UFC 226 takes place Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and the main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on FS1 and UFC Fight Pass.
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Max Holloway (19-3 MMA, 15-3 UFC)
Height: 5’11” Age: 26 Weight: 145 lbs. Reach: 69″
Last fight: TKO win over Jose Aldo (Dec. 2, 2017)
Camp: Hawaii Elite MMA (Hawaii)
Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/kickboxing
Risk management: Excellent
+ UFC featherweight champion
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ 9 KO victories
+ 2 submission wins
+ 3 first-round finishes
+ Building pace and pressure
+ Superb feints and footwork
^ Attacks off angles/manages distance well
+ Excellent variety of shot selection
+ Improved wrestling ability
^ 83 percent takedown defense rate
+ Deceptively counters clinches/grappling
^ Strikes well off of the breaks
+ Underrated ground game
^ Slick submissions in transition
Brian Ortega (14-0 MMA, 6-0 UFC)
Height: 5’8″ Age: 27 Weight: 145 lbs. Reach: 69″
Last fight: KO win over Frankie Edgar (March 3, 2018)
Camp: Black House MMA (California)
Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
Risk management: Fair
+ RFA featherweight title
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt
+ 3 KO victories
+ 7 submission wins
+ 3 first-round finishes
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Improved footwork
^ Will switch stances
+ Busy and building striker
^ Puts together punches well
+ Strong inside the clinch
+ Accurate knees
+ Excellent transitional grappler
^ Superb submision chains
+ Dangerous guard game
^ Active hips and deceptive strikes
The co-main event for UFC 226 features a fantastic title fight between two prime featherweights in champ Max Holloway and challenger Brian Ortega.
Holloway, who is the first undisputed Hawaiian UFC champion since B.J. Penn, has carved his own pathway to the top of the mountain. One of the youngest fighters to be signed by the promotion, Holloway has since emerged from the flames he was thrown into with a 12-fight winning streak while defeating some of the organization’s more notable former champions.
Ortega may not have as long a resume as some of the sitting champion’s most recent foes, but he is, arguably, the most dangerous challenger who can currently arrive at Holloway’s doorstep in the 145-pound neighborhood.
From troubled youth to breakout success story, there are a lot of likable folds to Ortega other than his abilities as a fighter. But regardless of his exploits outside of the cage, Ortega remains an unblemished talent inside of combat as he approaches his first opportunity to taste UFC gold.
Starting off on the feet, we have a pairing to two high-pressure strikers who work with different notes to compose or complete their masterpieces.
Displaying solid striking and footwork fundamentals since storming onto the scene, Holloway – who was already improving from fight-to-fight – turned a dramatic corner when encountering Cub Swanson.
Since then, we have seen a technical evolution unfold from the Hawaiian, who embraces his creativity and range with a diverse arsenal of attack. Whether Holloway is shifting his stance mid-combination or adjusting his timing on the fly, the current featherweight king makes for a hard read on the feet.
When feeling in stride, the 26-year-old looks to pay off his previous bodywork by punctuating his presence with everything from spinning sidekicks to digging left hooks to the liver. Coupled with his ability to counter effectively from either stance, Holloway can hypothetically take a fight in many different directions.
That all said, it is the building nature of the champion’s game that makes him stand out from the rest of the featherweight stable.
Embodying a fighter archetype that I like to refer to as “a builder,” Holloway will not only build in his output, but his understanding of the fight’s traffic will also increase as he intelligently takes tools from his opponent and adds it to his arsenal. For example, against Ricardo Lamas, Holloway ate a healthy dose of leg kicks throughout their battle. However, in looking closer at the exchanges, you will see Holloway steadily get a read on the attacks – evading, checking and countering the kicks by the end of the contest.
What makes this matchup so interesting is that Ortega is also a builder, but in a different and more unorthodox sort of way. In a similar style to the legendary baseball slugger Babe Ruth, every strike or shortcoming ultimately brings Ortega closer to hitting his target. And with the 27-year-old fighter arguably losing all nine of his completed 16 UFC rounds and still somehow staying undefeated, it’s hard not to see where the comparisons come from, nor is it easy to deny that Ortega always seems to be building toward something.
