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When Alexander Volkanovski’s hand was raised at UFC 251 on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates, I couldn’t help but think of B.J. Penn’s back-to-back title fights against Frankie Edgar in 2010. The rematch was an authoritative win for Edgar, but the first fight at UFC 112 is considered a robbery to this day, whatever that amorphous and suspiciously self-confirming term actually means. The event took place in Abu Dhabi, with Penn serving as the co-main event to a middleweight title fight that ended up widely panned.
The parallels to Max Holloway, who has been the recipient of more tenuous comparisons to “The Prodigy” than anyone, don’t mean anything, but the coincidences were striking for fight fans from the islands. Here was Holloway—the sole Hawaiian who has managed to eclipse Penn and assert himself as the state’s greatest fighter—on the wrong side of a controversially close decision in a co-main event in Abu Dhabi. It felt like the recurrence of a long-repressed nightmare when the main event concluded and the roaring boos that would have been in the arena echoed across the Internet. The only major departure in this analogy is the sequence: Penn’s robbery happened in the first fight, whereas Holloway’s happened in the rematch. Hopefully that’s enough to send Holloway’s career trajectory on a path that won’t parallel Penn’s after the second Edgar loss.
Whether or not those decisions are robberies isn’t really the point. There’s a fundamental flaw in the Ultimate Fighting Championship scoring system that, every now and again, manifests in a high-stakes fight and resurrects the exact same discussion. If you look at the Holloway-Volkanovski fight as a 25-minute whole, no one would give the nod to Volkanovski. Holloway won the first two rounds more emphatically than Volkanovski won the final three—if he even won all three, which is pretty debatable.
Of course, that’s not how fights are scored, at least not in the UFC. Rounds are essentially independent mini-fights within the fight, like sets in a tennis match. That structure works in tennis because all points are equal no matter how they’re scored, but fighting is fraught with variability and subjectivity. How many leg kicks equal a knee to the body? Does a pawing jab that lands clean mean more than a heavy head kick that gets partially blocked? Ask three people and you’ll likely get three different and defensible rationales; welcome to the insoluble conundrum of human judgment.
A small majority, including two of the three people whose opinions actually matter, saw Holloway taking the first two rounds cleanly, while Volkanovski edged the final three. The rules say that’s a win, but it intuitively feels wrong. How is a round won by a few extra leg kicks the same as a round won by inflicting real damage? A basketball team wins because of its cumulative score, not by outscoring the other team in more quarters. This is the inherent tension of trying to wrangle the chaos of a fight into the necessary bureaucracy of athletic contest.
This scoring system and the unending cycles of conversation it engenders sucks for everyone, no matter how you scored the Holloway-Volkanovski fight. It sucked for Holloway for obvious reasons, but it also marred Volkanovski’s first defense with an imaginary asterisk. All the robbery talk has undermined the incredible work he did to reverse a vintage Holloway onslaught in the middle of the fight. He stopped a boulder barreling down on him and pushed it all the way back up the mountain, an incredible feat of toughness and intelligence that got completely lost in persnickety hairsplitting.
There was something else eerily reminiscent about the rivalry between Holloway and Volkonovski. In the 1970s, Australian surfers started to assert themselves on the competitive circuit, pioneering a faster, more aggressive style that was new and exciting and, perhaps most importantly, much more aligned with contest scoring criteria. The rivalry between Australian surfers and the old guard of Hawaiian surfers came to a head in 1976, when Aussie Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew wrote “Bustin’ Down the Door” for Surfer Magazine, a brash declaration that the future of surfing had arrived from Down Under. Fights broke out at beaches and death threats were made until an iconic Hawaiian surfer brokered a peace treaty. Still, an Australian won the world title that year and in 10 of the next 15 years afterward.
This is not an exact parallel: Volkonovski embodies the fun-loving fearlessness of the Aussie surfers but has no trace of their in-your-face arrogance. The connection, however, is that the Aussies had to be innovative to beat the established champions. Volkonovski had to take to the next level the very things that make Holloway great. In the first fight, he outclassed “Blessed” on the feet with superior footwork and a more layered attack, and in the rematch, he made a mid-fight adjustment and poured it on late to snag the win. Those are Holloway’s signatures of success. Holloway didn’t invent them, but he mastered them and used them to rule over the division for five years and 14 fights—until Volkonovski came along and did them better.
I didn’t like this fight, not just because of the timing and circumstances but also because I didn’t think the first fight was very close—certainly not close enough to warrant an immediate rematch. They were destined to meet again eventually, so why not wait? Yet the bout went ahead as scheduled, and it solidified their rivalry in the worst way possible. Now, the champion has a shaky claim as the division’s best fighter, and Holloway is put in two-loss purgatory.
I could say his position reminds me of Joanna Jedrzejczyk after she lost twice to Rose Namajunas, or better yet Valentina Shevchenko after the second loss to Amanda Nunes. Comparisons and metaphors are how we make connections and construct meaning from our experiences. Yet they also create dissonance through distance; when we use one thing to talk about another, it allows us to ignore what’s actually there, right in front of us. No matter how much explanatory detail I go into or how rational and airtight I believe my arguments are that Holloway should be the champion right now, he’s not. We don’t need to know people to care about them, so we feel a vicarious sting when an athlete we cheer for loses, and it’s compounded when we feel they’ve been wronged.
Minutes after a heartbreaking loss, Holloway posted a video on social media, not to say he got robbed or to offer a token of sportsmanship and congratulate the champ for a tough fight. It wasn’t even about the fight at all. It was about donating to the Hawaii Food Bank, because to the hundred thousand plus people in his home state who have been cast into unemployment by the pandemic, that actually matters—incalculably more than who won a prize fight. Amid his own personal frustration, disappointment and confusion, he reminded all of us who were busy furrowing our brows and replaying Rounds 3-5 in slow-motion that this fight itself is the analogue, the thing we look at so that we don’t have to see what’s actually there, right in front of us.
How strange to be worried about who should have won a fight in the middle of a worsening national health crisis. Stranger still that the person most affected by the decision is the one snapping his fingers to get us to pay attention to what really matters. That’s part of the beauty of being a fight fan, that we can so earnestly put so much of ourselves into something so frivolous. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to escape our pandemic-soaked reality and watch some fights for a night, but to have someone like Holloway here to stop us from tumbling headlong into that escape? We are blessed.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.