UFC 222 may not feature the 145lb title clash between Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar that we had anticipated but in the Answer’s replacement opponent Brian Ortega, we have a young prospect who could well push on to the next level.
The word ‘prospect’, when used in MMA, takes on a slightly different meaning that we would perhaps be accustomed to otherwise. With such long-spaces between actual opportunities in the cage, it can be hard to predict exactly how much growth a fighter can show from one fight to the other.
The line between prospect and genuine contender is often one that some attempt to cross too soon. Take a look at Yair Rodriguez. As a flashy and dynamic striker, it looked as though he was simply toying with each of his opponents over the course of his rise but when he attempted to cross that aforementioned line, the manner in which he lost out was a reminder of the degree of skill it takes to be a champion.
Frankie Edgar battered the Mexican to a second-round doctor’s stoppage victory after a pretty one-sided display of his wrestling prowess at UFC 211. It was nothing to be ashamed of for Yair, but it stood as a sobering moment for his championship aspirations.
These things do sometimes work in the opposite way, however.
UFC 207 may stick in the memory for most as the night that Ronda Rousey’s MMA career came crashing down with help from Amanda Nunes but the contest that proved to be even more of a shock to many was the bantamweight title bout that sat as the night’s co-main event.
The 25-year-old Cody Garbrandt had looked nothing short of sensational as he bested the likes of Takeya Mizugaki and Thomas Almeida on the way towards a top ten spot in the 135lb division. But when he was matched up against the already-legendary champion Dominick Cruz on the back of some heated trash-talk, many had argued that he had unfairly skipped the queue and was in for a pretty massive beating.
You would have been foolish to discredit Garbrandt’s puncher’s chance in the leadup to his meeting with ‘the Dominator’ – and few actually did – but I would imagine that the odds you’d get on Cody completely outclassing Cruz from start-to-finish would have been so long that it would have almost seemed laughable to back him with any real intent on winning in that manner.
But that’s exactly how things played out. The prospect crossed the line and passed his test with flying colours, dethroning a great all while establishing himself as the world’s finest bantamweight.
UFC 222 this weekend will see a similar test on the cards for the night’s co-main event headliner, Brian Ortega.
For all of his success and his perfect (13-0, 1) record, Ortega has to be considered one of the strangest fighters on the roster today. He’s primarily a submission artist but prefers to stand-and-bang. His striking is probably just above average but despite his truly stellar skills on the mat he rarely shoots for takedowns.
His chin, cardio and relentless pressure combine to make him a pretty unique matchup in the sense that he gradually wears on his opponents, with him in a state of pure calmness throughout, from the opening bell until the moment he finally manages to break them.
He’s been described as something akin to a modern-day Nick Diaz, minus the technical boxing skills.
He holds the record for the most consecutive third-round finishes, with four, a record that will probably be intact a decade in the future. That in itself is a testament to this guy’s ability to win fights. But even still, we haven’t seen anything from him so far that would suggest that he is going to go out there and dominate his opponent tomorrow night, Frankie Edgar.
In fact, we still are waiting to see anything resembling a one-sided win from the Californian (with the exception of his promotional debut). He’s been outstruck on the feet and behind or in a stalemate on the scorecards in virtually every fight under the UFC banner to date.
We’ve seen him taken down on countless occasions and despite his clear advantage over every single one of the featherweights when the fight hits the mat, its almost as if he refuses to shoot for takedowns, despite the clear instruction given to him by his coaches mid-fight.
So, how does he do it, you ask?
It really is quite difficult to say.
It’s a mixture of impeccable timing, a near inhuman killer-instinct and, of course, some truly world-class BJJ, but even then, the trouble he has gotten from the likes of Thiago Tavares, Clay Guida and Renato Moicano will surely make him easy work for a fighter of Frankie Edgar’s calibre?
Edgar is a cardio machine, whose polished boxing, black-belt level BJJ and elite wrestling combine with his untrainable heart and determination to make a fighter who was able to capture the UFC lightweight championship back in 2010, despite having the frame of a mid-to-large-sized bantamweight.
He holds wins over BJ Penn (x3), Sean Sherk, Cub Swanson, Urijah Faber, Jeremy Stephens, Chad Mendes and Yair Rodriguez among others, has only lost to three men in his career and has never once been finished.
It really does seem unlikely that Ortega will outmatch Frankie on the feet, all things considered. ‘The Answer’ does seem to get rocked every time he fights but over the course of three rounds, it’s hard to know whether the prospect will be able to find the holes in his defence. Even if he does, Edgar’s ability to recover is second-to-none.
On the ground is where we’ll have to assume that Ortega’s chances lie. The big questions will loom over Frankie’s willingness to engage on the mat and his desire to actively pursue takedowns. On paper, I could see Edgar winning a decision by simply outboxing ‘T-City’ on the way to the judge’s scorecards but as a longtime black-belt under Ricardo Almeida, the battle between his heavy top-pressure and Ortega’s dynamic bottom game could be the most enthralling part of the contest.
The question is whether Frankie will choose to take the fight there.
It really does just seems like a mismatch when you frame it like that, but believe me, there is absolutely no way I’m counting Brian Ortega out of this fight.
He just seems to have that X-factor that he can fall back on when all seems to be lost. Even in his last outing, Cub Swanson was really starting to piece him up on the feet. Ortega’s striking defense is solid, for the most part, but against the highest-level of striker he had faced to date, he found himself eating a lot of shots that could well have become a problem later in the fight if he hadn’t managed to snatch Cub’s neck on two occasions before ending things with a stunning gullotine.
And that’s the thing with Ortega. He probably should have lost to Thiago Tavares when they met back in 2015, but he found a way to win.
When he faced Clay Guida at UFC 199, the fight was far too close for comfort heading into the final minute and in truth, the judges could well have seen it in favour of ‘the Carpenter’ but again, Ortega found a way to win.
On the strength of the opening stanza against Cub Swanson, it did appear as though Brian’s shortcomings in the stand-up would finally be his undoing, but again, he found the neck and with it, a way to win.
The line between prospect and true contender may have already been passed by Brian Ortega when he overcame a longtime top-10 145lbr in Swanson, but in Edgar he comes up against a true elite and while the odds, the stats, the resumé, and even the skills may side with the veteran, I just can’t count T-City out as he faces the toughest challenge of his career.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena