuts and bruises I don’t really feel them that day. But the next day, for sure, I feel them. There are aches and pains that will show up in the craziest places and you are shocked that it is even possible to hurt there. We are still human at the end of the day. There are people who like to believe that we are superheroes. But we go through pain and suffering. Our bodies go through a lot.

Do you have a process or a routine when it comes to your recovery from those battles? 

I’ll be honest, I probably don’t worry as much as I should about recovery. In the end, it’s not just the fight, but the fact that I live in Hawaii doesn’t help. That means that I also have to get on a nine-hour flight or sometimes a longer one to make it home. If it was up to me, after a fight I would probably just stay home and play video games all day. I’ve been playing a lot of Apex Legends these days and streaming on Facebook. But I’m blessed to have a wife who forces me to think about it. She is the one who makes me think about spending time to get better. She is the one who says that we need to spend time outdoors, and she makes me get to beach and into the water. Being in the ocean really brings me back to life. I forget how much power that it can have sometimes. Getting to be in the water, taking in fresh salt air, feeling the sand on my feet. Even if I’ve been hurt bad she makes it a point to get me surfing as soon as I can. She’ll convince me by saying, “You don’t need to catch any waves, just paddle out. Sit on the board.” 

The flight home is rough, but Hawaii does seem like an amazing place to live and train.

I do my fight camps in Hawaii, and technically it’s my home and where my family lives. But when I’m in fight camp mode I’m not a husband or a father. My body is home, but my mind is not, it’s in that training mode. Something else has taken over my body. If anyone wanted to kidnap me, the best time would be during my training camp, because I am doing the same thing every day.

How would you describe your training? What elements are you regularly drilling?

I love to box. This is known. I said it out loud to Calvin Kattar when we were in the Octagon. I’m the best boxer in the UFC. My main striking coach is a Muay Thai guy. His wife keeps telling me that I owe her a head kick KO. So that is something that I’m still chasing. I don’t really train boxing outside of camp though, because I’ve worked so hard to get those things right, and when camp comes we grind it into the ground. Outside of camp I’m usually working on my jiu jitsu. I would love to get my black belt before I’m out of the game. 

I am not the kind of person who likes to do work for no reason, or do the same thing on repeat. So many of the new guys are making it too hard for themselves. They overtrain, doing the same thing over and over again. They’re overcomplicating it. There are only so many combinations that someone can throw at you. There are only so many ways that a punch can be thrown or an arm can be bent. The rest of it can’t be taught. 

How do you feel about this upcoming fight with The Korean Zombie in Singapore?

Korean Zombie is an OG who stood in that top ten with me in the featherweight division and someone I feel like I was always meant to fight. I called him out after my last fight for a reason. I remember watching his fights, and always wondered what we would do in the Octagon together. I’m really looking forward to this fight. I think it’s going to be a true battle. 

Check out Holloway fighting on the main card of the UFC Fight Night on August 26th in Singapore with UFC Fight Pass.

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