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Max Holloway answers tough questions at UFC 231, creates debate on all-time status

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Holloway defeats Ortega to defend title (0:56)

Max Holloway breaks down the highlights of his TKO victory vs. Brian Ortega at UFC 231 to defend the featherweight title. (0:56)

The questions continue to flood in for Max Holloway. But they no longer are an ominous interrogation. Now the questions represent a sorting out of the many wondrous possibilities in play for the UFC featherweight champion.

Holloway had all the answers on Saturday night in Toronto, beating up Brian Ortega to the point where after four vicious rounds the cageside doctor mercifully would not allow the challenger -- his left eye closed by puffy purplish bruising -- to continue to absorb damage.

That answered the essential question that every world title fight poses: Which fighter is the baddest on the planet? In the case of this UFC 231 main event, the inquiry had been inscribed in big, bold letters, as Holloway was the rare belt holder who enters a fight as an underdog.

Betting odds slightly favoring Ortega looked like a gross miscalculation early on, with the champ badly outclassing him over the opening round and through much of the second. Holloway's crisp punches were coming from all angles, and his deft footwork and distance control were fully defusing the challenger's counterpunching threat and fearsome submission game.

But eventually another question confronted Holloway. By the end of the second round, Ortega had toughed out the initial onslaught, had found a rhythm of his own and was showing why he had walked into the cage an unbeaten man. Round 3 was ferocious and highly competitive, with the champ the recipient of some rejuvenated Ortega offense. Could Holloway answer his opponent's rally?

Yes, he could. Just before Round 4 got underway, the champion turned to the cageside broadcasters and signaled that enough was enough, that he was about to end the fight, just watch. He then went out and turned up the dial on his aggression, fearlessly going toe-to-toe with Ortega and getting the better of every exchange. By round's end, with the challenger's face bloody and bloated, his spirit on the wane, there was no doubt whose fight and whose night this was.

Question answered.

Holloway actually had answered some questions -- haunting questions -- simply by making it to the Octagon in the first place. He had not fought in a year, a time during which the champ had to drop out of one title defense (vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC 222) because of a leg injury, was pulled from a fight (vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC 223) because of weight-cutting issues and was yanked from another (vs. Ortega, UFC 226) after showing concussion-like symptoms. In the wake of that final cancellation, in July, UFC president Dana White said, "There's no way this guy's going to fight anytime soon."

Would Holloway ever again fight? Would it be at featherweight? Would he look like the old Max?

Yes, yes and yes.

If there's a job-appraisal question still lingering, it is this: Is Max Holloway the greatest 145-pounder ever?

On the surface, the answer might seem straightforward. The fighter always presumed to be the crème de la crème at featherweight has been Jose Aldo, and Holloway has defeated him twice -- first to take away the belt, then a rematch in his first title defense. "Blessed" beat The Man -- knocked him out twice, at that -- so doesn't that make him The New Man?

The comparison is more complicated than that. Holloway has won 13 straight fights but has defended the top of the mountain just twice. Aldo lived at that lofty altitude for six years, defending the belt nine times after winning it while the featherweights still resided in the WEC. He was only 31 and not necessarily over the hill when Holloway first got to him in June 2017, but Aldo had put a lot of miles on the tires by then and appeared to have lost his mojo a year and a half prior in a 13-second KO by Conor McGregor.

Even Holloway acknowledges that the Brazilian remains the 145-pound gold standard. "I still believe the greatest featherweight of all time is Jose Aldo," the 27-year-old Holloway told reporters after Saturday night's win. "When I'm 30 or 31 or his age, then you ask me if I'm the greatest featherweight of all time, if I'm still here."

And therein lies the ultimate question facing Holloway at this career crossroads: How much longer will he still be "here" at 145 pounds?

Dana White has been insisting for months that Holloway is "too big" to continue competing at featherweight and should move up to 155 pounds. Holloway has not challenged the boss on that in words, but on Friday he did so in actions, looking fresh as he stepped on the weigh-in scale at 144.5 pounds, a half-pound below the championship limit and a quarter-pound lighter than his challenger. Then, the next night, came a rousing performance that showed not the slightest hint that this was an athlete depleted by too severe a weight cut. Holloway looked right at home, right where he is.

So now what? If featherweight GOAT status is what matters most to Holloway, he'll need to stay put and continue building his 145-pound resume. But the biggest showcase fights, the ones that could help him fulfill his goal of being MMA's pound-for-pound No. 1, reside at lightweight. Holloway acknowledges as much.

"Khabib [Nurmagomedov] is another undefeated fighter," Holloway said minutes after having vanquished one. "I got this niche, I guess. I just gave an undefeated fighter his first loss. So maybe that one might excite me the most."

If not a superfight with the lightweight champion, Holloway would be open to facing Nurmagomedov's presumed next challenger, Tony Ferguson, or even the fighter who handed him his last loss, 14 bouts and over five years ago, when he was 21 years old and just a year and a half into his UFC career. "Everybody wants to see me and Conor [McGregor]," he said, "because we fought when I was a kid -- a long time ago."

Holloway is embracing all possibilities, even joking on Saturday night that he'd be open to stepping in with "the Daddest Man on the Planet" -- aka heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. There's a legacy to be built, and "Blessed" is open to getting to work on that DIY project at featherweight, at lightweight, even at heavyweight (not really).

For Max Holloway, there still are questions, but the tenor has changed. He need not show us that he still belongs anymore. Now he gets to showcase why no one else belongs on his level.