A prodigy of Rener Gracie, Brian Ortega earned his nickname “T-City” at 15, at which point he had developed a love for triangling bigger training partners in the gym. Four years later he would make the walk to the cage for his first professional fight, choking out John Sassone in the Gladiator challenge with his namesake submission. This win would begin a 15-fight unbeaten streak before meeting the undisputed UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway in a bid for the belt and tasting defeat for the first time.
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Believed to be the future of MMA before this bout, many believed Ortega had the potential to choke or knock out any featherweight on the planet but following the Holloway fight questions about the young prospect from LA began floating in the air. The speculation as to what we would see in the return was only amplified by the almost two-year absence taken by Ortega before re-entering the octagon.
However, Ortega would come back better than ever, giving a career performance against one of the most feared fighters in the division in the Korean Zombie. Light on his feet and elusive with spinning techniques and flair, Ortega had evolved over his two-year layoff by leaps and bounds. We had witnessed T-City 2.0, but what changes were made for the new and improved fighter?
In his early UFC days, Ortega was already heralded as one of the most dangerous submission artists out there. Specifically known for his squeeze, he had a knack for tapping out black belts and tapping them quickly, only synching in the choke barely a moment before submission. What makes him so special is that through such a high understanding of jiu jitsu, Ortega has the ability to cut out pieces of grappling sequences while maintaining control.
Most good grappling experts recant the mantra “position before submission” because staying safe en route to the finish is clearly the most logical and dominant mindset even if it means playing the long game. Ortega however has found a way to consistently have success, jumping from positions such as the front headlock into triangles and other submissions where traditionally an additional step should be taken. This is not only because of Ortega’s technical control skill but also because of his ability to maintain submission while adjusting in awkward positions, as well as a confidence that if he does lose position, he has the ability to adapt.
The Ortega prior to the Korean Zombie fight, already had good striking. He was difficult to hurt and he could lean on his chin when needed. He also had good boxing and kicks, and decent power to back it, but out of grit often did his best work by breaking down his opponents with consistency. That being said, his choice of movement was very step-based, and he would walk his opponents down and often take a shot to swing back hard, although he had good variety and could time knees and elbows well inside his boxing.
The Ortega that came back after two years away was different in the sense that he was now dynamic on the feet. He now changes angles and dictates the distance himself by staying light and floating. He is able to stay so light on his feet without fear that the fight has swung away from him if he is taken down because very few would want to challenge him in that department.
He also now mixes the full arsenal of mixed martial arts. One of the most interesting tactics he used against Chan Sung Jung, was a simple leg tap. Ortega will slip a shot and tap the front knee with his fist, prompting his opponent to stop and burst their hips back anticipating the takedown. By doing so, they leave an opening to strikes Ortega takes advantage of, even mixing in straights to the body when they react for the tap.
This also works in reverse, if he reads his opponents react to the level change due to the strike than Ortega does on a single or double leg. He does not have the cleanest wrestling entries, often driving them back to the fence in a hunched position instead in order to look for a trip or suck their legs in against the fence. For the most part, however, Ortega doesn’t have the fluid takedowns in the middle that some others do.
His ability to keep his opponents guessing on the feet can cut their combinations mid-way, when he forces them to react to a fake takedown or a feint a strike, they have to reset and are unable to build any momentum of their own. This is the greatest strength of the new Ortega who has improved his diversity of looks. He will cut different angles or float back and counter and isn’t afraid to switch stance now.
Although from southpaw, Ortega enjoys pawing the lead hand of orthodox opponents in order to create and disrupt rhythm with his jab as well as maintain his reach. Ultimately he makes it extremely difficult for his opponent to ever settle into a comfortable game plan because he overloads their minds with possibilities.
It has been one full year since T-City 2.0 emerged, so the further developments since then still even remain to be seen. He looks to be one of the most fascinating contenders in a landscape that has changed drastically since his first title fight, but he is definitely one to watch as he prepares for his second.
Braeden Arbour is an aspiring journalist out of Ontario, Canada. He is a recent graduate of Trent University, with a black belt in Karate and a blue belt in Judo. He has also been an avid fan of MMA for the last decade.