When Max Holloway defeated Jose Aldo by TKO at UFC 212 on June 3 in Rio de Janeiro, it signified a potential changing of the guard in the featherweight division. Aldo defended the belt seven consecutive times between 2011 and 2014, lost on one punch to Conor McGregor, and then won the title back by beating Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision at UFC 200. He is no doubt a future Hall of Fame inductee and will go down as one of the all-time great fighters.
But the time now belongs to Holloway. His destruction of Aldo in the third round -- along with 10 other wins in a row -- showed the massive potential the Hawaiian has. Who should he face in his first title defense? Our panel of ESPN MMA contributors -- Brett Okamoto, Max Bretos, Phil Murphy, Eric Tamiso and UFC fighter Gilbert Melendez -- give their takes.
Brett Okamoto: It's a shame both can't be next somehow. Swanson is 10-2 since the start of 2012, and he has never fought for a major championship. His body of work more than warrants one now. Within that same time frame (beginning in 2012), Edgar is 7-4, with all four losses coming in UFC title fights. That would suggest its Swanson's turn for a shot. But Swanson's two most recent losses were to Edgar and Holloway, and neither were controversial at all. Edgar is ranked higher and has never fought Holloway before. The next shot should go to Edgar, but if Swanson wants to wait for the winner, he should be allowed to.
Gilbert Melendez: It's a tough decision when it comes to who should fight Max Holloway next. For me, it depends what you're looking for when making this decision. Is it entertainment, a money fight or the deserving fighter?
I believe Cub Swanson vs. Max Holloway would be a vicious striking battle that would certainly be entertaining whether the fight goes the distance or is over in one round. Swanson definitely has a strong case when he says he deserves a title shot, especially with his past few performances. He's a proven winner, warrior and entertainer in the Octagon.
But when it comes to the rightful person to be getting the first crack at Holloway, I immediately think Frankie Edgar. He beat Cub in 2014 and has only two losses over the past four years -- both to Jose Aldo. This is MMA, and sometimes you have that one fighter who is your kryptonite. For Frankie that's been Aldo, but for everyone else he's competed against he's decisively won each fight. He seems to be everyone else's kryptonite and I am curious to see how that plays out as a fan and a martial artist if he squares off against Holloway.
Frankie has been able to impose his grappling on everyone but Aldo. And that will ultimately be the question in this possible matchup -- will Frankie be able use his grappling to an advantage, or are we watching two guys striking? Yes, Frankie can win a striking battle, but I'd give the edge to Holloway. But if Frankie can make grappling a significant part of the fight, I believe he could increase his chances of winning.
Conor McGregor would be fun as well, but we all know that fight might not be easy to get. Aldo also could campaign for a rematch, but I wonder how fast he would be ready. Frankie and Cub seem ready to sign and fight now. If Holloway wants to stay busy, those are his guys.
Eric Tamiso: The fighter Max Holloway should defend his belt against is the man he just took it from, Jose Aldo. The Brazilian never got his title rematch against Conor McGregor. For a man who owned the division for nearly a decade between WEC and UFC, he should at least get a rematch. The fight was competitive into the third round, and this wouldn't be the first time a champion drew an immediate rematch after being stopped. Chris Weidman was scheduled to fight Luke Rockhold again last June before a neck injury derailed those plans.
Holloway went into hostile territory in Rio at UFC 212. Why not have Aldo do the same for an event in Holloway's homeland of Hawaii?
As for the other contenders, yes, Frankie Edgar has a legitimate claim for the next shot. He's been a world-beater ever since dropping to 145 pounds -- with the exception of being topped by Aldo, twice. Cub Swanson has looked great since being submitted by Holloway two years ago, ripping off four consecutive wins. However, that is against unproven or mid-tier talent with a combined 11-11 UFC record. Conor McGregor? Let's just hope to see him in the Octagon at some point this year.
Max Bretos: Max Holloway had his moment at UFC 212, winning the fight he had dreamt about since he began in this business. In a sport lacking superstars at this time, Holloway has the look of someone who, with the right fights, can make that jump. The biggest fight he can make is the rematch with Conor McGregor, but how long will he have to wait for that? Mcgregor is likely to box Floyd Mayweather in October or November and defend the lightweight title in the spring of 2018? You are looking at a year, and that is too long for Holloway.
Frankie Edgar does not excite me on UFC pay-per-views, but him being a former champion would give Holloway a necessary notch on his belt. Edgar has kind of earned the chance with back-to-back good wins against Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stevens following his loss to Aldo. At 25, Holloway has time to build his legend. The Edgar fight would bridge the gap for a summer of 2018 matchup with McGregor.
Phil Murphy: All right, I'm prepared for the eye-rolls. It would have to wait until after the Mayweather exhibition, but Max Holloway's next fight should be against Conor McGregor at 155 pounds for the UFC lightweight title -- exactly what McGregor did when he challenged champion Eddie Alvarez.
Frankie Edgar, admittedly, deserves the next shot at Holloway at 145. But we need to avoid naivete and recognize pay-per-views -- and paydays -- are birthed from marketing, not fairness. Holloway is among the most active fighters of the past half-decade. The Edgar booking isn't going anywhere, so personal risk is minimal for the long-lost Hawaiian Diaz brother.
Holloway made no secret about wanting a thicker paycheck in postfight interviews at UFC 212. He even shouted, "Pay the man! Pay me money," while walking by assembled media. McGregor headlined four of the five top pay-per-views of all-time. And Holloway's last loss, 11 bouts ago, came by unanimous decision to Mystic Mac, so there's a ready-made backstory.
The UFC is giving Holloway a deserved marketing push -- they curated a hero's welcome when his flight from Rio landed in Honolulu. If the UFC wants to send another star into orbit, and if Holloway wants to cash in as much as he claims, they'll bump draft on McGregor's popularity before the Irishman walks away from MMA for good.