A battle several months in the making, 2017 Fighter of the Year and UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway returns to face breakout star Brian Ortega at UFC 231.
When former featherweight champion José Aldo was in the midst of his decade-long run, it was difficult to fathom a time when there would be a colossal match-up at 145 that didn’t involve him. And yet, UFC 231 features what could go down as the greatest fight in the history of the featherweight division. Reigning champion Max Holloway returns from more than a year layoff to take on popular star Brian Ortega in a bout that many feel will determine not only the best fighter in the division but also who is expected to dominate for years to come.
Max Holloway was awarded Fighter of the Year for 2017, but it should be clear that it only capped off what has been several years of hard work. His list of victims in his 12-fight win-streak is littered with top-10 contenders like former champion Aldo, Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson, and Ricardo Lamas. After dominating the greatest fighter of a generation twice, Holloway became the spokesperson in an attempting to get a UFC to go to his native Hawaii. Even with a legend of the stature of BJ Penn, Holloway’s popularity has made an event on the tropical island a frequent topic of discussion.
2018 was supposed to be the year he completed his sweep of the division. Prior to the rise of Ortega, Holloway needed only to dispatch Frankie Edgar to be able to boast that he had defeated all of the long-established names in the division. A knee injury pulled him from the bout and opened the door for Ortega, but it also began Holloway’s odyssey outside of the cage. Holloway was given the call to replace Tony Ferguson on one week’s notice against Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title in May at UFC 223 but was pulled from that fight when the commission ruled he wasn’t fit for the contest.
That led to Holloway’s most concerning incident. He was booked to defend the title against Ortega in July at UFC 226, but the week of the fight was removed due to medical concerns by his team. Theories of a concussion or side-effects from weight cutting were all ruled out after extensive testing. While doctors have since cleared Holloway, the exact diagnosis for what went wrong in July remains a mystery.
While Holloway will be seeking to regain lost momentum, Brian Ortega is looking to graduate from upstart to bonafide megastar. Already, Ortega has been receiving the push of the promotion and it shows in the vast opportunities he’s received already. He’s one of the faces for the UFC’s deal with the sports drink Body Armor and can be seen rubbing elbows with athletes like Kobe Bryant. He also represented the UFC at the ESPY’s alongside world champions Cris Cyborg and Rose Namajunas.
All of it caps off what has been an impressive eighteen months for the fighter dubbed “T-City.” Ortega dispatched previously undefeated Renato Moicano during his rise and upset title contenders such as Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar, the latter of which he took on short notice. When Holloway pulled out of their bout in July, he elected not to take a short notice opponent in Jeremy Stephens and instead wait for a fight for the undisputed title.
The fight pits two of the most well-rounded and dynamic mixed martial artists in the world today with the championship on the line. Holloway is a brilliant striker and should look to use his speed and power to overwhelm the slower Ortega. He has impressive footwork and should look to get in and out behind crisp boxing, not remaining in front of Ortega where he is susceptible to powerful counters.
Ortega on the feet lands with lower volume, but makes up for it in explosiveness. He’s displayed fight-stopping power before and it stands to reason he will look to use his physicality against Holloway coming forward and keeping the fight in close quarters. He should look to keep Holloway against the fence where the champion has less space to move, allowing him to get the fight to the mat. On the ground, Holloway has proven himself to be a competent grappler but Ortega is considered one of the best submission artists ever seen in the lighter weight classes. If Ortega can get the fight to the mat early in a round, many expect him to be able to secure a finish.
A victory for Holloway would cement his place as arguably the best featherweight in the history of the division given his skills and body of work in the last several years. At this stage of his career, he would be left to weigh possibly facing Frankie Edgar who remains the one contender he has yet to face or to move up to the lightweight division to pursue a second title. An Ortega victory would likely result in a Holloway rematch or a fight with former champion José Aldo, both of which would be expected to be among the biggest events possible in 2019.