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We already knew Max Holloway was great; that’s hardly a lesson we needed to learn from UFC 231. With that said, after his rousing performance in Toronto, it’s possible “Blessed” is even better than we imagined.
The Hawaiian successfully defended his Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight crown on Saturday in “T-Dot,” racking up his 13th straight win in the Octagon by pummeling the previously unbeaten Brian Ortega into a bloody mess. In the process, Holloway broke a host of single-fight statistical records and put himself into a rarified air that has folks looking for the champ to move to 155 pounds for even more lucrative and intriguing challenges. While he’s just 27 years old, Holloway has already cemented himself as an all-time great. Meanwhile, we also got an education about Ortega, who proved he was in a special, almost shocking, class of toughness.
UFC 231 did net us a new champion, though, as Valentina Shevchenko bested former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk over 25 minutes to take the vacant women’s 125-pound title. After her commanding and consummate performance, there’s no doubt that the flyweight division belongs to “Bullet” and the heat is now on the UFC to try manufacture some contenders who can actually pose a threat to the newly minted champ.
This is not to say that Holloway or Shevchenko are poor athletes by any stretch, but they are first and foremost effortless, natural fighters; they are built for this game. Appropriately, UFC 231 offered us several bouts that underscored how crucial natural fighting DNA can be and reminded us that not every great athlete necessarily makes a great prizefighter. However, on the whole, the UFC’s sixth trip to “The 6ix” was fantastic, which always seems to be the case. Montreal might be Canada’s fight city, but Toronto cards deliver the goods. Let’s figure out what we learned from UFC 231:
‘The Blessed Express’ a Freight Train and a Rollercoaster
Even prior to his latest performance, Holloway was at worst the second-most accomplished featherweight ever. If you want to quibble about the identity of the all-time greatest 145-pound fighter, so be it, but the only other man for whom you could logically vouch is Jose Aldo, and Holloway dispatched him twice. With that said, for a combat sports athlete, every additional great win has some purchase and fortifies a prizefighter’s legacy. What makes Holloway special isn’t just his 13-fight winning streak or even how many individually great fighters he has beaten. What really sets the Hawaiian apart is that he does it with style.
In the process of destroying Ortega, Holloway set a variety of FightMetric records. He landed 290 significant strikes, the most ever in a UFC contest. In the brutish fourth round, he landed an insane 134 significant strikes, the most ever in a single round. As a result, he surpassed both Michael Bisping (1,567) and Frankie Edgar (1,463) for the most significant strikes landed in UFC history with 1,627, but keep in mind, Bisping had 29 Octagon appearances and Edgar has 24 to his credit. Holloway needed just 19 fights to do it. On top of that, Holloway is a better fight finisher than both Bisping and Edgar, who are one and two all-time in total Octagon time, meaning they have routinely had more time to land shots on their opponents than Holloway. This isn’t just stat porn for fight nerds; it’s indicative of the Hawaiian’s relentless, high-volume style, which, for my money, has solidified him as one of the most exciting and enjoyable fighters to watch in MMA history.
The Holloway-Ortega fight had a unique dynamic in that Ortega, despite being outlanded over 20 minutes with clean volume, managed to tag Holloway consistently, at least over the first three rounds. However, the champ never stopped throwing, never ceased trying to increase his advantage and close the show with panache. After 15 minutes, Holloway could’ve clearly rested on his laurels and been content to win a one-sided decision, but he didn’t. In fact, he upped his output and clobbered Ortega even worse in his record-setting Round 4 performance. Holloway is the sort of fighter we mythologize and exalt, an athlete whose sense of strategy is nearly symmetrical with our own entertainment as spectators. Holloway is not swinging for bonuses and trying to win over the audience; it just so happens that what makes him fundamentally great is what we crave as fans.
Again, there’s debate to be had as to whether or not Holloway or Aldo takes the cake as the top featherweight of all-time, but fortunately for us, the former is still just 27 years old; and despite his recent scare with some post-concussion symptoms, he has remained much healthier over his career than Aldo. Better still, both he and UFC President Dana White have expressed a desire to see Holloway move back to 155 pounds to create the sort of superfight engagements the promotion craves right now. It’s no surprise, as I think these dovetailing ideas about Holloway’s ceaseless fight style and his willingness to accept potentially legendary challenges come from the same place. He isn’t trying to explicitly be the most exciting fighter on the planet or get props for taking on even greater challenges. He just does it, and it’s a blessing.
When Keeping it Gangster Goes Wrong
If there is a definitive lesson that we can glean from UFC 231, it’s that Ortega is beyond rugged. A few short minutes after the headliner, I ran into a UFC matchmaker -- the Lilliputian one, not the Australian one -- who threw his hands up, his eyes rolling in disbelief in the hallway. “I told you, dude,” he said. “That guy is too gangster for his own good.”
