UFC 266: Volkanovski and Ortega Look to Escape Shadow in Headliner

Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega, UFC 266
Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega, UFC 266 ceremonial weigh-in Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski is looking to step out of the shadow of his former foe while Brian Ortega looks to display a new skillset to finally claim gold at UFC 266.

Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski may be the most underrated champion of all the UFC’s title holders.  He rides a 19 fight win-streak going into Saturday’s main event, having beaten the likes of featherweight legend Jose Aldo (in Brazil, no less), former title challenger Chad Mendes, and others going back to his days on the Australian MMA circuit.  Once a Rugby player who weighed over 200 pounds, “The Great” is a bonafide featherweight powerhouse who should be regarded as one of the best fighters on the roster.

Instead, the shadow of his last two performances lingers over him.  He triumphed in back-to-back fights with former kingpin Max Holloway.  However, they were so close and competitive to the point that even UFC President Dana White verbally acknowledged that an immediate third bout was a possibility.  Even now, conversation continues to revolve around whether the best featherweight in the world is still Holloway despite the fact that he no longer holds the belt.  Volkanovski can only focus on what he can control, and going for an authoritative win on Saturday will be necessary if he wishes to separate himself from the former champion that he has already bested twice before.

It is easy to forget just how famous Brian Ortega was going into his last title bout in 2018.  With his popular TV spot for Modelo running during seemingly every UFC broadcast, and Hollywood A-lister Robert Downey Jr shouting him out as the recipient of a donation for his charity ahead of the premiere of the record setting Avengers: Infinity War, Ortega was arguably one of the most popular fighters on the roster despite not holding a world title.  It was brought to a crashing halt that December, as he fell short in a one-sided beatdown against Holloway and was forced to sit out nearly two years with various injuries afterward.

When he left, fans remembered the heavy handed jiu-jitsu ace overpowering the likes of Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson, and Jason Knight.  When he returned last October against “The Korean Zombie,” a noticeably leaner Ortega was using a multi-faceted striking attack to control the distance and outmaneuver one of the most respected knockout artists in the division.  After a stint on The Ultimate Fighter and an injection of bad blood to his bout with Volkanovski, Ortega is poised for a return to MMA’s spotlight if he can triumph over the reigning champion.

Speed and body attacks will be the key for Volkanovski who will once again give up noticeable height and reach to his opponent.  It has not been an issue in his UFC run, as his speed, power, and timing have allowed him to out-strike elite competition before.  The champion has to force the fight to have a more measured pace, picking his spots to get in-and-out to the point of forcing Ortega to take risks.  Ortega by comparison should look to use his full arsenal.  A win in a striking battle would be the ultimate testament to the hard work he’s put in to grow as a martial artist, but his most efficient path to an Ortega victory may be to set up a takedown and use his elite grappling to try to stop Volkanovski on the mat.

The winner of Saturday’s bout will likely contend with the winner of the upcoming bout between Max Holloway and Yair Rodriguez in October.  A rematch with Holloway for “Ortega 2.0” would be intriguing following a victory over Volkanovski.  While Volkanovski might rightfully feel disrespected in being expected to fight Holloway, the former champion’s throttling performance in January over Calvin Kattar has many excited to see the two push each other to the limit again.  Rodriguez would be a fresh challenge to both men and a breath of fresh air in general to the title picture.