When I saw the odds for Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega at UFC 226, I did a double take. Holloway opened up as a slight favorite over Ortega? The defending champion has prodigious skills and a great resume, but I disagree.
In fact, I’ll go a bit further: Ortega should be dead level with Holloway.
You can’t grapple with Brian Ortega
When Brian Ortega faced eclectic So-Cal striker Cub Swanson a half-year ago, few expected him to win so convincingly. After all, Cub was a perennial contender and rode a four-win streak into the Ortega fight. No one thought it’d be easy, but most fans figured Swanson would earn his first title shot.
Then Ortega choked him out early in the second round.
Until that point, five out of seven of Cub’s losses had come by submission. So if he was going to lose, five would be the method. But those losses came after his opponents took him down, as his bottom game leaves a lot to be desired. Ortega never took him down; he locked the choke from a standing clinch. Cub barely survived the clinch in the open canvas, but against the fence he was a dead man walking.
His clinch is so lethal that Frankie Edgar avoided grappling with him. On the couple shots he attempted, Ortega immediately maneuvered into a choke and Edgar had to disengage. To have one of the greatest lightweights and featherweights who built a Hall of Fame career on the back of his wrestling shy away from grappling, that is the highest compliment.
Speaking of Edgar…
You probably can’t strike with him either
In his past two fights, Ortega got out-scored on the feet before scoring a spectacular finish. Cub spent most of the first round peppering him with combinations and strafing him like an attack helicopter. Edgar, ever the technician, exploited Ortega’s defensive lapses to catch him with clean right hands. When Ortega tries his hand at power punching, he borders on loopy.
But what separates Ortega from other grappler/power-hitter hybrids is how smart he is. He knows what he needs to throw and what he can afford to eat in return.
Against Cub, he avoided the Californian’s heaviest haymakers. The shots he allowed through his guard stung rather than punished, and any shot he wound up on clattered off Ortega’s forearms. He ate cleaner shots against Edgar, but the Jersey native didn’t have the power to really trouble him. Even the cleanest counter-right hand failed to stagger him.
In return, Ortega works behind a heavy jab and improving footwork. As the slower fighter needing to close distance to grapple, it’s great to see Ortega throwing dedicated body shots despite being so young. His counter elbows are beautiful, like the one that shook Edgar to his core to set up the knockout blow.
When he had Edgar shook, the finishing sequence was beautiful. A combination of thudding punches, kicks, and uppercuts that lifted Edgar off his feet. Hurt many times in his life, it was shocking to see Edgar finally go down.
What are Max Holloway’s options?
By sheer accolades, Max Holloway is arguably the best featherweight who ever lived.
He possesses 12 straights wins (!!) with finishes over two ex-champions including back-to-back wins over the greatest champion in the division’s history, Jose Aldo. Extraordinarily tall for featherweight at 5’11”, he has the best cardio at featherweight outside of Frankie Edgar. He presents no discernible weaknesses, equally competent as a striker and grappler.
But fights are determined by match-ups, and Brian Ortega presents none of the weaknesses his previous opponents did.
Ortega alters his defense depending on the efficacy of his opponent, so he’ll undoubtedly respect Holloway’s striking. The Hawaiian’s natural hand speed and footwork will allow him to connect multiple times, but he probably won’t find the type of clean counters that drained Cub and Aldo. He’ll outpoint Ortega, but he won’t break him. Ortega won’t burn out his fast-twitch fighters like many other desperate opponents who clinch Holloway, so the champion will work overtime to maintain distance. His lanky frame is good for speed and endurance, but he gives up a monstrous strength advantage to Ortega.
If anyone can hit-and-run for 5 straight rounds, it’s Holloway. But that’s his only viable option. Otherwise, he’d have to open up a fighter whom neither Cub Swanson or Frankie Edgar could out-box, or grapple a man against whom even Edgar was hesitant to do so.
I won’t go as far to say Ortega should be a slight favorite; Holloway’s resume is too much to ignore. But it’s an absolute mistake to believe him to be the underdog.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.