Now, this cuts two ways. Admittedly, in the context of prizefighting, it always tends to be a morbid if not outright backhanded compliment when someone compliments your chin. The tacit suggestion is that you can simply take a good ass kicking, which, while it is useful in the cage, isn’t necessarily a trait worth celebrating as your defining feature. More than that, no one can withstand copious amounts of trauma into perpetuity. Even Mark Hunt became susceptible to knockouts as his career rolled on, and now, he has been candid about discussing his own issues with brain trauma as a result of the reliance of his legendary chin.
With that said, what Ortega was able to endure was incredible. It’s not simply that he took it; it’s how he took it. Holloway outlanded him basically by a 3-to-1 margin over the entire fight, yet the Hawaiian couldn’t actually stop Ortega’s forward pressure until the fourth round, where the beatdown got especially out of control. For the first 15 minutes, even when he was being dinged with switch-stepping combinations and laser-guided right crosses, Ortega walked through every single one just to land one hook of his own on Holloway. It was more than just his chin, too. In the third and fourth rounds, Holloway started ripping rapier-like hooks into Ortega’s guts and still couldn’t put him down, despite the Hawaiian’s penchant for body punching.
If Holloway does move back to 155 pounds in the near future to pursue riches and further legendary status, what we saw from Ortega at UFC 231 bodes well for him, because we’ve seen quite clearly that he is a savage in the Octagon. He wasn’t able to execute his patented, uber-slick grappling game, nor his vastly improved striking, but at the same time, it was a direct result of his facing a fighter like Holloway. We’ve already seen Ortega wipe an all-time great like Frankie Edgar off the map with a Mortal Kombat-style uppercut. If “T-City” can withstand this level of punishment in 25-minute contests, the next time he vies for a UFC featherweight title against a man who isn’t Holloway, he’s likely going to be an odds-on favorite. If the “Blessed” Hawaiian moves on from this division in the relatively near future, not only is Ortega headed for another crack at the gold, but the kind of dynamic offense he wasn’t able to exhibit against Holloway, combined with the otherworldly toughness he was, may make it likely that he takes over the 145-pound mantle.
Time to Start Catching Some Flies
Yes, Shevchenko was 3-0 against Jedrzejczyk in kickboxing competition headed into UFC 231, but that is hardly why “Bullet” got the job done and came out with the UFC women’s flyweight title. Plain and simple, she was the better mixed martial artist. She was not just dominant in the striking game where Jedrzejczyk dominated her opponents at 115 pounds, but she also slammed the former champ all around the cage from the clinch and expressed a wholesale dominance in an MMA context. The UFC is really going to need to drum up some contenders if it’s going to make this division work.
The UFC’s women’s flyweight division is a difficult hodgepodge. The promotion got the weight class started with “The Ultimate Fighter,” relying on a cross-section of women with either little experience or dropping down from 135 pounds. As a result of kindling its division after Bellator MMA had already snapped up a lot of quality talent at 125 pounds, the UFC found itself at an immediate disadvantage. While it may have made the media laugh, there was something legitimately worrisome when Shevchenko was asked in the post-fight press conference if she would like to face inaugural champion Nicco Montano and simply responded with this: “Who?”
Earlier at UFC 231, Jessica Eye pulled out a righteous split decision over Katlyn Chookagian. With that said, the fight was hardly the sort of contender’s bout that would inspire confidence or intrigue in terms of establishing a title challenger, especially given Shevchenko’s all-around MMA game. To her credit, Eye always fights hard and might be good for a sound bite, but there’s realistically no way she can deal with Shevchenko’s hand speed, countering ability and underrated takedowns. The UFC needs to put its women’s flyweight division on the front burner and bring in as much interesting talent as possible.
With Shevchenko’s resounding performance against Jedrzejczyk, the company is tasked with two difficult goals simultaneously: The promotion needs to create an entire division from dust and make it as interesting as possible as quickly as it can, yet at the same time, it finds itself in the unenviable position of having to promote challengers to face one of the most skilled women in the entire sport. In truth, it’s hard to believe that we’re not going to get a third fight between Shevchenko and 135-pound ruler Amanda Nunes, regardless of what “The Lioness” manages to do against Cristiane Justino on Dec. 29. Nonetheless, if the UFC is serious about running a women’s 125-pound division, it needs to get its ducks in a row. The promotion needs to get the likes of Liz Carmouche into No. 1 contender fights, quickly develop the likes of an Ariane Lipski and sign fighters like Sabina Mazo. It’s not an ideal situation, but if you’re going to create titles in an attempt to sell pay-per-views, this is what you wrought and you ought to be up to the task.
Some Fighters Are Athletes; Not Every Athlete is a Fighter
It’s difficult to swallow on a certain level, but UFC 231 laid bare the fact that not all naturally gifted athletes can necessarily transform themselves into perfect fighters.
