With all due respect to Alexandre Franca Nogueira, the featherweight division is as hot as it has ever been in the history of mixed martial arts. Consider this: On Dec. 2, we saw an engrossing clash between a young lion and established legend -- the No. 1 versus No. 2 -- and that was merely considered a consolation prize.
No, we wanted featherweight champion Max Holloway to defend against Frankie Edgar at UFC 218 in Detroit, but instead, we had to settle for perhaps MMA’s brightest young star smashing Jose Aldo for the second time in six months. Moving on with the Ultimate Fighting Championship schedule, if Edgar’s eye socket fails to heal properly, we could soon be looking at the next man to challenge Holloway.
At UFC Fight Night 123 on Saturday in Fresno, California, we will be treated to exactly the kind of fight that screams for five-round, Fox Sports 1 main event treatment, as perennial contender Cub Swanson faces the undefeated Brian Ortega. It may give us a winner, but this headliner in and of itself might not provide any kind of 145-pound clarity. Not only are we awaiting a clean bill of health for Edgar, but Swanson is a free agent after this bout and has been vocal about his distaste for his promoter’s current offers.
The Swanson-Ortega winner could be on deck for Holloway or perhaps even Bellator MMA featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. Crazy, right? Let us dig in:
FeatherweightCub Swanson (25-7) vs. Brian Ortega (12-0)
ODDS: Ortega (-120), Swanson (+100)
ANALYSIS: The 34-year-old Swanson has been a top-10 featherweight for almost a decade, but despite having 22 combined UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight appearances -- a promotional record -- he is always just outside of title-shot range. Ortega, 26, showed up in the UFC three years ago and promptly invalidated his debut win over Mike de la Torre with a positive steroid test. Since his indiscretion, the Gracie jiu-jitsu homeboy has gone 4-0 in the UFC, forging a bona fide top-10 resume with an unprecedented run of four straight third-round stoppages. Regardless of how you think the UFC views Swanson as a contender and whether he is a victorious free agent or otherwise, this is still a minor referendum on the hierarchy at 145 pounds.
Ortega’s bizarre and thrilling string of third-round stoppages appears to be part gift and part curse. Though he is a grappler first, “T-City” is not shy about getting in his foe’s face, throwing awkward barrages of kicks and punches and disrupting his striking. Ortega has become an increasingly effective striker, and though he still eats plenty of heat in return, he has surprisingly keen footwork with which to cut off his opponent. He tends to absorb a lot of counters, which could prove costly against a superior boxer like Swanson. However, even when he is behind in striking exchanges, Ortega’s forward pressure can force his opposition into silly, inopportune errors. It is no accident that Renato Carneiro, Clay Guida and Thiago Tavares all met their demise by diving for the legs of a swarming Ortega late in the fight.
Footwork and kicking could be keys for Ortega if he has a game plan beyond a sudden submission. Swanson is not a quick starter -- he gave Round 1 to Artem Lobov, for crying out loud -- and prefers to get a beat on his opponents before seriously applying his boxing. If Ortega can find a comfortable distance at which to chop away at Swanson’s legs and body with kicks and avoid boxing exchanges, he can have success. However, Swanson is simply a far more diverse striker; “T-City” will almost assuredly close the distance from Jump Street, which gives Swanson the look he needs to figure out boxing and kicking distance before starting to work in his bizarre capoeira-style attacks.
This is a difficult fight on which to get a 25-minute handle, as Swanson alternates between the veneer of polished veteran and the savagery of an angst-driven amateur fighter. Ortega’s greatest successes are predicated on eating two to land one and then authoring a Hail Mary climax.
The longest stretches of this fight should be controlled by Swanson counter-boxing from the outside, forcing Ortega to press over five rounds, which seems to further advance the Jackson-Wink MMA rep’s prerogative. Ortega is a truly awesome offensive grappler, but even with five rounds at his disposal, he will need to seize the moment in a sudden scramble that may not come, especially if he holds to the improbably successful pattern he has followed over his last four fights. Swanson by competitive decision is the pick.
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