Preview: UFC 266 ‘Volkanovski vs. Ortega’

Volkanovski vs. Ortega

By Tom Feely Sep 24, 2021

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 266 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return to pay-per-view with UFC 266 on Saturday in Las Vegas continues the promotion’s trend of putting together strong cards whenever the public can attend. This time around, featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski finally gets his first main event assignment in a long-awaited title defense against Brian Ortega. Meanwhile, Valentina Shevchenko looks to extend her dominant reign as flyweight champion in the co-headliner. Then there is the main source of intrigue on this card: For the first time since 2015, Nick Diaz climbs back into the Octagon to face Robbie Lawler in a rematch 17-plus years in the making. Add in two more fights with high stakes, and this stacks up to any main draw in recent memory.

Now to the preview for the UFC 266 “Volkanovski vs. Ortega” main card:

UFC Featherweight Championship

C | Alexander Volkanovski (22-1, 9-0 UFC) vs. #2 FW | Brian Ortega (15-1, 7-1 UFC)

ODDS: Volkanovski (-162), Ortega (+142)

Volkanovski’s 2019 featherweight title win over Max Holloway capped a stunning rise through the ranks for the Australian. Volkanovski was identified as one of the top prospects from Down Under when he made his UFC debut in late 2016, but his wrestling-heavy style meant any optimism had to be cautious by default. Most grapplers out of the region hit a wall against the much stronger athletes and wrestlers that a global platform provides. However, Volkanovski quickly became the exception that proves the rule, mauling opponent after opponent. His 2018 campaign proved to be a breakout year for “Alexander The Great.” Overpowering fighters like Jeremy Kennedy and Darren Elkins proved particularly impressive with Volkanovski’s straight-ahead approach, and while a victory over Chad Mendes proved a bit difficult, the end result was a win that put him in the mix as a top contender. If 2018 proved Volkanovski was a contender, 2019 was where he affirmed himself as a truly elite fighter, capable of adapting and adjusting at a level that makes him a tough out for any opponent. Volkanovski fought completely against type in what looked to be a difficult fight against Jose Aldo. Despite Volkanovski’s stocky frame, he proved to be tricky as a slow-paced range striker who simply did not give Aldo much with which to work. Even with that impressive performance, it was still stunning to see him interrupt what figured to be an all-time great title campaign for Holloway. Once again, Volkanovski proved able to adjust, building on that range striking performance in such a way that it slowed Holloway’s ability to build offense; by the time Holloway found a groove, Volkanovski already had the decision win well in hand. Their rematch was a similarly excellent chess match, though this time around, it had more controversy associated with it. Holloway got off to a clear hot start, but Volkanovski managed to narrowly win the last three rounds to earn the victory by the smallest of margins. A trilogy fight still looms, as Holloway’s recent performances have done nothing but re-affirm him as an elite fighter, but for the time being, Volkanovski faces another stiff challenge in a long-awaited test against Ortega in career-best form.

As Ortega marched his way up the ladder, it was impressive how far he was able to take an approach that should not work on paper. An elite-level submission threat with some willing but subpar striking—at least for much of his career—Ortega was as reliant on getting a finish as any contender in recent history. In fact, during the four-fight run that got him into title contention, “T-City” managed to pull off four straight third-round finishes, with consensus being that Ortega had not won a single full round in any of those fights. Ortega finally snapped that streak in a win over Cub Swanson, then kicked off 2018 with a shocking knockout of Frankie Edgar to set himself up as featherweight’s top contender. Ortega’s title shot against Holloway turned into a one-sided beating at the hands of the “Blessed” Hawaiian, after which Ortega essentially vanished for the better part of two years. Once Ortega returned for a main event against Chan Sung Jung in October, he looked like a completely different fighter. Beyond shaving off his signature long locks, Ortega apparently took his time off to develop a completely new and effective striking game. Faced with Jung’s pressure and ability to counter, Ortega seemingly excised all the aggression from his own fighting style, keeping a range and picking apart the World Extreme Cagefighting veteran until he had “The Korean Zombie” flummoxed by the later stages of the fight. It is difficult to come up with a more unexpected reinvention from a fighter that was already at an elite level, and Ortega now gets to test his new skills—which may have improved even more in the last year—against the best of the best.

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 266 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

Frankly, it is hard to know what to make of this one. The form Ortega showed against Jung is obviously a huge improvement that should make this fight interesting, but it is impossible to parse out whether it is actually enough to beat Volkanovski, given that it was only 25 minutes against one opponent. Ortega, much like Volkanovski against Holloway, has now proven he can stay patient and take apart an opponent committed to coming forward and trying to exchange. However, if Volkanovski also decides to stand back and not overextend himself, one has to wonder what happens. Volkanovski has already won that type of fight against Aldo, but if Ortega does not in turn get frustrated and take the lead, then this might just be a slow-paced battle of leg kicks that whimpers to a split decision. It is also hard to say that moving forward and attempting to put a stamp on the fight is a definite winning strategy. As the better wrestler and generally the more proven entity, Volkanovski would probably be better served in doing so, but Ortega is by far the most singularly dangerous opponent the Australian has faced to date. Especially with how sharp Ortega looked against Jung, it is not difficult to see Volkanovski attempting to win a round with one or two big moments, only to get cracked by something in return; or worse, he gets tied up by one of the UFC’s best submission artists. That is the dynamic that makes this fascinating. Volkanovski has put together some excellent performances in defusing fighters like Aldo and Holloway who need to read and build against their opponents, but even then, he had to thread a bit of a needle, which may be harder to do against someone who can finish the fight in just one moment gone wrong. On the other hand, there are still a lot of questions about Ortega. While Jung has rounded into a championship-level fighter himself, Volkanovski has a lot more options to play with in terms of avenues and weapons, plus a better ability to set range. While Ortega was able to mix in takedown attempts and throw off Jung in the later rounds, that feels less likely to work against Volkanovski, who is better equipped to just keep the fight standing. Ortega is undeniably venomous on the mat, but he has never been a particularly effective takedown threat. There are a lot of questions about this fight and what is known is highly interesting, but it is difficult not to lean on the more proven fighter in the face of what is essentially the best type of coinflip fight. The pick is Volkanovski via decision.

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