Preview: UFC 231 ‘Holloway vs. Ortega’

Holloway vs. Ortega

By Tom Feely Dec 5, 2018

UFC 231 is now available on Amazon Prime.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s adherence to tradition is usually a hit-or-miss exercise, but a fun one has developed by accident, as this marks the third straight December that Max Holloway could headline one of the best cards of the year. UFC 218 saw Holloway defeat Jose Aldo on a show that provided two “Fight of the Year” contenders and one of the most brutal knockouts of 2017, while UFC 206 had an excellent main card, particularly the instant classic between Cub Swanson and Doo Ho Choi.

The UFC returns to Toronto on Saturday with Holloway on the marquee, and while there is no obvious “Fight of the Year” contender on the undercard, there is a ton of well-matched fights. Plus, Holloway’s featherweight title defense against Brian Ortega certainly qualifies as a “Fight of the Year” possibility. Here follows the breakdown for UFC 231:

UFC Featherweight Championship

Max Holloway (19-3) vs. Brian Ortega (14-0)

ODDS: Holloway (-130), Ortega (+110)

It was looking like a breakthrough year for Holloway, but now the hope is that 2018 is not the year where he just breaks. It is still strange that Holloway-Conor McGregor was an undercard bout in 2013 and even stranger that McGregor won it with his wrestling despite a torn ACL. However, the young Hawaiian rebounded from that loss to become one of the best fighters in the sport. Holloway started to refine his game in 2014; he officially became a contender in 2015; and by 2017, Holloway was the clear top featherweight in MMA, dominating two fights with Jose Aldo to extend his winning streak to 12 fights.

Unfortunately, this year saw Holloway start a new streak, going 3-for-3 in pulling out of fights. First, a leg injury scuttled a slated title defense against Frankie Edgar, and then came some concerning weight-cut issues. Holloway attempted to step in against Khabib Nurmagomedov at lightweight on a week’s notice, only to have the New York commission deem his cut to be unsafe. The situation got even worse, as Holloway’s weight cut for a bout against Ortega was shut down due to concussion-like symptoms which still have not been entirely explained. Holloway has since been medically cleared, so attempt No. 2 at the Ortega fight takes place here. It is still a shame that Holloway’s medical concerns loom so largely over this bout, since it is one of the best matchups the UFC can put together.

As for Ortega, while his winning streak in the UFC has not quite matched Holloway’s in terms of quantity, it is almost as impressive in terms of quality, as the Californian has put together a string of excellent performances against top contenders. Ortega’s UFC career got off to a bit of a slow start. He tapped Mike de la Torre in under two minutes but was soon put on the shelf after failing a steroid test. Ortega owned the mistake and proceeded to go on a strange run of four consecutive third-round finishes. You could make a case that Ortega has not won a single round on the scorecards ahead of a finish, but his jiu-jitsu game has been elite enough that whenever his opponents have provided an opening, Ortega has provided his arm around their neck. In his first main event slot, Ortega scored a second-round submission over Cub Swanson to prove himself as a contender, but it was his subsequent win over Edgar that signaled his full arrival: He obliterated the former lightweight champ with an uppercut, finishing a legendarily tough fighter within the first frame. Ortega’s style is still built completely around scoring the finish, which is what makes his bouts so compelling on paper, but if he continues to add more finishing weapons to his arsenal, that lack of process probably will not matter.

If Holloway comes into this bout in his usual form, this is an absolute crackerjack of a fight and one of the hardest elite matchups to call. When everything fully clicks, Holloway is as entertaining to watch as any fighter in the world, as he uses his reach to throw some beautifully vicious kickboxing combinations, doing so with a speed that often overwhelms his opponents. It is a wonderful mix of violence and intelligence that puts Holloway on the short list of fighters that are must-see every time out, no matter the pairing. Those smarts and that consistency should be enough to turn back all comers, but Ortega’s whole career thus far seems to be based on pulling off things he should not. Again, as he has moved up the ladder, he has finished off adversaries in quicker and quicker fashion, but Ortega’s fights see him content to lose a slow kickboxing match or work from his back until he finally seizes on an opportunity that most people do not even see. If Holloway fights his usual smart fight, he should be able to piece up Ortega on the feet and keep himself out of danger, but the margin of error is so thin that it almost feels unsafe to pick one of the best fighters in the world. The X-factors are all in Ortega’s favor. The challenger appears to be adding skills from fight to fight, while Holloway’s 2018 campaign has brought up concerns about years of tough fights and rough weight cuts finally taking their toll, even at age 27. However, based off of Holloway’s most recent form when he has actually been in the cage, it is hard to see him making a fatal mistake. The pick is Holloway via decision.

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