Detroit — Nearly 5,000 miles from the island of Oahu where he grew up, UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway couldn’t feel more at home in the days leading up to UFC 218’s main event rematch with two-time division champion Jose Aldo at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday night.
“I love the city. Shoutout to Big Sean,” he said, smiling and pointing down to a pair of rainbow sneakers designed by the Detroit rapper with Holloway’s home state in mind.
He’s only been here since Monday, but Holloway found comfort in his new environment months ago on a promotional tour with his original UFC 218 opponent, Frankie Edgar, who withdrew from the fight in early November because of an orbital bone injury.
“Detroit is a city of fighters like me,” Holloway said. “I came out here with Frankie; we were at a place a little bit off of Seven Mile… the Detroit Play Center for Kids. It reminded me of home. I wasn’t about to let them down.”
Holloway was able to find a worthy opponent in Aldo, who he defeated for the title with a third round KO at UFC 212 in June. Their previous battle hasn’t shaken Holloway’s confidence to defeat Aldo again.
“Like I said, it’s cupcakes. I wanted a new flavor, but you know there’s great flavors and I know which ones I want, and it just so happens to be the same, so I love it,” said Holloway. “They’re all on the menu.”
While Holloway was celebrating a championship victory that extended his win streak to eleven, Aldo hoped he was on the opposite side of a stretch that’s been everything but memorable. The Brazilian has lost two of his last three fights, a dramatic change of pace from the 18-fight winning streak that ended 13 seconds into his bout with Conor McGregor at UFC 194.
With his legacy on the line, tonight’s event is an opportunity for Aldo to bring his career full circle.
He became the division’s inaugural champion seven years ago at UFC 123 down the road in Auburn Hills.
“My biggest motivation is to start over in this town and become the champion here again,” said Aldo.
“I’m very grateful for that, and for this warmth from the people of Detroit. Their love confirms what I already knew.”
Two other fights on tonight’s card also pit a legendary figure of the sport against a young star.
With a win, either Francis Ngannou or Alistair Overeem can solidify themselves as Stipe Miocic’s next challenger for the heavyweight belt.
All eyes are on Ngannou, who has finished the last three fights of his nine-fight winning streak in the first round.
Overeem began his professional career 13 years before Ngannou.
The 37-year-old Dutchman has yet to capture his first UFC belt but the experience of enduring 59 professional fights has allowed him to shrug off the hype surrounding his opponent.
“I think I’m more like the underdog guy that goes in and gets the job done,” said Overeem, who plans to wear down an early aggressor in Ngannou over multiple rounds.
“There’s always a benefit of taking somebody deep, but especially with Francis. He’s very strong, so we’re going to have to deal with that, but we deal with it better in the later rounds.”
Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje will square off after Tecia Torres and Michelle Waterson open the pay-per-view, an early favorite for fight-of-the-night after Alvarez promised an “offensive showcase.”
“When the fans win, everyone wins,” said Alvarez, who’s looking to even up Gaethje’s 1-0 (18-0 MMA) UFC record. “The idea when you step in the octagon is to get that viewer or that person outside the cage to feel something. That’s where I excel, that’s where I enjoy the fight the most.”
“I just hope he’s telling the truth, and not pulling our legs,” Gaethje said in response to Alvarez’s comment, before detailing his plan to “kick [Alvarez]’s leg off” and “take him home for Christmas.”
Alvarez sees tonight’s event as an opportunity for the sport.
“We need these inner cities to show up,” Alvarez said.
“We need to get them more excited about fighting than boxing, and let them know that MMA is here to stay and take over boxing.
“It’s important to take over these inner cities.”
Rounding out tonight’s card is a flyweight matchup between Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis, a Milwaukee native looking to extend his four-fight win streak in front of familiar faces.
“I got some family coming in from Milwaukee,” Pettis said. “I’m in the right mindset and the right skillset to put this man away in front of the whole crowd.”
Pay-per-view at Little Caesars Arena begins at 10, with preliminary cards beginning on UFC Fight Pass at 6:15.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.