Max Holloway's final chance to reclaim the division he once owned

LAS VEGAS -- Max Holloway should be under a lot of pressure.

It's Saturday, June 25, seven days before he is set to face Alexander Volkanovski for the third time at UFC 276 and Holloway (23-6) is sitting inside T-Mobile Arena for the first time since December 2019, when he surrendered the featherweight championship to Volkanovski via unanimous decision in their first meeting. The trilogy will also take place at T-Mobile Arena next weekend.

But as Holloway casually leans back in one of the 20,000 seats, which will be filled by a sold-out crowd Saturday, he doesn't appear to be feeling any extra nerves.

With the first fight in 2019 being so close -- and Holloway having been such a dominant champion leading up to it -- the UFC booked an immediate rematch in July 2020 on Fight Island, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Holloway lost again in an empty arena, in a split decision that was even closer than the first.

Holloway has never complained about the scoring of either five-round fight, but when asked how he felt after each of them, he answers honestly.

"For sure, both times [I thought I did enough to win]," Holloway told ESPN. "But like a wise man once said, it is what it was."

Over the past two years, Holloway has forced the issue of a third meeting against Volkanovski. It's a notoriously difficult thing to do in combat sports, force a third fight against an opponent who has already beaten you twice -- but Holloway made it an easy call, by defeating Calvin Kattar in a historic offensive performance and Yair Rodriguez in a Fight of the Year candidate, both fights in 2021.

With a third meeting though, should come a great deal of pressure. Prior to losing to Volkanovski in 2019, Holloway was a near-consensus pick as the best featherweight of all time and was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. If he loses for a third consecutive time, his legacy -- especially at 145 pounds -- will be forever changed.

"You guys always talk about who has more to lose," Holloway said. "Respectfully, I think I have more to lose every single fight I go in there. I always say I'm 0-0, and this fight is no different. I'm taking this fight like it's my first and it could be my last. We don't know what happens after this. We don't know if I'll ever fight again. You really don't know.

"That's the way I'm approaching it, and fans are in for a treat."

He's certainly right about that. Volkanovski is tied as the ESPN No. 4 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Holloway is No. 6. It is rare for two of the best fighters in the world to inhabit the same weight class and square off three times in three years.

In not complaining about the scorecards of their first two fights, Holloway has said he should never leave a fight in the hands of the judges -- but that's not an easy "mistake" to correct. Volkanovski has been fighting professionally since 2012 and has only been finished once -- in his fourth pro fight.

"It's easier said than done, in any fight at any level," said Holloway, on a finish. "And when you've got guys like me and Alex, who are No. 1 and 2 in the weight class and probably in the world on the pound-for-pound list, it's crazy hard to do. But you get out there and you get it done.

"I've had 10 rounds with this guy. We'll be lucky if we get past three in this one."

Chris Daggett, Holloway's longtime manager, acknowledges the stakes on Saturday are high from a business standpoint but, he says that's nothing out of the ordinary for Holloway. The Hawaiian team has gotten used to the idea of viewing Holloway's career through both long-term and short-term lenses.

"Everything with Max, whether it's finances, his family, brand, partnerships, charity, his health -- all of these are long-term things," Daggett said. "But when it comes to the fight game, everything is short term. We're looking three feet ahead and that's it. So, to that end, it always feels like everything is at stake. We're putting everything on the table. At the same time, we know that no matter what, two weeks from now, Max is still Max. That sounds like a contradiction but really, from a short term, everything is at stake, but everything will be fine two weeks from now and we understand that."

It's been two and a half years since Holloway fought at T-Mobile Arena. That's also the same length of time since he fought in front of fans, as his past three fights have come amidst pandemic restrictions. With restrictions being lifted, Holloway said he has over 60 family members and friends flying from Hawaii into Las Vegas.

Despite Holloway's 0-2 record against Volkanovski, he says he's going into this trilogy with a champion's mindset.

"I felt like a champion when I was 0-1 in the UFC," Holloway said. "I felt like a champion when I was 3-3 in the UFC, fighting Will Chope for my pink slip. If you don't think you're the best, if you don't believe you're the best in the world, why do you belong here? That's what helps me make the walk."

For Holloway, it truly might be like any other fight -- even if history will remember it as much more.