UFC 231 breakdown: Will Holloway’s pace overwhelm Ortega?

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, left, and unbeaten challenger Brian Ortega, right, pose for a photograph in Toronto before their upcoming UFC 231 title fight. (Nathan Denette/CP)

UFC 231 sees the world’s top mixed martial arts promotion head back to Toronto for the first time in two years with a familiar face at the top of the card. The UFC’s last trip to the city was the UFC 206 event during which Max Holloway first became a UFC champion. On Saturday, Holloway returns to the scene to defend his gold.

That night at Scotiabank Arena (at the time known as Air Canada Centre) the Hawaiian broke Anthony Pettis en route to a third-round TKO victory and interim title. Six months later he unified the 145-pound belts by stopping former champ Jose Aldo with a third-round TKO at UFC 212 then did it again at UFC 218 in his first title defence—same opponent, same round, same method of victory.

In his second defence he faces unbeaten Brian Ortega, a fighter with Gracie family ties and perhaps the most dangerous submission game the UFC’s featherweight division has ever seen.

It’s the most intriguing featherweight contest since Conor McGregor met Jose Aldo in their MMA landscape-altering matchup back at UFC 194 three years ago. The winner of UFC 231’s main event will be the undisputed best featherweight in MMA like McGregor was then and, since both have expressed a desire to eventually move up to the lightweight division just like Ireland’s favourite pugilist, they could also become the sport’s next two-weight star.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Max Holloway
Nickname: Blessed
Fighting out of: Waianae, Hawaii
Age: 27
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 145 pounds
Arm reach: 69 inches
Leg reach: 42 inches
Stance: Orthodox
Background: MMA
Team: Gracie Technics
MMA record: 19-3
UFC record: 15-3
Notable wins: Jose Aldo X2, Anthony Pettis, Ricardo Lamas, Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson
Notable Accomplishments: Became third featherweight champion in UFC history; holds third-longest active winning streak in UFC history (12); has most appearances/wins/knockdowns/finishes in UFC featherweight history

Brian Ortega
Nickname: T-City
Fighting out of: Los Angeles
Age: 27
Height: 5-foot-8
Weight: 145 pounds
Arm reach: 69 inches
Leg reach: 39 inches
Stance: Orthodox/switch
Background: Brazilian jiu-jitsu
Team: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy
MMA record: 14-0, one no-contest
UFC record: 6-0, one no-contest
Notable wins: Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson, Renato Moicano, Clay Guida
Notable Accomplishments: Five-time Performance of the Night bonus recipient; has finished every one of his UFC opponents; Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt

Holloway will knock you out, but he won’t do it with one clean shot. Instead, he learns your rhythm, your timing, your tells, then starts picking you apart and eventually overwhelms you with volume. His distance management is among the best in the sport and he possesses strong counterstriking techniques that pair nicely with his affinity for pushing the pace. It’s a tough style for any opponent to thwart.

As Dan Hardy pointed out in his Inside the Octagon preview of UFC 231, in his past three fights Holloway has gotten both progressively busier and more accurate in each round until he gets the finish. Holloway’s 1,213 significant strikes landed are the most in UFC featherweight history and his 5.67 landed strikes per minute is fifth-best in UFC history regardless of weight class.

If the fight goes into the championship rounds, the pace Holloway sets will test Ortega’s gas tank but the heavy-volume style itself is something Ortega has faced and overcome before.

Ortega has been outstruck in nearly all of his UFC bouts yet he has never tasted defeat. Both Renato Moicano and Cub Swanson are high-pace, punch-heavy fighters and the most similar comparisons to Holloway among Ortega’s previous opponents. Both were ahead on the scorecards in their fights with Ortega before each was caught in a guillotine choke.

With Ortega, it only takes a split-second lapse in judgement or one technical slip-up and the next thing you know you’re tapping or napping. No submission is too difficult to pull off for Ortega, but the Californian favours chokes of all varieties. His nickname “T-City” stands for triangle city with the triangle choke being his specialty.

What makes Ortega a potentially great fighter, though, is that in addition to his grappling acumen he has fight-changing power that Holloway doesn’t.

In his most recent appearance he became the first and only fighter to earn a stoppage win over Frankie Edgar when he landed an uppercut that literally lifted the future Hall of Famer’s body off the canvas and sent his consciousness into the ether.

“You teach him one time, a technique, and he applies it in combat. He applies it at the highest level,” says Ortega’s longtime jiu-jitsu coach Rener Gracie. “He doesn’t decide how he’s going to win when he goes into the fight. Literally every single touch, every strike, every clinch, every takedown attempt, everything that happens is data for the next attempt.”

While he is capable of ending things on the feet, like you can see in that Edgar clip, Ortega gives himself the best chance to win if he gets the fight to the ground. How he goes about doing that could be the key to who wins this fight. Ortega is willing to pull guard but Holloway may be too savvy for that. Holloway also has impressive 83 per cent takedown defence for Ortega, who rarely shoots for a leg, to contend with.

Still, it doesn’t take much for Ortega to latch onto a limb or your neck when there’s a clinch and from there it’s a fight for survival like when an anaconda gets a hold of its prey. Ortega chains submissions together seamlessly the way Khabib Nurmagomedov or Daniel Corimer do with takedown attempts.

Holloway hasn’t fought in 2018 due to injuries and a health scare. It seems Ortega has brought with him to Canada an edge in momentum in addition to that vaunted ground game.

Does any of that matter to Holloway?

“He’s good. He’s a dangerous man, but everybody keeps talking about Brian and this and that. Everything the guy did I did better,” Holloway said at the pre-fight press conference Wednesday. “He’s on what, a six-fight win-streak? I got 12. He beat a [former] champion? I beat two, and I beat one of them twice. At the end of the day the Blessed Express is going around in a circle. We lapping you, bro. And I’m younger than you.”

To that, Ortega responded: “Sometimes the best response is no response.”

Translation: Saturday should be mighty interesting.

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