UFC 222 Co-Main Event: Is There an Answer for Brian Ortega?

The featherweight champion is arguably the best fighter currently competing in the UFC, but either Frankie Edgar or Brian Ortega will become his biggest threat on Saturday at UFC 222.

The featherweight fishbowl has arguably had the most intriguing turnover in recent years. José Aldo’s long reign ended abruptly when he met Conor McGregor and the game has been different ever since. Astonishingly, “The Notorious” departed the division and an arguably more impressive martial artist took his place on the throne in Max Holloway. But while the UFC is celebrating their “Blessed” champion, his greatest competition may come from the winner of Frankie Edgar and Brian Ortega who meet this Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 222.

Frankie “The Answer” Edgar has been a constant in the UFC for the better part of the decade. Ever since stunning BJ Penn for the lightweight title in 2010, he has never been anything less than a top-five contender in either the lightweight or featherweight division. However, 2018 is arguably the most critical year for Edgar since his days of wearing championship gold. He was scheduled to face Max Holloway for the championship in what would have been his third attempt to win the belt at 145 pounds. He could still challenge for gold, but he has elected to return to action to face surging contender Brian Ortega as he awaits the return of the champion.

Edgar admitted himself, the fight with Holloway could well be his last chance to win a championship. At 36 years old, he’s already faced the best in the world. His battles with BJ Penn, José Aldo, and Benson Henderson have cemented his legacy as one of the most tenacious and gritty champions in the sports history. But the next wave is already eager to take his spot on the ladder. In his last outing in May, he turned back a fighter promoted as the next big thing in Yair Rodriguez. Notably, Edgar had already won (and a week later lost) the lightweight belt when champion Holloway made his debut in the UFC.

For Edgar to earn his way back to the title, and possibly even dispatch the dominant champion, would obviously be huge. But a loss would knock him into the throng of hungry contenders that includes Jeremy Stephens, Darren Elkins, and Chan Sung Jung. All of them are dangerous competitors who know a win over the former champion demonstrates they are ready to compete for gold.

Brian Ortega is one such fighter. “T-City” is on a five fight win-streak that consists of all finishes. In nearly every outing, he’s had to rally from a poor start to finish the fight in the later rounds. Throughout, he has demonstrated his impressive ground-game and explosive athleticism.

While the last several years have seen fighters look to break into the trifecta of Aldo-McGregor-Edgar, Ortega is hitting his stride at the right time.  Fighters who may have been considered ahead of him have already fallen to Holloway which puts him in a title eliminator much sooner than expected.

He had his breakthrough performance last December when he faced fellow top-contender Cub Swanson. Ortega struggled early with Swanson’s striking, but Ortega caught “Killer” Cub in a guillotine in the second to stun the Fresno crowd. While he originally planned to wait for Edgar to have his shot at the champion, the injury to Holloway has put “T-City” in position to be the first to challenge for the featherweight belt in 2018.

Stylistically, the fight will come down to the craftiness of Edgar against the athleticism and ground-game of Ortega. Ortega is one of the larger athletes in the 145 division and has displayed fight ending power when given an opening. On the feet, the key will be for Edgar to use his footwork and boxing to get in and out. Edgar has consistently shown an impressive gas tank and it stands to reason he has the ability to drag Ortega into deep water if necessary.

On the other hand, Ortega has arguably the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the division, perhaps the UFC as a whole. His ability to do damage and dominate from the top position has yet to be stifled in competition. Edgar is an experienced grappler himself and he will be put to the test to stay off his back in the bout with Ortega.

While there is no timetable yet for Holloway’s return, all indications are towards a 2018 comeback. The UFC’s debut in Hawaii has long been discussed and a date on the island could be in the cards if Edgar vs. Ortega delivers. But whether it be in Hawaii or anywhere else, the winner of this bout will leave looking for all the world as the biggest threat to the reign of the 2017 Fighter of the Year.