Years later than expected, Cub Swanson has finally hit his stride for a title shot. The only thing standing in his way is featherweight dark horse Brian Ortega at UFC Fresno.
Reinvention is perhaps the most difficult challenge for a veteran athlete to accomplish. It is already a daunting task to reach the elite level, but to maintain it over time as you go from promising upstart to grizzled victor of countless battles is no small feat. Cub Swanson has done it, putting himself on the precipice of his first UFC title shot. To finally secure it, he has to overcome the challenge of the newest contender to the featherweight ranks in Brian “Silverback” Ortega.
For the last several years, Swanson was relegated to the role of perennial contender in the featherweight division. He was always a tough outing, but he always seemed to be the victim of timing, either lost in the shuffle when he was on a run or coming up short in big bouts that could have put him in title contention.
The biggest example was his six-fight win-streak in 2012-2013. Swanson had dispatched contenders like Dustin Poirier, Jeremy Stephens, and Charles Oliveira but they came at a time when the featherweight division had an influx of new talent. José Aldo was preoccupied with big names like former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and surging contender Chan Sung Jung. At the same time, Chad Mendes was in the midst of his own run to a second title shot.
His toughest skid was in 2014 when he dropped back-to-back fights with Edgar and then up-start Max Holloway. For the man who had been stopped in eight seconds by Aldo years ago, it seemed as if that one victory Swanson needed was destined to be just out of reach.
Things changed in 2016 as he began a four fight win-streak. Fights with Hacran Dias and Tatsuya Kawajiri were impressive, but it was his Fight of the Year with Doo Ho Choi that gave his career the momentum he’d long been seeking. With his popularity at an all-time high, he followed his victory up with a comprehensive five-round beating of Artem Lobov.
When Frankie Edgar fell out of the fight with Holloway for UFC 218, Cub Swanson was the obvious choice to step up. Swanson and the UFC could not come to terms on a deal within the time frame and the title shot went to Aldo. But with a showcase on free television just a week later at UFC Fresno, Swanson has a chance to give a definitive statement on why he should be next for the belt.
Brian Ortega, however, may be the most dangerous contender not being talked about at 145. “Silverback” is undefeated in his career, and would be 13-0 had he not tested positive for drostanolone in his first fight in the UFC. Ortega served a nine month suspension and has not had any issues since then.
Currently, Ortega is ranked sixth in the division by the UFC despite his impressive run. He would likely be ranked higher if not for the fact that he has been rather inactive in 2017. He fought twice in 2016 before suffering an injury and fought only once this year. The spacing of the bouts has also kept Ortega from making significant waves on the radar. Before his fight this past July, his last bout was in June of 2016 more than a year earlier. Regardless, he has been very impressive in his appearances and has a huge chance to break into the title picture in his next outing. Ortega has stopped all of his opponents inside the Octagon, including veteran Clay Guida and previously undefeated Renato Moicano, but Swanson will easily be the most dangerous fighter he has ever faced.
Stylistically, UFC Fresno main event between the two is going to come down to who can impose their will on the other. Ortega is an explosive athlete with a fight ending power and a well-rounded game while Cub Swanson is known for his unorthodox striking and durability. Fans are clamoring for an all-out battle in the Octagon, but the fight in all likelihood could be more of a marathon rather than a sprint. Swanson should look to wear down Ortega with kicks and counter-striking. A brawl in the center of the cage against Ortega is a huge risk and one he may not wish to take with a title shot on the line.
Ortega by comparison should look to come forward and make the fight ugly. By forcing Swanson to fight on his heels, he takes away his ability to set up his unorthodox attacks and make react defensively. In the center of the Octagon, Ortega should also look to make it a brawl from boxing range where the power in his hands will be the biggest threat to “Killer” Cub.
With a victory at UFC Fresno, Cub Swanson all but assures himself a title shot. Whether he gets one before Frankie Edgar will likely come down to scheduling, but there is no doubt that he would stand alone in title contention. He wouldn’t need to risk his place in line with another fight in 2018 that isn’t for the belt. Ortega would crash into the top of the division and likely set up a fight with Ricardo Lamas or the Korean Zombie in a potential title eliminator. With such high stakes and a stylistic guarantee of fireworks, Swanson and Ortega could well put on a performance that steals an end of the year award at UFC Fresno.