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UFC 231 is now available on Amazon Prime.
At the risk of breaking kayfabe, there’s a storytelling trick that you may not have consciously noticed before but have almost certainly been exposed to. The trick is to initially focus on the B-side of a story, like an adversary or obstacle. You then emphasize the toughness of the obstacle, making it seem like an impossibly difficult challenge for anyone to overcome. As the intensity of the obstacle dawns on the audience, the A-side is introduced and then effortlessly blows past the adversary.
This narrative tactic gives the audience a frame of reference as to what the character is capable of, not just that they’re able to defeat such a formidable adversity but that they can do so with insouciant ease. It shows that they are simply on another level, even compared to something that would turn regular folk to jellyfish. I’ve used this trick before, as have countless movies. Think of the scene in “Indiana Jones” where Harrison Ford is confronted with a swordsman menacingly slicing patterns into the air, only to be casually shot down. Or consider the movie “Troy,” where the behemoth Boagrius is introduced to fight on behalf of his army, only to be quickly killed by Achilles, who had just woken up. As the corpse of Boagrius thuds into the dust behind him, Achilles stares into the eyes of the opposing army and asks, simply, “Is there no one else?”
If you watched the main event of UFC 231 between Max Holloway and Brian Ortega on Saturday, you probably see where I’m going with this.
In the lead-up to the fight, much of the focus fell upon the contender -- and for good reason. Ortega was the same age as the champion, undefeated and on a spectacular run of six consecutive highlight-reel finishes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship against progressively tougher opposition. The icing on Ortega’s run was when his uppercut sent former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar into another realm on short notice earlier this year. Though Edgar’s résumé is composed of a who’s-who of elite champions and up-and-comers, no one had ever managed to stop him before the final bell -- until Ortega. Plus, “T-City” did so emphatically and spectacularly, lifting the future hall of famer off the ground with a single punch. Ortega wasn’t even known for his punching prowess or power, either. He made a name for himself as a cutthroat jiu-jitsu specialist who is a legitimate submission threat before the fight even hits the ground. The theme coming from the contender’s camp was some variation of pick your poison: get knocked out or tapped out. Those had been the fates of everyone Ortega had faced in the UFC.
Then there was Holloway. After successfully picking up the pieces of a featherweight division Conor McGregor left in shambles, Holloway hit his first professional speedbump this year. Between 2014 and 2017, “Blessed” had fought on average three times per year with no major injuries. That alone may be just as impressive as his corresponding 12-fight winning streak. However, while preparing to defend his title against Edgar in March, he had to pull out due to a leg injury. It was the first time he had withdrawn from a fight. Two months later, after jumping into a lightweight title match against Khabib Nurmagomedov at the last minute, he had to withdraw again, this time at the request of medical staff. The precise reasons for why he wasn’t able to compete have yet to be understood, making Holloway’s health that much more of a concern. Questions regarding his fighting fitness only grew more serious as Holloway had to pull out of a third scheduled fight this year in July due to “concussion-like symptoms.” In a very short time, Holloway went from one of the busiest fighters on the roster to perpetually shelved, from fighting three times a year to missing three fights in a matter of months. He dealt with depression as doubts about his status grew louder.
Though breaths were held and fingers were crossed, Holloway would finally make it to the cage this year against his truest peer in the division. The defending champion on a 12-fight run was the underdog in his title defense. He had been absent from the battlefield for a year, and this new nemesis was as intimidating and dangerous as they come. Boagrius would have his long-awaited chance. Then the fight happened. Within minutes, there was no doubt whose division it was and that all the legitimate and well-earned hype surrounding Ortega would only serve to bolster the incumbent champion.
Make no mistake: It was easy for Holloway. At least, it looked easy -- and shockingly so. By my count, Ortega took about three minutes out of the 20 they were in there, and his glimmers of success were nothing more than one-off successful exchanges. The stat sheet is insane: Holloway landed as many strikes as Ortega attempted -- about 290, if you’re keeping track -- and was still 22 percent more accurate. That’s unheard of. Ortega spent a lot of time winging power punches into the air while Holloway danced in and out and all around him, peppering the challenger with an endless barrage of ones and twos until his face tucked itself shut. It was a clinic, a dissection, a deconstruction. The guy who everyone agreed was the most dangerous challenger in the division -- possibly any division -- was brutally dismissed to a definitively lesser tier. This wasn’t checkers to chess; Ortega was looking through a glass-bottom boat while Holloway was scuba diving. There are fathoms to this s---.
There’s a strain of MMA fans who instinctively take the other road, claiming that a single loss “exposes” a fighter. It’s a slippery sort of circular logic: If someone is good, they wouldn’t lose, so if they lose, then they must not be very good. Thus begins the process of combing through a fighter’s record, searching for as many reasons as possible to discredit the man who lost. This is pure dog excrement with regards to Ortega. He was and is every bit as good as he was made out to be. It’s just that Holloway was that much better.
After the fight, Holloway stood in the middle of the cage, crowds roaring around him. The trials of 2018 and his nemesis, his personal Boagrius, were finally behind him. He had one simple question: “Is there anyone else?”
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.
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