UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway is back - in more ways than one
Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC / UFC / Getty

When Max Holloway defends his UFC featherweight title against Brian Ortega at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena on Dec. 8, it will mark his first foray into the Octagon in more than a year.

But while Holloway hasn't strapped on the gloves since last December, he's done plenty of fighting outside the cage, battling a bout of depression that threatened to derail his career at just 26 years of age. And had it not been for some timely intervention from friends and family, the Honolulu native might never have made it back to the sport he loves so much.

"I'm a big believer in 'it is what it is,'" Holloway told theScore on Wednesday. "Things happen for a reason. I had to run into these speed bumps for a reason. There's certain situations that happen in your life that needs to happen to make you grow. I grew a lot."

Holloway couldn't have imagined where his career was headed after winning the interim featherweight title via TKO against Anthony Pettis in 2016, then following up that performance with two TKO victories against Jose Aldo in 2017. The second of those wins at UFC 218 in December gave Holloway a 12-fight winning streak that features nine finishes.

But just as Holloway found himself at the apex of the sport, it all came apart.

In March, an ankle injury forced him to drop out of a potential matchup at UFC 222 against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. The following month, Holloway attempted to save the UFC 223 main event after interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson was forced out with an injury. Holloway stepped in to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov on one week's notice but was removed from the card on the day of the weigh-ins as doctors feared for his safety due to the severity of his weight cut.

Finally, in July, it appeared Holloway would get back in the Octagon. Scheduled for a featherweight championship fight against Ortega at UFC 226, Holloway arrived in Las Vegas for final preparations a week before the fight, only to be felled by concussion-like symptoms - the source of which baffles doctors.

Needing medical attention, Holloway was so resistant to the idea of dropping out of yet another fight that his team had to trick him into going to the hospital by convincing him they were actually headed to a media appearance. Finally, against his own wishes, Holloway withdrew from the fight. As he spent the summer recovering, the emotional toll of everything that happened in the first half of the year weighed on him.

"I was trying to be alone," Holloway said.

While he waited to be cleared for training, Holloway spent most of his time with his six-year-old son Rush, but otherwise closed himself off from the rest of the world.

"I wasn't talking to anyone," he said. "People thought I was being mean. I just didn't want to talk to no one. I was in a dark place at that time."

But as he has done so many times over the course of his MMA career, Holloway fought - and won. And just as he would when preparing for an opponent inside the Octagon, he received help from his team, as well as an unexpected outside source of wisdom.

A fan of the Toronto Raptors, Holloway read DeMar DeRozan's candid words about his own battle with depression and was inspired.

"He said, 'I wish everybody in the world had money, so they could understand happiness,'" Holloway paraphrased.

Holloway also recalled a particularly poignant exchange with someone on his team shortly after he dropped out of the July fight. As everyone around him tried to convince him to withdraw from the fight, Holloway pushed back, evoking one of his favorite sayings: "Ride with me until the wheels fall off."

Someone from his team promptly put him in his place.

"He said, 'Max, I'm here for you, but I'm here for you because I don't want the wheels to fall off,'" Holloway said. "That was the realest thing I ever heard."

Holloway eventually realized being alone wasn't the way to go about dealing with his issues, and he started to once again surround himself with his friends and family.

"Now I try to be with my friends all the time," Holloway said. "People are there. Don't cut people off. That's the worst thing to do. People love you. You have family and friends. Reach out to someone and talk to them about it."

While his personal life is back on track, it remains to be seen how the long layoff will affect his performance inside the Octagon. Ortega is expected to present a formidable challenge, having defeated Edgar via a first-round knockout in March to improve his professional record to 14-0.

Yet, despite the daunting task of facing a red-hot Ortega, Holloway is just happy to finally be back in action.

"I felt like I got back home," he said. "My gym is my home away from home. They say you don't have to work another day in your life if you find something you love. I love fighting. I love training. I love being at the gym. I love being there, learning, and figuring new stuff for myself."

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway is back - in more ways than one
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