Consider Claudia Gadelha. Just over two years ago, she was in control of a title fight against Jedrzejczyk and completely gassed, then got dominated for the last 10 minutes of their championship rematch and screwed the pooch. It’s a narrative that has continued to play out in her career. A little more than a year ago, she was in the driver’s seat against Jessica Andrade, and suddenly, her tank was on empty halfway through the fight, leading to her getting savaged and wantonly pounded by her fellow Brazilian for the second half of the fight. Gadelha faced a far less-gifted athlete in Nina Ansaroff in Toronto, and despite a solid opening round, she spent the last 10 minutes of the fight exhausted and getting jabbed and kicked from distance.
By no measure is Gadelha a bad fighter, and I do think there’s an argument to be made that moving up to 125 pounds would be a competitively smart maneuver for her. With that said, Gadelha’s major problem is that in spite of her physical gifts she is over-reliant on them, which leads to her taking strategic courses that lead her into ruin. She can land hard with her hands; she’s a decent wrestler; and she’s a fantastic top-position grappler. Yet when it actually comes to actualizing it in the cage, she has no idea how to synthesize all of her best qualities into a coherent game plan to defeat her opponents. It’s frustrating and baffling to watch.
She wasn’t the only case of this sort of thing at UFC 231. The undercard also watched Eryk Anders -- a man who started at linebacker for University of Alabama team that won the national championship -- squander a near-knockout of Elias Theodorou and ultimately lose a split decision. The lowdown on Anders throughout his progression has been that he simply needs more time and more experience; however, he has amateur MMA experience dating back to 2012. The Theodorou contest was his 14th pro fight. At some point, you need to call a spade a spade. Sure, he’s only 31 years old and he’s a naturally heavy-hitting southpaw; these are virtues in the MMA game. At the same time, he simply never seems capable of putting all of his talents together in a coherent manner to dominate an opponent inside the cage. Instead, he ends up chasing them around while throwing left-handed bombs.
I’m sympathetic to some extent, as I think he deserved the decision over Lyoto Machida in the Brazilian’s hometown and believe there’s still room for improvement. Even so, at some point we need to stop treating a 31-year-old man with over a half decade of fighting experience like he is a rank novice who just needs some time to grow. Anders has fought four times this year, going 1-3 in that span. With the Machida bout, it was bad judging luck, but a loss to Thiago Santos and his Theodorou performance were both indications that he isn’t the future champion we all like to imagine when a premium athlete puts on four-ounce gloves. Some outstanding athletes make outstanding fighters, but ultimately, it’s a different athletic profile entirely; fighters tend to be born, not made.
The UFC Always Brings Fire to ‘The Big Smoke’
I’ve been fortunate enough to be at all six of the UFC’s outings in Toronto. While the promotion hasn’t necessarily been able to equal the pageantry and thrill of UFC 129 -- when the Octagon first landed in the city and packed over 55,000 people inside of the Rogers Centre for Georges St. Pierre-Jake Shields -- there is always some kind of magic when the UFC rolls into town. Undoubtedly, there is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. The promotion always does good business in Toronto, and it repays it in turn by ensuring the city always gets quality cards. UFC 231 was no different.
Ontario’s crude history with combat sports and the provincial athletic commission trying to systematically stifle the boxing industry for years has allowed Montreal to become Canada’s “fight city,” but that’s largely contingent on its boxing profile. However, when the UFC does its semi-annual Toronto card, fireworks always ensue. The crowd is hot and in its seats from the opening prelims, which truly makes for a better experience as a spectator, even if you’re watching on television.
If you’re a Canadian, there is a love-hate relationship with the city of Toronto; if you’re from somewhere else, you inherently resent the fact that the city is the center of the national media and attention, even as it pertains to sports. However, even in the midst of a sporting season in which the Toronto Raptors might actually get to the NBA Finals and the Toronto Maple Leafs are viable Stanley Cup contenders -- they just re-signed William Nylander -- the UFC coming to the city is still appointment viewing for even casual sports fans. A large part of it is that the UFC always repays for the favor of fandom. Even after the milestone St. Pierre-Shields fight, the promotion staged multiple Jon Jones title defenses in Toronto, including his first Alexander Gustafsson encounter, which shockingly turned out to be one of the best bouts in MMA history. More recently, the UFC has treated Toronto to multiple Holloway contests.
All too often, the UFC breaks into a specific market and ultimately cools on its potential when it sees diminishing returns. However, Toronto continues to get annual hot cards, loaded with talent and title fights. At this point, the UFC doesn’t do a very good job at crafting cards that appeal to specific markets and get the local fanbase engaged, but it always seems to do a heady job at ensuring Toronto, even during the dead of winter, gets something sizzling to get a sports-hungry population of six million excited. Montreal might be Canada’s “fight city,” but year after year, the UFC seems destined to change that by bringing outstanding cards to the T.O.