With the ascension of Max Holloway, the UFC featherweight division has finally stabilized again. Unlike other newly minted champions who have immediately looked outside their own divisions for challenges, Holloway has repeatedly pledged to take on the best available contender. At Saturday’s UFC Fresno, Cub Swanson and Brian Ortega will bid to become the next man up.
To be sure, leapfrogging current No. 2 contender Frankie Edgar may require something spectacular, but the winner could also be aided by Edgar’s recovery time frame. He suffered a broken orbital in early November, and is aiming for a March return, but any setback may force UFC matchmakers to go to plan B.
Despite a lengthy and decorated career in major MMA, Swanson has never gotten a crack at a championship, and at age 34, may well be running out of time. From a pure stylistic matchup, this pairing should work in his favor, mostly because despite Ortega’s grappling genius, he rarely goes for takedowns and is not a strong offensive wrestler.
In the head-to-head, Swanson historically lands more strikes per minute than Ortega (4.11 to 3.63), is far more accurate (50 percent to 33 percent) and absorbs far less strikes (3.24 per minute to 4.94), according to FightMetric.
Those numbers should be emboldening for Swanson and concerning to Ortega.
Swanson’s striking success comes largely due to a style that emphasizes both finesse and power in equal doses. It would be accurate to say Swanson is crafty. His combinations are not the typical pairings of jab, jab, cross. Sure, he’ll throw that out there from time to time, but mostly he feels his way through a moment and reacts in real time. In his last fight, for instance, he rattled Artem Lobov with a lead right, left hook, left high kick combination that you won’t see on any kind of regular basis.
He is imaginative in the octagon, and thus forces his opponent to be constantly adjusting to whatever he is doing.
The fourth-ranked Swanson (25-7) has good quickness and is sharp in his favored techniques, allowing him to lead with a straight right on a regular basis that lands with surprising consistency. But he will lead with anything if given the time; sometimes a left hook or a body kick, and he gets away with it because he doesn’t wind up in an attempt to get an extra burst of power. He just sees and hits, which works well in his favor. Because of that, he fights longer than he looks. If you watch enough tape on Swanson, you will see a common occurrence of opponents thinking they are beyond his punching range, yet he still manages to hit them.
He also mixes up his targets well. Against Lobov, he landed 114 times to the head, 48 times to the legs, and 47 times to the body. While many mixed martial artists get caught up in headhunting, Swanson shows the discipline to take what the defense gives him.
During the success of his UFC tenure so far - Ortega is 4-0 with 1 no-contest in the octagon - Ortega’s striking defense has been problematic at times. He’s been out-landed in all five of his UFC bouts, according to FightMetric, and that’s without facing anyone with Swanson’s standup abilities.
That said, he is improving. In his last bout, a third-round submission win against Renato Moicano, Ortega frequently paired a high guard that offered a protective shell with increased body and trunk movement, holding Moicano to a 43 percent landing rate. Considering past opponents like Diego Brandao and Thiago Tavares had landed over 50 percent against him, it’s a step in the proper direction to get ready for the top of the division. He then turned his defense into offense with an active jab, as well as an uppercut that he feels comfortable throwing from either side.
In his early UFC bouts, the sixth-ranked Ortega would switch stances frequently as the need arose, but against Moicano, he fought orthodox almost exclusively. Against a veteran like Swanson, his approach will be interesting because on one hand, it may behoove him to fight in his most comfortable stance; on the other, some stance-switching may be a tool in the arsenal to offer Swanson some extra pause.
Ortega will have to take extra care to avoid his occasional tendency to casually walk forward and breach punching distance without doing anything. Swanson is so quick and crafty that he is likely to punish that kind of aimless wandering, where less seasoned opponents like Moicano did not.
Despite Ortega’s statistical striking imbalance, he’s always found a way to win, as he’s still unbeaten in his career at 12-0 (1 no-contest). All four of his UFC wins have come via third-round stoppages - and all in fights in which he’s either been tied or trailed on the scorecards - so he’s shown an ability to rise to the moment.
If there is a concern in this fight for him, it’s his historical inability or disinterest to bring the bout into his preferred world of grappling. Ortega is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with six career submissions and is equally dangerous from his back or the top position. Yet he’s rarely taken the fight to the ground himself. In his UFC career, he has completed only one single takedown, and he’s only tried six times to put his opponent on the mat. At times, his coaches have implored him to go for the takedown, only to be ignored. Given his submission skills, that’s a puzzling approach.
So far, it’s been excused by his results. He’s won, and so all is well. But can he win that kind of fight against Swanson? It’s definitely in his best interest to change the fight’s plane. While Swanson is also a black belt, he’s been tapped out by Holloway, Edgar and Ricardo Lamas during his UFC career, so he has shown some susceptibility on the mat, and Ortega is probably a more dangerous submission threat than any of those who’ve already stopped Swanson there.
Still, he hasn’t shown a past willingness to expend his energy stores going for the takedown, and in a potential five-round fight, he’s probably even less likely to try it unless things on the feet get really out of hand.
I’m expecting Ortega to follow the same plan he has in the past. It will be a mostly standup fight, and that favors Swanson. Remember, Ortega has often gotten behind on the scorecards, and late heroics can’t continue indefinitely. The pick is Swanson via unanimous decision.