Despite being known for his dangerous ground game, Ortega has continually shown measurable strides in his striking. Consistently keeping light on his toes, the eight-year pro is ready to throw or move with his opposition, steadily setting the temperature to apply his pressuring approach.
Working behind a healthy dose of feints, Ortega will flick out jabs from either stance, almost like a flint lighter for the fires that he is attempting to start. And once Ortega gets going, he puts his punches together nicely, variating well to the body while punctuating his presence with accurate uppercuts and knees.
Still, defense is not Ortega’s strong suit, showing to be almost twice as liable to strikes than Holloway on paper. With that in mind, I suspect the submission ace will be keeping the cards up his sleeve on standby.
By now, the secret is without a doubt out on the grappling phenom from the Gracie Torrence academy. As we saw in Ortega’s first few fights under the UFC banner, his transitional grappling was already at a very high level, displaying a deceptive process to his jiu-jitsu prowess.
Not afraid to fight from his back, Ortega has little issue in succeeding position off of failed takedown attempts or even going for high-risk attacks. And should his opponents follow the Gracie black belt to the floor, they often get more than they bargained for.
Bearing a submission game that can make you feel like you’re fighting a mythological Hydra, Ortega can turn calm waters into sea storms in a flash.
Once inside of Ortega’s grasp, the Gracie fighter immediately goes to work by giving his opposition multiple problems to deal with while chaining from submission to submission, even altering positional terms when applicable. And though Ortega has been less offensive with grappling engagements (currently on the wrong side of a 6:1 ratio of control time), he still proves capable of submitting top talent as his competition has gotten deeper.
Nevertheless, Ortega will likely have to work hard for his gains given whmo he is facing.
Holloway’s superb striking may hallmark a large of his brand, but the Hawaiian has quietly made consistent improvements to his counter grappling, only being taken down three times in the past four years. Even when having his takedown defense tested by one of the best wrestlers in the division, Holloway successfully thwarted the shots of Lamas while smoothly re-wrestling his way to ride positions of his own.
Not only does Holloway display the balance and defense to stuff takedowns, but he also shows an excellent awareness of how to conduct his hips and grips in close. Deceptively hand-fighting to counter clinches and grappling efforts, Holloway demonstrates a knack for striking off the breaks, something that could be worth watching for in this fight.
More importantly, whether Holloway is conducting himself from the clinch or inside the chaos of transition, he has always prioritized protecting his neck and head by either maintaining an upright posture in close or keeping his hands in the proper neighborhood to defend grasps. Even back in his controversially scored loss to Dennis Bermudez, Holloway showed the defensive habits of defending chokes (that often weren’t coming his way) in transit, which tells me that he is both well trained and well aware in that department. That said, Ortega will still be but one scramble or guard-pull away from jeopardizing the Hawaiian’s title.
The oddsmakers and public seem to be leaning toward the champion, listing Holloway -140 and Ortega +120 as of this writing.
With the dynamic of this matchup being a dangerous one between two prime fighters, I can see why this line was set tight and will likely stay that way. After sitting in the audience to see what Ortega did to Frankie Edgar with my own eyes, I can’t say I’d be surprised to see him stun Holloway on the feet, and no one is arguing that he has the killer instinct and abilities to finish on the floor.
But as blossoming as Ortega’s potential may be, even he understands that success and failure go hand-in-hand. And though I do not doubt Ortega when he says that the fear of failing fuels him, I can’t help but acknowledge that Holloway has already tasted and come back from many forms of setbacks and failures.
Every bump, bruise or bad beat, Holloway has taken in stride. He has built off of success, as well as incorporated his failures into the fold to make him stronger. If the Hawaiian champion can keep to his usual regiment of staying disciplined to execute gameplans, then I see Holloway handing Ortega his first professional defeat by a building performance that sees him pull away with bodywork down the stretch.
Official pick: Holloway by decision